Jenni Råback reviews Crossing by Pajtim Statovci

Translated from the Finnish by David Hackston (Pushkin Press/Pantheon Books, 2019)

Who are you? What is your name? Where are you from? Why are you here? What is your native language? Are you a man or a woman? Who do you love? Pajtim Statovci’s second novel, Crossing, follows his debut My Cat Yugoslavia (originally published in 2014, translated into English by David Hackston in 2017) in responding to these superficially simple questions with a crisp refusal to provide facile answers. The novel tells the story of a protagonist who is mostly a man, who is mostly called Bujar, and is mostly from Albania—these are, at least, the identities he begins and ends his journey with. His crossings through several identities and locations eat away at such questions, which at times are experienced as “a drawn-out battle” and at others “like rapid fire” in their demand for “only one possible answer.” Drawing on the intersections of transnational and transgender experiences, Statovci’s Crossing is a raw and lyrical portrayal of an individual’s desperate scavenging for uniqueness in a world that mistakenly believes the reality of a person’s identity is unchanging, and so sentences those with fluid identities to a subhuman existence.

The protagonist’s search for freedom and uniqueness takes him from Albania to Italy, through different European cities to New York, and finally to Helsinki and back to Tirana. His changeable nationality and gender are made clear to us from the beginning; he first declares: “I am a twenty-two-year-old man who at times behaves like the men of my imagination,” then “sometimes I am a twenty-two-year-old woman who behaves however she pleases,” but also “I am a man who cannot be a woman but who can sometimes look like a woman.” Confidently, he announces: “I can choose what I am, I can choose my gender, choose my nationality and my name, my place of birth, all simply by opening my mouth.” Crossing gradually maps out Bujar’s personal history and concurrently studies the reasons for his lies; by withholding something vital until the very end, Statovci controls and edits the version—or versions—of his protagonist’s story, and so emphasises the processes of selection, omission, and accentuation involved in all narratives of identity. Bujar’s travels play up, unearth, challenge, and reiterate the human compulsion to tell lies about ourselves, exploring our reasons for lying, and what it even means to call these stories “lies.”

Bujar is initiated early into the practice of lying in order to construct identities. From his father, a proud Albanian man, he inherits a wealth—or burden—of folklore about the importance of the Albanian “man’s self-respect, his name, and how he bears it.” He awakens early to the violent power that stories can wield and, after he is left reeling by his dying father’s legends from times of war, he bullies another boy like a “hungry [ . . . ] vulture.” Soon, however, Bujar begins to reject his father’s stories of Albanian manhood, “because there was no rhyme or reason to them whatsoever” and because his “father was a liar, just like all storytellers.” Nevertheless, Bujar himself becomes an accomplished liar or storyteller, and in one of his assumed identities links the never-ending questions about identity to the desire to fit in:

It was then I realized that it was personal, that they didn’t like me simply because of my nationality, and when people don’t like you, you don’t like yourself either, that’s the way it goes, you learn to give certain answers to certain questions because that’s the answer the person asking the question wants to hear, and before long you are inevitably caught up in a web of lies, lies that people are forced into telling because the truth doesn’t make an impression, because the truth always fails, because it’s never good enough.

A lie, then, can help communicate certain experiences better than the truth would. Across the novel, we observe how lies and truth intertwine in the protagonist’s many stories about who he is: as Ariana, “she” purports to be from Bosnia but tells the truth about “her” suicide attempt; to his New Yorker landlady he claims to be from Spain, yet his feelings toward his home country are genuine: “I couldn’t bear it, I felt like I was going to suffocate.” These numerous stories are Bujar’s way of giving his listeners what he thinks they want to hear—which he has to do in order to be able to like himself—but they also draw our attention to the things we consider to be facts, and the things we don’t. Why are we more concerned with whether a person is from Spain or Albania than with their experience in and of those countries? With nuance and intelligence, Crossing states that surely it is the experience of alienation, rather than that the fact of being an alien somewhere, that matters more.

Statovci’s depictions of global locations are not particularly nuanced. A New Yorker, for instance, might find Bujar’s account of the city clichéd, and an Albanian might feel his version of Albania is superficial. But perhaps this makes sense if we take into account the novel’s ambitions: after all, Statovci is not trying to provide a full-fledged portrait of Albania or Finland or any other place, but of the feeling of national homelessness, and with that a geography of surfaces is compatible. Similarly, as the novel moves from country to country, and as its protagonist moves between various national identities, the author comments on a wide range of topics relating to immigration and transnational experience, not all of which are addressed with satisfying depth. To give an example, while briefly in New York Bujar asks his Finnish landlady:

Can you imagine life as a black person? [ . . . ] could you imagine that because of the color of your skin nobody would ever stop you in the street and ask you for directions or that there would be no point in ever asking to borrow somebody’s phone, even in an emergency?

Flatly, Maria replies, “I don’t believe any white person can imagine what life is like for black people.” The novel was never going to have space for a well-fleshed-out study of racism in the United States, but it is able to do the important work of linking different experiences of transnational or multicultural identities and histories. If nothing else, this conversation brings to the fore one of Crossing’s central questions: Can we imagine being an other? To my delight, this otherwise often dark novel provides at least one humorous example of the way individuals imagine other cultures. When Bujar and his childhood friend Agim are sleeping rough, they joke about the trivial concerns of affluent Western Europeans: “What do Finnish people worry about before falling asleep?”—“Oh no, says the Finn, only seven hours until I have to get up again!” These are not complete portraits of nationalities—not least because there are no such things—but moments of insight sprouting from the dissonant alignment of opposing experiences that check privilege and, hopefully, help to imagine.

Statovci’s observations about the workings of media in our construction of national identities are particularly felicitous. Dreaming about life in Western Europe (as Bujar recalls, “Europe was our America”) the teenagers Bujar and Agim meet with media representations of Albanians crossing the Adriatic Sea to Italy. They follow as the news stories about Albanians, and the Italians’ attitudes towards them, change from sympathetic to hostile, depicting them as “violent criminals whose unabated bloodthirstiness put[s] the security of our civilization at risk.” Bujar’s fundamental questions (“why poverty wasn’t reason enough to allow people to move from one country into another, why looking for work and a better life in another country was somehow wrong”) do not change, but gradually, he and Agim begin “to think along the same lines as the Italians.” The cargo ship Vlora carrying a group of desperate Albanians starts to look “less like a ship and more like an anthill.” Here the deep-seated shame that persistently accompanies Bujar and Agim’s experiences of national identity begins to surface as Statovci explores an aspect of immigrant experience that is bitter and often hard to pin down. The media destroys Bujar’s ideas, built on his father’s stories, of what it means to be Albanian; both representations—the tabloids, and the national mythology—are of course false, but the faulty premise of obligatory national belonging is a lie spread so deeply and widely that it nevertheless leaves Bujar hollow and traumatised.

Alongside transnationalism, Crossing sets up another metaphor of travelling across, beyond, and through conventionally fixed identities via its deployment of gender. Bujar is a cross-dresser and presents as a woman when compelled to do so, and this fluidity offers a window into the strictures of gender in a novel that very early asks its readers: “Do you realize how narrow-minded it is to think that there are only two genders in the world, two types of people, men and women?” Later, Tanja, a Finnish trans woman with whom Bujar begins—and ends—a relationship, sets a person’s right to name themselves in contrast with other individual rights, thereby providing a chilling account of the state of trans rights in Finland:

You can’t even change your name if the authorities deem your new name to be the wrong gender. [ . . . ] You can ask not to be resuscitated, to donate your organs to someone who needs them, but you can’t decide on your own name though it’s something that doesn’t affect anyone else. You can even decline cancer treatment and take your own life.

We should, however, be cautious about treating Crossing as a trans narrative. Whilst the novel treats gender as changeable, Bujar understands neither drag nor actual transgender experience. Though he sometimes dresses as a woman, he thinks that: “All I can ever have is a copy of their life, a photograph in which I look almost like them but not quite, a lie that must be created from nothing,” which should prepare us for the serious misunderstanding he reveals when he imagines himself as Tanja and imitates her voice: “I don’t dress in girls’ clothes in order to be a girl, but to have the same advantages as girls.” Whilst this might be true of Bujar’s reasons for cross-dressing, it is very much not true of Tanja who has “given everything to become a girl.”

Not all of these narrative choices sit comfortably with Statovci’s own views—he has openly spoken on behalf of trans rights. One example is the scene of Bujar and Tanja’s first meeting, in which Tanja, oddly, deadnames herself, explaining that “Tanja isn’t her real name. It’s Tom, you know.” While this once again cross-examines our judgements about names and the “realness” of identities, the tone feels odd. Elsewhere, Bujar muses that “death is just a word, the feeling that you no longer fit in your name, your external form,” but especially towards the end of the novel, he seems unable to understand or respect the enlivening power of the trans woman’s chosen name. His compulsive search for uniqueness and fame renders him blind to the value of Tanja’s hard-earned identity. Rather uncomfortably, too, the novel, or Bujar, kills off the two characters who were born as men but identify as women. The reader’s attitude towards the protagonist transforms along with other changes: by the time that he usurps Tanja’s identity to enter a televised song competition, the embodiment of Western vanity and obsession with individualism, as a “trans woman”—which, of course, the producers find “amazing”—we find our sympathy turning sour. By the end of the novel, we feel only gruesome pity when Bujar tells his last “story about me.”

With such subject matter, the novel’s transformation from Finnish to English, executed by translator David Hackston, must have posed exacting challenges. Whilst Finnish is far from being a gender-neutral language, it does operate with a single singular personal pronoun, “hän,” for all genders, which in Statovci’s original naturally allows mobility that cannot really be reproduced in a language with gender-specific personal pronouns. Inevitably, the English Crossing contains scenes in which pronouns stand out in a way they do not in Finnish, and where the translator is obliged to signal the novel’s commitments: scenes with a New Yorker called Sammy now signify more because the translator uses “she” and “her” to refer to Sammy’s drag persona, Sandy Ho, and later reverts to “he” and “him” when Sammy “reappears”; indeed, in translation the originally dull sentence “he’s one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen” becomes something of consequence. In translation, Hackston is able to do away with some of the timidity of Finnish. However, the English pronouns also force him to draw lines in places where the Finnish would not—and so make decisions about what vocabulary choices the character of Bujar is likely to make—the most critical of these forcibly drawn lines being his choice to refer to Agim as “he” even after “hän” has denied being a homosexual man because “A girl can’t be a peder.”

In the January 2019 issue of the Finnish periodical Image, Statovci and Hackston appeared in an interview discussing the translation process. Statovci says that he “reads and comments on” the English translation and considers translation to be an interpretation of the text in another language; in Hackston’s translations, he recognises the “textual soul” of his works. Hackston modestly maintains that the translated sentences remain Statovci’s and tells an anecdote about the American editors wanting to make changes to the book’s content, such as changing the tense of a scene, and him responding that he does not have such authority. Interestingly, however, Crossing contains a handful of passages, running up to three lines, that do not exist in the original. They appear at the end of chapters or paragraphs to dramatic effect, often as part of Bujar’s internal monologue. For instance, “I tell myself this, and go look at myself in the mirror; I am ugly, I say, I am alone. I am so, so ugly, I say and take my clothes off. I am pretty, I say then, so beautiful” or “I am one of a kind, I convince myself. One of a kind, here, in this life,” Bujar muses without any Finnish precedent. Such statements would feel out of touch and too pompous for the voice of the Finnish protagonist, but perhaps not for the English Bujar, who emerges as a character distinct from that of the original.

In the Image interview, Hackston explains that when translating, he “really translates anything but words”: he translates “kantavia ajatuksia”, which does not, ironically, have a good English equivalent, but literally translates into “carrying thoughts” and means something like the guiding principles, or the primary or fundamental ideas. We can take him at his word, as at times this is literally the case with Crossing: the key themes certainly become condensed in these changes, perhaps in an unjustifiably exigent manner. It is worth evoking the novel’s own particular wisdom about storytelling, as Bujar’s narrative itself is a manifestation of every person’s compulsion to tell “the story in a unique way, arbitrarily adding elements that pleased them the most.” What sort of ethics apply in translating lies? Statovci has written a liar and Hackston is translating the liar: does it matter if the English version of the story is different from the Finnish version? The translated character is just another role that Bujar takes on—another changing story, lie, and identity. Alongside these additions, the translation presents with a handful of omitted paragraphs and sentences, which naturally slightly alter the novel. Some line is thus crossed by the English Crossing in its accentuated distance from the original, prompting questions specific of translation: Where is the line for a sufficiently faithful translation drawn? Who can sanction these changes of originality?

The Albanian story which alerts Bujar to the inevitable existence of multiple versions with the same narrative skeleton also exemplifies his enchantment not with the story’s “noble message about humanity” but with the “myriad details”: “the sound of the horse, the colors, the dust on Konstandini’s metallic armor, the pitch-dark moonless night, and the lonely old widow’s house with one light flickering in the window.” For him, the magic is in the details, and so it is with Crossing, too, its best offering being its figurative, elaborate language. Hackston’s translation, too, is alluring and emphatically readable, and generally he aptly reproduces—and captures the detail of—Statovci’s poetry and sets it in fluent English. Some of Statovci’s images are wonderfully odd: days may “slowly weav[e] themselves into the following days like fat old ladies” or blurting something out spontaneously may be “like a drop of spittle accidentally trickling from the side of my mouth.” Such images bear witness to the very particular tenderness and exactitude with which Statovci treats his language. There is something true about locating strangeness at the heart of his textual practice because of his novels’ haunting ability to redefine and recalibrate the readers’ relationship with the most conventionally formulated questions. Some of the most beautiful passages in Crossing describe the feelings of loss and confusion after Bujar’s father’s death, when “there was emptiness, silence, a dark void in the middle of a day drenched in sunlight, the sound of men breathing heavily as though they were witnessing a solar eclipse and were afraid of entering a world of endless dusk.” It is often in such images of light and darkness and the (in)ability to see that Crossing is at its most stirring, revealing a stretch of raw human vulnerability and vividly embodying feelings of alienation. In the details of such language we may come to understand something of these splintering experiences; here, if not always on the level of plot and character, Crossing finds a genuinely touching way to emphasise the urgency of opening up the questions we so often force closed.