Way back when, you would immediately tar a film made with the help of three countries as a Europudding – a hodge-podge of a thing trying to tick too many boxes and losing sight of the story it tried to tell. I mention that because Crossing comes to us with so many flavours, it might also appear to be an Eton mess of a tale at first. It’s a book that tells of an Albanian lad who loses his father to cancer when he’s only fourteen and, in concert with his best friend from the other apartment in their building, grows up with the wish to escape – escape to the extent that they cross-dress. Yes, everything that happens in his childhood makes our hero the man of the house, but he quickly negates that. We see him in Italy a few years later, trying to jump under a lorry (that’s not a spoiler, it’s in the prologue), and then Berlin, Madrid, New York – forever negating at least one country he’s been in before, and forever negating his own personal history. Oh, and if you think I over-egged the Europudding allusion, this comes to us from the Albanian author’s adopted language of Finnish, in which it was first written.
I’ve read Tim Parks talk of books that we might find translated and of how European literature has become just that – the writing of a continent, and not of any specific country or location within it. He says it can only be a bad thing when you try and write to appeal to a whole disparate collective of markets. But while this book here does manage to talk to many people and of many people, I don’t think this has lost the personal touch of the author’s background. This really did take me back to Albania, from the city they called home to the father and son’s last day out together. The visits to other places are more fleeting, but the prime character is of course that of our hero, Bujar.
I wasn’t sure that the subject matter would be of interest to me at first. It was my enjoyment of books from this publisher over the last ten years or so that was the draw. It is testament to the writing here – half at least of which is in a most immediate present tense – that I did end up caring. This is a novel with no small sense of emotional engagement, as well as being what people will tell you is a ‘relevant’ read. It harks back to a time before the major floods of emigrants to Europe across the Mediterranean, but we see boat loads of people trying to flee Albania and cross to Italy. It also drags us into the world of someone in the clothes of the other gender very successfully.
Ultimately, there is very little in this book that does not appeal, even if the potential reader is put off by aspects of the plot, and the rarefied corners of Europe from which it comes. I’ve found reading about Albania almost as worthwhile as visiting – if you know the books of Nobel Laureate Ismail Kadare, this is on a par but much less allegorical about the country. You get the place and the people straight. However, whatever the country, many a novel could present you with a tale of someone with the feeling they don’t belong, whether that be their place of origin or their gender at birth – and the way this combines both is artfully done.
John Lloyd 5/5
Crossing by Pajtim Statovci
Pushkin Press 9781782275107 hbk May 2019