Review | Days in the Caucasus by Banine & Crossing by Pajtim Statovci

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Days in the Caucasus, Banine (translated by  Anne Thompson-Ahmadova), Pushkin Press, 2019, pp. 288 (hardback)
Crossing, Pajtim Statovci (translated by David Hackston), Pushkin Press, 2019, pp. 272 (hardback)

In a way, it’s unimportant that Banine’s Days in the Caucasus and Pajtim Statovci’s Crossing come to us via translation; foremost, they are a memoir and a novel with timely relevancies to the UK literary market, inflected by cultural concerns with border-crossing, political upheaval and the fluidity of personal identities. They are valuable pieces of writing, and should sit unsegregated on the general Non-fiction A-Z and the general Fiction A-Z shelves. But we can highlight translation without segregating: that these texts – written seventy years apart, one in French and set in Azerbaijan, the other in Finnish and set primarily in Albania – arrive in English at this juncture is testament to the significance of translation in our moment of political upheaval. We are reading more literature in translation, and not just because mythologies around the difficulty of translated books are being dispelled and independent presses are championing the art of translation. It’s also because, in a moment where protectionism is rife and national boundaries are being reinforced, reading across these divisions by deconstructing linguistic boundaries becomes a powerful corrective.

Despite their formal and generational differences, Days in the Caucasus and Crossing have notably similar concerns: travelling, characterised by escape; conflicts between traditionalism and progressivism, particularly as relate to gender roles and identities; mercurial shifts between wealth and poverty, voracious spending and destitution – all set against a backdrop of political revolution. One can see why Pushkin Press places these texts contiguously, and feels them significant in 2019.

Statovci’s debut novel, My Cat Yugoslavia, received wide acclaim for its beguiling disconcertion and beauty – its effective modulation between divergent themes, tones and genres. Crossing redoubles this modulation (albeit with fewer complexly characterised talking cats), and its most successful moments are ones where ostensibly binaristic comedy and violence are side-by-sided, undoing the very binary they suggest. There is a demonstrative passage in Berlin in the late 90s where the narrator, Bujar, joins a creative writing course and his coursemates vie for ‘the freshest and most fascinating’ stories of personal ‘misery and despair’. Bujar, the victor, ‘bathe[s] in their gazes like in the Jacuzzi of a five-star hotel’. Shortly afterwards, a similarly amusing flirtation with a coursemate turns into a horrifying scene of sexual violence: ‘volleys of laughter’ turn to ‘hands like giant clamps pulling [Bujar’s] skin in opposite directions’.

David Hackston – the also-acclaimed translator of Crossing and My Cat Yugoslavia – is instrumental in the power and veracity of these moments; his translation not only handles the pitfalls of humour with ease, but also successfully delivers into English these artful modulations of violence, and the perfectly wrought sentences that carry them. Hackston also renders with craft Crossing’s fascination with simile and metaphor, which accumulate liberally: Bujar wobbles the streets like a millipede. Endless herds of tourists move through the city like a bubbling stream, . . . impatient children stand scattered in front of the ice-cream stands like plastic bags in a junkyard.

I can’t breathe because the air gathers into a sodden ball of wool at the back of my throat . . . and when I place a hand on my moist cheek and scratch off the sweat with my fingernail it feels like peeling away a layer of skin.

These images not only figure Bujar’s interest in old-fashioned storytelling, but collide the messy worlds of human and non-human, value and waste, old and new. On a close scale, the concordant linkage of discordant ideas that figurative language performs shadows Statovci’s wider focus on the always-uneasy movement between worlds and identities. (It’s also worth nothing how frequently ‘figurative’ and performative Bujar’s character is, borrowing and translating personal history from acquaintances and partners).

The book’s two obvious forms of eponymous crossing are between gender boundaries and national boundaries. They are connected in their relation to revolutionary Albania, with its facing-up of communism and capitalism, and conservativism and progressivism. It is the beating of Bujar’s schoolmate Agim by his father for wearing his sister’s clothes that initiates the friends’ escape from Albania; it is the combined restrictions on travel and dangers of moving during revolution that make this escape troublesome.

The singular success of Crossing is its structure. Bujar and Agim’s tribulations are intersected with Bujar’s later lives (separated from Agim) in Berlin, Rome, New York and Helsinki. This structure marshals us enthrallingly to the thudding revelation of what happened in the central and first crossing of the Adriatic Sea in the summer of 1992, which is unveiled only in the book’s final page. It’s a well-trodden shape, of course (including in My Cat Yugoslavia), but Statovci’s contemporary version of the Albanian folkstories with which Bujar is preoccupied throughout (‘We listened to him, spellbound, because his stories were peppered with incredible events and magical creatures, like any story worth telling is’; ‘the most unforgettable part of the story was its myriad details’; ‘I tell them the whole story’) is so exceptionally well-executed and so thoroughly self-aware that it comes off consummately.

Banine’s memoir of her early life has parallels with Bujar’s story in historically stubborn ways: its relation to Russian rule, communism, and youthful rebellion; its discontent with societal, family and gender norms. These troubles, it seems, are resilient. Days in the Caucasus is Banine’s most famous work, a flowing record of her childhood as a Baku oil baron’s daughter during the fall of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. In the same way that Statovci’s prose coexists the banal and the violent, Banine’s childlike voice in Days in the Caucasus – sometimes to effect, sometimes sincere – serves to represent, in the same breath, the carefree exploits of childhood (a game of ‘who could spit the farthest’ and ‘secret orgies of tomato and aubergine conserve’) and the racialised, nationalised violences that impinge on them:

On holidays we played at massacring Armenians, a game we loved above all others. . . . First we would make arbitrary accusations against [Tamara, a Turkish-Armenian friend] of murdering Muslims and shoot her on the spot. . . . Then, when we were drunk at the sight of her blood, we would revive her for the good of the cause before massacring her once more, this time in the prescribed manner. We would tie her up and throw her to the ground; then we would cut out her tongue and cut off her limbs and head; we would tear out her heart and guts and throw them to the dogs to show our contempt for Armenian flesh.

Like Statovci’s flat descriptions of the momentous (‘So she disappears from my life and our love is snuffed out’), Banine’s numb depictions of the riotous, horrific, and historic are a standout virtue of Days in the Caucasus; despite the spiritous narration of the banal, the memoir favours anaesthetics over aesthetics for the important, figuring the ‘resignation’ that revolution and tumult breed and that Banine values. This tonal quietness is also at the heart of the beguiling humour and terror that attend descriptions of family dramas and feuds – another success in the book. It is perhaps at its most effectively arresting in its narration of abuse and violence. This is something that Statovci does, too; the normalisation of sexual violence both within patriarchal societies and in moments of national strife is something both authors and both translators depict chillingly, redoubled by the innocence of youth that attends. The most difficult-to-read moment in Days in the Caucasus is when Banine’s youthful possessiveness over her playmates turns to the crushing exchange: ‘“What did you play at?” “At rape”.

The one danger of Banine’s brand of narrative flatness, however, is resultant ploddingness. And it’s one that unfortunately emerges: the second half of the book is stronger than the first, which, at points, dwells without purpose – even if this does stylistically represent the immobility of her childhood. At times, the book falls into a pit common to memoirs; that, however extraordinary the narrative, it becomes myopically slow.

Anne Thompson-Ahmadova’s translation is excellent – and crucially so with this risk of slowness: it gives life in the English to the contradictions of naivety and gravity, levity and severity that texture the book’s most successful passages. It is also another tale in crossings: Jours Caucasiens was published in French in Paris in 1945, returning to Baku in the Azerbaijani only in 2006, in turn translated into Russian and published (also in Baku) in 2016. I feel this textual history speaks something of the tectonic movements Banine captures.

A particularly intriguing resemblance between Banine and Statovci’s Bujar are in their relationships to capital. Whilst Banine comes from fecundity and Bujar from poverty, both are testaments to the stayability of nationalised mentalities towards money – the tendency for capitalist or socialist sensibilities to rear their heads in later lives. The accounts of Bujar and Agim’s homelessness and their money-making schemes in Tirana are well-wrought: the naïve belief that they ‘would earn money, money would come from all directions’; the ‘curiosity at the prospect of boundless opportunity’; the successful proto-capitalist vending business; and the inevitable return to destitution and subsequent reflection of how ‘splintered’ Albanian life has become (‘poverty had broken families . . . drive[n] people to suicide’). Then comes the careering story of a man who has sold his daughter to Italian traffickers: ‘the most tragic aspect of the story was not the father’s greed but his daughter’s willingness to leave. She would rather sell herself for money than live in Albania’. Statovci delivers such lines crushingly. Bujar reveals his own violence often, and a particularly fraught moment comes in 2003 when he berates Tanja, his Finnish partner, for buying some expensive art: ‘Don’t you fucking understand . . . you’re so fucking stupid’. Whilst homeless in Tirana, Agim and Bujar repeat to each other: ‘Poverty is a state of mind’. Frugality (and communism), so it seems, is too.

And here is the surprising resemblance to Banine, coming in the stubborn traces of an economic system that besets characters as they age. A teenaged Banine has an opposite education in economics, taken in by the Soviet communists she fancies:

‘Don’t you feel the injustice of these vast fortunes that are the result of the chance discovery of oil?’

                        We felt it.

            ‘Don’t you believe it was a flagrant injustice that millions were lost gambling in clubs, while workers died of hunger and cold in their hovels?’

                        We most sincerely believed it.

She starts wearing an enamel broach of Lenin’s head, viewing herself ‘as his own creature’. But whilst she astutely ridicules the certitude of the wealth-expropriated (‘childish platitudes brought the former oil barons great peace of mind; after all, they had always thought it natural they should be blessed by fortune. It never occurred to them that fortune might have changed sides’), her propensity to laugh away poorness is underlain by the same stubborn mindset of capitalism. Jamil, her despised husband, loses their money gambling in Istanbul, but Banine is upbeat: ‘I found our poverty amusing, believing as I did that it was temporary and I would soon escape it’. (The first-person pronoun, here, is telling). Whilst post-Days in the Caucasus Banine is more resigned to bohemian-Parisienne poverty, she and Bujar are both testaments to the stubbornness of nationalistic economic systems: in the canvases of these books, however far figures escape, childhood capitalisms and communisms are always somewhere deep in their marrow.

All these concerns – nation, travel, capital, violence, gender, revolution, the individual – feel weighty today. They are all tied up in the search for home, that somewhere-sometime settledness that (for economic, ideological and identarian reasons) is of import and complexity in contemporary geopolitics. In a time when walls are being built, divisions institutionalised, and communities segregated, we feel the pull of reading across them. And – to be momentarily pedagogic – we should. This is why we can add ‘translation’ to that list of weighty concerns; it’s why the independent presses at the vanguard of literary writing in translation are invaluable. One particular question from Crossing stays with me, and is a good place to leave things, I think:

What can you do if your story, which is so tragic that you imagine it will awaken people’s sympathy, instead elicits hatred and violence? Where can you go if returning to your homeland is not an option?

There are some literary correctives, for sure. But they are hard-won.

Words by Will Forrester.

Go here to buy Crossing by Pajtim Statovci.
Go here to buy Days in Caucasus by Banine


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