Reading Pajtim Statovci’s Crossing/Tiranan Sydän … or The Unbearable Lightness of Being from Orient, Balkans, Communist Blok, Albania and a Coup de Théâtre. Part I. (Romeo Kodra)

Occorre fare inizialmente un tale inventario.
Quaderni del carcere, Antonio Gramsci.

Crossing-cut. Few weeks ago I was reading at Peizazhe.com a post of the Albanian author Ardian Vehbiu regarding Milan Kundera’s biography, Český život a doba, written by Jan Novak, which questioned Kundera’s “obsessive need to control his image […] in part from a desire to whitewash some very dark chapters of his personal history“. All what I was thinking during the reading was that in Albania, this obsessive need to control the immaculate, intact personal image is beyond past or recent socio-political experiences of the individual. It is religion, culture, myth, art.

Motra Tone (1883) Kolë Idromeno, first Albanian laic painting and precursor of modernity.

The same obsessive treatment of the personal image (fytyrë=face) I found in the work of Pajtim Statovci, whose “immigrant-homoerotic-Finnish mythology” – words of Helsingin Sanomat Literature Prize’s jury awarding Statovci’s first work My Cat Yugoslavia in 2014 – intrigued me, especially for his becoming a sort of Finnish-worldwide-viral literary phenomenon.

Even more intriguing were the online key words of his second novel, Tiranan Sydän (Tirana’s Heart or Tirana’s Core, translated as Crossing, in English): “death of Enver Hoxha”, “ruins of Communist Albania”, “sexual identity”, “migration”, “heritage of Albanian myth and legend”, “human need to be seen”. In addition, from the reviews, the book seemed the narration of my life: family origins from Yugoslavia (the main character’s father from Kosova, mine from Bosnia and Herzegovina); life as teenager in Albania in 1990-’91; migratory experience in Italy and now in Finland; all written by someone born in 1990 and residing in Finland from 1992, when he was only two. Moreover, it seemed not just a book about me, but also written by my daughter (she’s almost three now and lives in Finland from last year). With these in mind, I decided to start reading Crossing.

Crossing-X-ray of reader’s gestation. The first chapter is entitled religiously God’s Rib, and is related with the sensitivity of the narrator regarding gender equality (for a deeper understanding of the meaning of which, vaguely developed in Crossing, I would suggest the reader to have fun with the work of Ziony Zevit and os baculum).

The narration, in the first person, starts with “When I think about my own death, the moment it happens is always the same” (Crossing, translated by David Hackston, Pushkin Press, 2016, p.3), a sentence suggesting Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author; author, which, reduced in narrator’s voice, a character of the novel, theoretically, seems to open space to welcome the birth of the reader, or at lest this is my reading approach. So, this text is a sort of embryonic X-ray to document my gestation, up to birth, as a reader after reading Statovci’s work.
The second sentence, “I am wearing a plain, colored shirt and a matching pair of paints, cut from a thin material that’s easy to put on”, immediately refers to the image, to the character’s sober (plain), accurate (matching) and functional (easy) look. This sobriety, accuracy and ease characterizes the description of the gradual disruption of functioning of the organs (bringing in mind The Body Without Organs concept of Antonin Artaud) and the process of dying “as easy as a gentle downhill stroll”.

For me, as a reader, the first pages of the book were simple and easy to read. Yet, the tone of the narration sounded arrogant, transpiring cultural prejudices probably as symptoms of a latent complex of inferiority. But this appears natural for a contemporary neoliberal system and its status quo, where one seems unable to be gay without being macho, feminist without being fascist, diverse without being different; where everything is a carnival without carne/meat (in Latin); where being immigrant or Finnish or any other nationality as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, in short, all communities from lgbtq to all the letters of the alphabets of the world mean pride only for the duration of a ride … generally in a boulevard.

The forced, not only philosophical but also literary, intellectualism and the book’s façade construction were ambitious. While Proust wrote about “possess[ing] other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is” (La Prisonnière/À la recherche du temps perdu), the narrator’s voice in Crossing echoed to “put in a set of blue contact lenses to be born again” (p.4), highlighting the artificiality not only of the outside image (blue contact lenses), but also of the sight (seeing through those blue contact lenses and thinking oneself as being reborn, having new a sight).
Moreover, sounded uncanny, considering the fake blue/other eyes, to read about all that moralistic impetus of the narrator on the façade – “you have to prepare yourself. To live so many lives, you have to cover up the lies you’ve already told with new lies to avoid being caught up in the maelstrom that ensues when your lies are uncovered” (p. 6) – and still notice its persistence of prejudices – “people in my country grow old beyond their years and die so young precisely because of their lies. They hide their faces the way a mother shields her newly born child and avoid being seen in an unflattering light with almost military precision: there is no falsehood, no story they won’t tell about themselves to maintain the façade and ensure that their dignity and honor remain intact and untarnished until they are in their graves” (p. 6). All these asserted not only without apparent explanation, ignoring the complex cultural background of those behaviors and/or rituals the narrator wanted to stigmatize.

Crossing lines after lines. The reading became to me an exercise to measure the limits of irritation.

Referred to his Albanian parents, the thoughts of the main character – “I would never […] invite neighbors for dinner simply to feed them with food I could never afford for myself.” (p. 6) – seemed to ignore the archaicity of tht culture, the works of Lévi-Strauss or Mauss on archaic societies and cultures, or at least Pier Paolo Pasolini’s concept of sub-proletariat and petty bourgeois acculturation.

Without any composure, there were other conceited phrases such as “[t]he people [in Albania] were poor, they smelled bad and talked incessantly, nobody seemed to have a job or anything in particular to do, everybody had yellow teeth and damp stains beneath their armpits” (p.56) but few pages later “the Swedish [like English and French] looked so pure” (p.65), which sounded like phrases written by a member of Suomen Vastarintaliike with ethnic complexes of inferiority and clear unelaborated homosexual repressed tendencies.

And the things got worse when I red something like “people queuing at the gates of the city’s churches and mosques in the hope of food aid” (p. 64). Churches and Mosques in Tirana at that time!? In 1990!? Everyone through a fast online research can easily find that during the Popular Socialist Republic churches and mosques were destroyed, transformed in toilets, basketball halls, museums or other imaginative functionalities or simply closed, and the first mass celebration dates November 4th, 1990 in a graveyard near Shkodra. And it is for this reason that churches and mosques could start helping people only after 1991 or 1992, when were officially permitted to re-open (1991).

Yet, I remembered that even in the first pages the description of Tirana was somewhat insecure. Thus, without being sure if this was a pure fantasy or scarce research of the author, a mish-mash of the author and scarce editing of the publisher, or something else, and to understand better, I decided to quit reading Crossing and start reading the first Statovci’s work, Kissani Jugoslavia, translated as My Cat Yugoslavia, and read about his immigrant-homoerotic-Finnish mythology (I red the edition of Pushkin Press, translated by David Hackston, 2017).

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