I decided to take a break from the run of Arabic fiction I’ve been reading to catch up with a novel that won the National Translation Award last fall at the annual American Literary Translators’ [ALTA] convention — All This Belongs to Me. Alex Zuker, the translator, read some selections to a group of us; the English flowed nicely, the life described on the high steppes of Mongolia was intriguing. He explained how he’d struggled to translate this or that concept for an American audience. The kicker came — though we’d heard it previously– when it became apparent that the author was not Mongolian at all. She had lived in Ulan Bator for a year! Petra Hůlová is Czech.
She has an advanced degree in Mongolian studies, speaks Mongolian, apparently fluently, and knows more about the people, the life and modernity there than anyone else I know. This is the first of 5 acclaimed books she has written, none of the others taking place in such an exotic locale as Mongolia, though one does unfold in New York City. How could this be? I wondered. Writing any work of fiction is, for most writers, a long and difficult task. How much more difficult to invent characters in a culture not your own, and keep them true to thesmelves. Unless you don’t. Unless, these are actually Czech women and men in essence, transported to exist in a faraway land.
I had read another novel earlier in the year, also of a Mongolian people — The Tuvans instead of the Khalkhas of the current book; mountain people instead of steppe people; extremely rural instead of those with access and familiarity to the City – Ulan Bator. I didn’t know the difference when I began but I had been very moved by The Blue Sky: A Novel from the Tuvan People, by Galsan Tschinag; why not try another?
In addition, my interest in Mongolian people has been stirred by the recent, and continuing, resistance to Han Chinese presence and rule in Northwest China, Xianjian, particularly then cities of Urumqi, Kashgar and Hotan, where the people share many ethnic and actual family and clan ties with those across the border in Mongolia.
All This Belongs to Me is divided into 6 chapters told by 5 women, each acting as the narrator in turn. Zaya, the oldest of the living sisters opens and closes. Her daughter, her mother and two sisters, follow. Each tells her own story as if in the act of remembering it – jumping from time to time, referring to names we don’t yet know, going over events and personalities we have already been acquainted with. Gradually the mural is sketched and colored in. We have a sense of the multi-generational, dysfunctional family pulled between city and town as Mongolia and Ulan Bator enter into modernity: plastic bags swirling in the dust storms, adultery and incest, family abetted prostitution. Much of the old world still lingers: expertise with horses, familiarity with camels, housekeeping in the ger, leaving the dead out on the steppe for the wild animals, shamanism, long-held beliefs:
Grandma said you could smell misfortune. She said every animal could detect its sorrowful scent, and the more experienced of the steppe people too
and long held prejudices:
Maybe the Davkhan grower is an erliitz, same as his father , and that’s why nobody buys from him. The Chinese are a tricky bunch, and nobody around here trusts them.
Erliitz, it turns out is a half-breed — Chinese and Mongolian. Zaya and her sister Nara are both erliitz in the family from their mother Alta’s passionate couplings with a wandering man. Zaya in turn has a child by him. The erliitz, in this telling, are those who go wrong. Magi, the oldest girl, who dies in a horse race when the others are still young, and Oyuna, the youngest, are full Mongolian — and are the most loved, and keep the traditional ways.
The story is by and mostly about the women. Papa is there, and the interloper, Mergen. Jargal –” I’d never seen such a handsome Mongol in all my life”– and his brother Naiman, first cousins, arrive to help son-less papa with the herd. But we never know much about the men, their interior lives. We know them by the women’s reaction to them.
Nara is driven into a love madness over Jargal. No one can control her, and he is finally driven away.
Nara — or rather the person who used to be her– didn’t notice anything but Jargal anymore. Sometimes you could hear her humming to herself, some long-drawn melody, some strange, wordless tune in which the grass rustled with forbidden things and eagles swooped from rocky cliffs.
Mama finally turns to her shaman, half-sister, Hiroko, to cure Nara. The cure fails and Nara goes to Ulan Bator and becomes a prostitute, one of the three of the six principle women characters. Her love sickness seems something like her mother, Alta’s, when she conceived Zaya:
With Mergen it was different. With Mergen I came to know what it is when a woman’s drunk with rapture and each kiss tastes better than the one that came before. When a man’s hands burn, sending a mix of pain and pleasure shooting down her spine. When I want a child from a man not because I want to nurse an infant at my breast , but because I long to hold his largeness inside me forever.
Or this wonderful phrase from another of the women:
“When he held me, I felt like life was glorious. Colors bloomed like sedge buds and the steppe smelled sweet as freshly drawn milk.”
By and about women, yes, but is this all real? It’s a fiction of course, but fiction for most of us is a way of revealing the real, a way to enter into stories about those things that are not so visible or which tighten up the diffuse until a shape and a substance appears to that which was only dimly known before.
It kept gnawing at me: are these actually Mongolian women? These many women in a family gone to prostitution? Another one, also a love-child, a lesbian? A man without any described qualities — Mergen– the love object, and kept man for at least three of them? Do these conditions actually exist in the big cities of Mongolia? Or is Petra Hulova talking about Czech experiences? And if so, why dress them as Mongols?
She herself has answered this:
She stated that the novel, which is told from the point of five female narrators belonging to three generations of the same family, is actually based more on Czech people she knows and on Czech life, rather than her experiences in Mongolia. She chose to set the novel in Mongolia to avoid the necessity of writing about “artificial phenomena”.
One can’t admonish a writer and say this is not right. Some Mongolian readers might, of course, feeling mis-represented by her images. But art is art. Art is always a mixing of the unfamiliar with the familiar. Where would we be had Picasso and Matisse not stolen Japanese and African art and integrated it into their own? Where would we be if writers still wrote long sinuous sentences about the haute bourgeoisie and their problems with manners, status and love? In fact, as a story itself All This Belongs to Me needs no apology, or explanation. It stands by itself and presents itself well — dressed in the modern style of piecework bits of information floating into the reader’s mind until the whole begins to take shape. Linearity, when it is there, lasts for a page or two and then a jump-cut or a fade to another scene, or memory, or person. We are used to this in the twenty-first century, and adapt to it, however difficult it may be for the author to ensure that all the pieces are actually provided. Hulova does an outstanding job of this.
Nevertheless, I am uneasy. I am trying to think of another novel in which the author invented lives in a culture so far removed from her own, and was true to it. Of course the argument can be made that underneath all culture, we are very similar; that it is not a misrepresentation of Mongol women’s love to draw from Czech women’s lives. It can be made but I’m not sure I buy it.
Whatever my unease the reading itself was rewarding — both a challenge at times and a sheer delight in the images and phrases she spun, and Zucker translated. The challenge — as with some of the Arabic fiction I’d been reading– was keeping track of the names and the familiy relations. In the case of This All Belongs to Me and the Iraqi novel A Long Way Back, I had to use a family tree diagram program to keep track, especially as cousins married cousins and multiple familial references — cousin and husband, father and husband– had to be kept track of.
The word play can be seen in some of the quotes above, as well as these few, pulled not quite at random but not near exhausting the trove.
Back in the Red Mountains, a knife’s for cutting a cow’s throat, but here in the City it’s for stabbing you in the back, my aunt said.”
“I can still see those soft, light, slow flakes and their two approaching silhouettes, moving towards us so slowly the dust didn’t even stir.”
“What colors danced in the stallion’s eyes when Papa brought in a new mare?
…when she spoke it was like a butcher chopping meat.
Zaya, after her daughter Dolgorma, having understood that her mother has raised her by prostitution, leaves, thinks:
After several months it hit me that it might always be this way. That the colors would never come back to the flowers, that even warm sunny days would be freezing, and I would curse the sun’s rays for the rest of my life for touching her when I couldn’t.
Very good stuff, some of it very very good. Of course, when a translation is involved, there are often questions: did the translator catch the original right, in the right spirit, with the right softness or harshness, with the right relation of the people to the language coming from their mouths. Zucker has done an admirable job. There are, I’m afraid, too many, what shall we call them — infelicities?– in the voice.
Here are a couple that had me crossing my eyes. Keep in mind, the speakers or narrators are Mongols, at the end of the 2oth century.
“I’ve had a few people call me out on in.”
“It was never my thing.”
“…when I was young I had all kinds of givens…”
“…you could tell she was no great shakes.
“Everything went to blazes as soon as Nara showed up.”
All these seem particularly casual, and American. ”All kinds of givens” is a particularly modern, psycho-babble phrase I’m not even sure all English readers would understand.
I don’t know what I’d call a “john” except a “john” to identify the clients of prostitutes, but I’d look hard for another solution. I’m sure I’d chose a verb other than “scrounge” for ”Mama could always scrounge up some work.”
The choice to retain many Mongolian words seems a good one, even if more familiar words are available. The ger, as their dwelling, and the del as their standard traditional dress, erliiz as the depreciative word for mixed race, keeps us in the sense of being close to a drama of a people we seem to know well, but are still outsiders to much that makes them who they are.
For a very young woman, All This Belongs to Me is a stand-out effort. I look forward to reading, when a translation is available, Cirkus Les Mémoires (2005; “Circus les mémoires”) – her New York City novel.