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Crossing Borders, Crossing Genders

Benjamin Keatinge

Crossing, by Pajtim Statovci, transl David Hackston, Pushkin Press, 272 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1782275107

Pajtim Statovci, a Finnish novelist of Kosovar background, burst upon the literary scene in 2017 with My Cat Yugoslavia, a bleakly moving tale of an uprooted family coming to terms with exile in the 1990s from a Kosovo then under Serbian siege and a young man’s (Bekim’s) endeavours to escape from the patriarchal structures of Albanian culture and his father, Bajram’s, adherence to those traditional codes. The novel explores Bekim’s sexual odyssey as a gay man with a background where such an identity is sometimes deemed deviant and unassimilable. The father, Bajram, comes across as a decidedly unsympathetic character in his often brutal treatment of his wife, Emine, and in his oppression of his entire family. But the novel is far from being a contrapuntal contrast between liberal values in Scandinavia and less secular values in Kosovo or the Balkans. Rather, it addresses more extensively the core question “Where are you from?” which haunts Bekim and which must be a dilemma for any first-generation migrant trying to absorb a new culture and language. The Kosovan experience of the 1990s resembles that of any uprooted family arriving in Germany, France, Sweden or Finland, or Ireland in the past decade and Statovci’s fiction is powerful, disconcerting and very much of the moment in exploring these dislocations.

Albania as a country has come a long way since its descent into anarchy after the collapse of communism in 1991 and again in 1997 due to the unravelling of shady pyramid schemes that caused the fragile Albanian economy to implode in an orgy of violence, looting and brigandage. In an article in The Irish Times from March 15th, 1997, journalist Paddy Agnew noted the arrival of “a massive influx of Albanian refugees” to southern Italy desperate to escape the chaos of Tirana. The arrival of this “flotilla”, including “one battleship and several fishing vessels, [. . .] headed for the Italian coast, [ . . .] prompted fears that Italy might [. . .] face an invasion similar to that of the summer of 1991, when more than 50,000 Albanians arrived in Puglia”. These scenes and their backdrop in Albania’s faltering journey from Stalinist isolation under the notorious Enver Hoxha towards functioning democracy and EU candidacy in 2020, is the context for Crossing, Pajtim Statovci’s gripping second novel. Kapka Kassabova, author of Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe (2017), notes in her Guardian review of Statovci’s novel that the original Finnish title is Tiranan sydän and means “Heart of Tirana”, a Finnish title which draws attention to the Albanian locales of the novel in ways that the English title arguably does not. It is a book in which civilisation itself is under threat and in many respects the heart of Tirana is a heart of darkness as depicted by Statovci; a city that nowadays is a pleasure to visit, was, in the 1990s, a dangerous, degraded and desperate place. As with My Cat Yugoslavia, Statovci explores contrasting versions of Albanian identity. The more conservative traditions of Kosovo jar with the narrator, Bujar’s, more secular upbringing in atheist Albania, so that when his family travel to Kosovo to bury his deceased father, he finds everyone “terribly religious” and Kosovo speech “childlike and unsure of itself”. The sheer isolation of Albania in the twentieth century has impacted on the linguistic and cultural development of different Albanian population groups and Bujar dismissively considers “Kosovo and the whole of Yugoslavia” to be alien from his experience. Conflict between father and son, received traditions and youthful dissent, again loom large, but in Crossing Bujar cuts loose from his family with his friend Agim and the pair form an unlikely couple, sleeping rough in Tirana and Durrës before making the eponymous “crossing” to Italy.

In several respects, therefore, Crossing is a dark and sombre novel. If Emine, Bekim’s mother, is the silent victim of My Cat Yugoslavia, in Crossing Bujar’s sister Ana is a horribly absent victim. We are told by Bujar that “According to the laws of the Kanun [historical Albanian social codes] she would get married and move into her husband’s home [. . .] a fate that she could not avoid”. Instead, in the spring of 1991, when Albania was in turmoil, “Ana disappeared” and Bujar speculates on her likely fate at the hands of people traffickers, who then were combing the byways of Tirana for victims, and imagines “how she might have been smuggled out of Albania in a metallic container filled with other young women” a destiny made possible by the collusion of “dockworkers [. . .] police [. . .] the authorities, travel agents and bus drivers” who “were all involved in selling and transporting people” to the brothels of Europe. As Bujar trenchantly confesses, “we were all complicit in their fate: I was guilty of it, Agim too, because we accepted the world around us as it was, unchanged, and we didn’t lift a finger to change it for the better.” This moment of pragmatic idealism and guilt is a rare one in a novel that is tenebrous in its depiction of an unredeemed city and country, indeed a largely irredeemable world. Just as Bujar and Agim are to set sail for Italy with their backs to Tirana, so they wrestle constantly with the perceived fallenness of “Albania and Albanians”. Bujar seeks alternative identities in self-created personae – at one point as a Bosnian woman – and tries to “pull out” gender and national identities “like a playing card”. This gets him into trouble on more than one occasion and he experiences repeated rejection on either gender grounds, grounds of sexual orientation, or because of poverty and its stigmas. His friend Agim “never thought of home [. . .] never even used the word home [. . .] didn’t believe in God, his own people, or the idea that there was a place where people could build a home” and the pair are literally homeless in Tirana before their attempted crossing to Italy. If the novel itself at times performs somewhat too neatly the formulas of modern gender theory – that gender is a social construct that can be chosen or performed by the individual – then this is counterbalanced by the compelling human drama of Bujar and Agim. If sex is not gender then, the novel argues, national origin is not destiny either, but also malleable, ultimately a matter of choice. Statovci holds these questions up for scrutiny in an almost systematic way. Agim and Bujar determine to go to western Europe and “never tell anyone we are Albanians” except to claim asylum on grounds of sexual orientation; whether their voyage can be realised is the drama of the novel as well as its philosophical core.

Statovci has been praised for his use of magical realism in My Cat Yugoslavia, a novel which features a snake and a cat which take on symbolic power. Bekim kills his pet python in a scene infused with the tension of an exorcism; in an earlier scene, the father, Bajram, summons an imam to his apartment to get him to “exorcise” his wayward son. In Crossing, the origin of the Albanian national symbol, the double-headed eagle, is traced to a legend of an eagle, a snake and a young boy with the term ‘shqipëtar (an Albanian) sourced as “the son of the eagle” and Shqipëria (Albania) meaning “the land of the eagle”. Birdwatching enthusiasts will know about the magnificent short-toed snake eagle (Circaetus gallicus), relatively common in the Balkans, which feeds chiefly on reptiles and snakes. Statovci uses the vertigo of migrant experience to re-energise what might otherwise seem like tired mythical resources, depleted by repetitive tradition. In Crossing, the father Afrim attempts to enchant his children – more particularly, his son ‑ with mythical stories from Albanian folklore. But many of these seem less magical than entirely unusable in the context of modern Tirana, where the main ambition of a large section of the populace is to escape. The father’s death from cancer in the early part of the narrative further undermines his vatic credibility. And when Bujar and Agim reflect on their education, it is to recognise its futility, the pointlessness of “useless information about communism, Enver Hoxha, the Five-Year Plan and Albania’s military arsenal [. . .] victories in bloody battles whose moral was always the same: that the Albanians were great heroes, warriors without equal [. . .]” But Statovci uses a narrative technique of abrupt shifts in time and place which resemble one of Afrim’s Albanian myths. Bujar traverses continents almost like a giant eagle flying from peak to peak and the transitions from “Rome 1998” to “Berlin 1998-1999” to “Madrid 1999-2000” to “New York 2000-2001” read like stopovers in a restless flight from place to place without any sense of arrival or homecoming. The mythical method is co-opted successfully to underline the protagonist’s feelings of ostracisation and discontent.

Bujar’s return to Tirana at the end of the novel signals the catharsis of a traumatic fissure that cuts across the narrative, distorting and disturbing it throughout. Bujar’s callous treatment of his female partners – Rosa in Madrid and the trans woman Tanja in Helsinki – is now explicable in terms of his desperate love for the lost Agim, whose fate is revealed on the final page. Suddenly, the useless myths become usable again and Bujar remembers not his father’s clumsy storytelling, but his skill “at telling [him] about the world”, the enchantment of “an entire land hatched from an eagle’s egg”. Even the realism of Bujar’s nostos, his homecoming to his mother’s apartment in Tirana, now achieves a pathos and tenderness which are largely absent in previous chapters. In its subtle negotiations of transnational and transgendered crossings, Statovci’s novel in the end achieves a hard-earned enchantment by which love is finally expressed.

1/6/2020

Benjamin Keatinge is a Visiting Research Fellow at the School of English, Trinity College Dublin. He taught English literature for nine years at South East European University, North Macedonia and he has travelled widely in the Balkans. He is editor of Making Integral: Critical Essays on Richard Murphy (Cork University Press, 2019).

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