‘Crossing’ by Pajtim Statovci, translated from the Finnish by David Hackston
June marks the beginning of Pride Month in the UK, a subject close to many of the OX team’s hearts. When a publicist asked whether I was interested in being sent a proof of a new novel in translation that was about boundaries across borders, gender, and belonging of course I said no, because I mostly cover highly commercial book-club fic… okay, I said yes with a lot of exclamation marks and effusive thanks. And what a remarkable book ‘Crossing’ turned out to be.
Statovci is a Finnish-Kosovan novelist who won the Helsinki Writer of the Year award in 2018. The beauty in his prose was seductive from the first line, an unnamed character describing how they imagine their own death in Rome, 1998. There is very little context, except that the narrator feels out of place. “I am a man who cannot be a woman but who can sometimes look like a woman,” says our anonymous protagonist, “I can choose what I am, I can choose my gender, choose my nationality and my name.” This is Agim, who flicks backwards to his upbringing in Albania and his friend Bujar, both too young to remember the violence, but the ripples affecting their childhood selves. Voices, cities, and identity move with the fluidity of water.
Shame is a major component. The friends flee from their birth country after Ajim is beaten for wearing his mother’s dress. Parental shame, societal shame, illness and things that are not spoken about are closed and quiet. The book questions love, what ‘home’ means, and the shattering weight of loneliness, floating between New York and Berlin, Madrid and Tirana, places upon places. Unlike many dual-narrative texts, the voices of both characters are distinct and wholly rounded. Bujar’s late father weaves history and myth into allegories, people disappear and become lost. This is one of my favourite sorts of books, one that is both profoundly unsettling but beautifully written and translated.
I do not want to give too much away, and you know that I rarely gush. Just read it, okay? You’ll feel better for having done so.