Telling a foreign tale in a foreign tongue
English translation of Petra Hůlová's 2002 debut novel comes out in October
Posted: September 30, 2009
Hůlová has written six novels and became an overnight sensation at age 22.
Back in 2002, Petra Hůlová lived out the fantasy of innumerable college students: the novel she wrote "just for herself" while completing her master's degree became an overnight sensation, winning her that elusive combination of commercial success and critical acclaim at the age of 22.
Set in Mongolia, where she spent a year living as part of an exchange program, Paměť mojí babičce (In Memory of My Grandmother) became one of the most widely read books in the Czech Republic, was awarded the Magnesia Litera Award in 2003 and has subsequently been translated into five languages. October will see it released for the first time in English, under the title All This Belongs to Me.
Since her debut, she has produced another five novels over the past seven years.
Paměť mojí babičce is an uncompromising look at the lives of three generations in a Mongolian family from the perspectives of five different female members. Praised for its compelling depiction of a part of the world that remains both geographically and culturally remote, Hůlová successfully pulls off the feat of writing in the first person as a Mongolian woman while herself being Czech, a fact seen by some as "puzzling ? weird and suspicious," Hůlová says.
Much of the book's authenticity doubtless derives from Hůlová's firsthand experience of living in Mongolia. Her love affair with the country was sparked by a chance encounter with the film Urga by acclaimed director Nikita Mikhalkov, the story of the relationship between a Mongolian family and a Russian truck driver.
"I just thought the movie was great, and it had such a big impact on me that I wanted to go there," she said.
Hůlová then discovered Charles University ran a program in Mongolian Studies and spent several years studying the language and culture before living in the country's capital Ulan Bator. Although based in Mongolia's main city, she also made trips into the countryside; indeed, one of the strengths of her novel is its vivid portrayal of the clash between the two opposing worlds of the remote steppe and the nightmarishly bleak city.
The book's English translation posed unique challenges for translators, as it is written in colloquial rather than literary Czech. It is unsurprising, then, that Hůlová herself collaborated closely for three years with translator Alex Zucker, who was also responsible for the English version of Jáchym Topol's City Sister Silver.
In a publishing world increasingly dominated by the bottom line, few Czech authors appear in English. Those who do are usually members of an older, more established generation of big names like Klíma and Kundera.
"It's understandable," she says. "There are so many excellent writers producing work in English that no need is felt to introduce new authors. It's just a result of the fact that we're a small country, and the United States and United Kingdom are big ones."
I was curious to know to what extent Hůlová felt Mongolia and the Czech Republic were both countries caught between the twin influences of capitalism and Soviet Russia. Was that partly from where her fascination with the country stemmed?
"Something I really like that is really specific to [Mongolia] is that it's so far away from Europe, and, yet, it's still quite European, exactly because of this Soviet influence. The mentality is not as alien to Europeans (or at least East Europeans) as the Japanese or Chinese mentality might be."
Although set in Mongolia, Hůlová says a German reviewer claimed the novel was a covert exploration of the Czech experience as a former communist country in transition.
"It's not about the Czech Republic. It's about Mongolia, but ? it's not only about the people and the characters. It's about the time, the era, the transition period that is similar for the whole region of post-Soviet countries. You can find strong similarities between the Czech Republic and Mongolia in the '90s."
Refreshingly unassuming in person, Hůlová confesses it took her time to come to terms with her sudden rise to fame.
"After my first book, I felt baffled and lost. I didn't know what to do with all the positive reactions and expectations. Suddenly, I was being called a writer, and I didn't know if I was one, so it was very difficult for me to work out what to do next."
Hůlová credits her time as a Fulbright Scholar in New York for playing a vital role in shaping her identity.
"I met many people who introduced themselves as writers, which helped me redefine the term as simply someone who writes, whether or not he or she is intelligent, interesting or wise," she said.
Judging from her reticence in answering a final question, Hůlová risks counting herself all three.
"Advice for young writers? Who am I that I should advise?"
Lisette Allen can be reached at
Tags: Petra Hulova, book review, english translation, Paměť mojí babičce, All This Belongs to Me.
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