The Story of a Queer European Refugee Who Insists on Self-Invention
At the start of “Crossing” (Pantheon), Pajtim Statovci’s second novel, a twenty-two-year-old man, dressed in denim shorts and a padded bra—“a man who cannot be a woman but who can sometimes look like a woman”—throws himself in front of traffic on a street in Rome in 1998. We later learn that his name is Bujar, that he is Albanian, and that his desire to die stems not from anxiety about his gender identity—the novel subjects the very idea of identity to caustic interrogation—but from the isolation and humiliations that he has faced as a refugee from the turmoil in the Balkans. As he searches for a stretch of road where cars pick up speed, he meditates on the waste of his youthful promise, and on a sense of shame so strong that it drives him to scrub the stains of other people’s urine and excrement from public bathrooms, so that no one will think he left them. “This is not my life, these days are not mine,” he says to himself. He has become “a ghost living at the edge of my shadows.”
Statovci was widely praised for his first novel, “My Cat Yugoslavia,” which was published in 2014, when he was twenty-four. The book was striking for its juxtaposition of wildly heterogeneous styles, intertwining the life story of a young woman in an unhappy marriage in Kosovo with that of her son, Bekim, a student in Helsinki. Statovci, like Bekim, immigrated to Finland as a child, but the book was hardly autofiction: its most remarkable character is a sexy and abusive talking cat, with whom Bekim lives for months in an increasingly untenable ménage.
“Crossing” has none of its predecessor’s surreal whimsy, but it, too, proceeds along dual narrative paths that appear in alternating sections. (Both novels were translated, from the Finnish, by David Hackston.) Each thread is narrated by Bujar. In one, he recounts his adolescence in Tirana, as Albania plunges into chaos after the fall of the Communist dictatorship. Food lines stretch outside churches and mosques; Bujar watches for human traffickers who snatch children from the streets. This social dissolution mirrors the dissolution of Bujar’s family: his father dies of cancer; his mother becomes bedridden; his sister disappears. Bujar spends most of his time with a neighbor boy, Agim, with whom he has an intense, ambiguously romantic relationship that will haunt the rest of his life.
Much of the novel’s emotional force comes from its depiction of Agim, a bright, ambitious boy who is savagely beaten by his father for dressing in his mother’s clothes. Statovci has said that he has no interest in creating characters who are tormented by their sexuality, and the familiar narratives of queer life are mostly absent from his novels: no one comes out, and even characters who are raised in conservative cultures and subjected to brutal homophobia, like Agim, often display a comfort with their bodies and their impulses. (When Bujar tells Agim he looks like a girl, Agim stretches his arms out “like a satiated fox.”) The boys run away together, with a notion of reaching Italy. They get as far as downtown Tirana, where they’re soon selling stolen cigarettes by day and sleeping in public toilets by night. Eventually, they make their way to the seaside town of Durrës, where they create something like a home in a small attic and experiment with physical intimacy, though Bujar makes it clear to Agim that he doesn’t think of himself as gay. Finally, they load their few possessions into a rickety motorboat and set off across the Adriatic Sea, for Italy. Statovci’s writing in this scene has an affecting lyricism:
He pulled a compass out of his pocket, and as the boat headed west he pressed his hands against his forehead and began letting out a series of strange whimpering sounds—he was sobbing—and I held out my hand to him and he took it. Then he pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, and we sat next to each other on the bench, beneath the silky black sky and the bright white moon, and lit our cigarettes, and for a while we didn’t say a word, for enslaved by the darkness we could barely see each other, we simply glided forward, at times he kept hold of the rudder, at times I did so, and together we broke the sound of the quiet night and the gently rushing sea, its surface like a freshly lacquered floor.
Six years separate this scene from the book’s second narrative strand, which picks up after Bujar’s suicide attempt. The adult Bujar is difficult to square with the adolescent. He wanders Europe alone, spending time in Berlin, Madrid, and Helsinki; in each city, he invents a new name, a new nationality, a new history. When he arrived in Italy, we learn, he claimed asylum on the basis of persecution as a homosexual in Albania. But he asserts minority status for purely strategic ends, and his relationships reflect a fluid sexuality. He has sex with women and with men; sometimes he wears women’s clothing. He is capable of shocking cruelty and violence, and his continual lying has devastating consequences.
On the rare occasions when he thinks of his past, what he describes seems inconsistent with earlier scenes. He speaks of having been obsessed with studying, for instance, and of starving himself, and of the violence of his father, whom we have seen treat him only lovingly. The name Bujar sometimes disappears for dozens of pages, and it can feel as though he has become a different character entirely, or that any stable identity has dissolved. (The recurring reference to folktales that Bujar heard as a child provides the only link to his past.) The result is not the kind of unreliability that the modern novel has accustomed us to but, rather, something close to a void of character: Bujar becomes a hollow man, the ghost he feels himself to be in the book’s first scene.
This presents a difficulty, since novels, even when recounted by unreliable narrators, typically depend on the continuity of consciousness provided by memory, the prime source for the production of subjectivity that has been central to the modern novel. But Statovci’s refusal of the satisfactions of character is central to the book’s larger concerns. “Crossing,” in its rejection of fixed notions of identity, has a kind of kinship with recent books by other young queer writers, among them Andrea Lawlor’s “Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl,” with its joyfully shape-shifting hero/ine, and Akwaeke Emezi’s “Freshwater,” which features a protagonist who moves between genders, inhabited by the spirits of West African myth. It’s tempting to read these books as a repudiation of the essentialist queer politics dominant in the past two decades in America and Western Europe, which have made a conception of inborn sexuality and gender identity the basis for civil-rights activism. In fact, the works belong to a rival queer tradition, in which identity is seen as fluid, performative, and even, sometimes, playful—the tradition of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” and of the darker work of Jean Genet.
I thought of Genet often as I read Statovci’s novel; Bujar, in his voluptuous lying and his disruption of others’ lives, rivals any of Genet’s outlaws. But a more helpful antecedent may be another queer criminal: Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. Late in Statovci’s novel, Bujar begins a relationship, in Helsinki, with a young trans woman, Tanja, a theology student from a wealthy family whom he meets in a gay bar. Bujar surprises himself by telling Tanja his real name and, eventually, a more or less true version of his past, offering us one of our only glimpses of his first years in Italy:
They decided when we ate and what we ate and when we had showers, and we were given strange people’s clothes to wear, shoes with someone else’s sweat in them, shirts yellowed at the armpits and trousers ripped at the crotch, and like prisoners we were allocated an area we were allowed to use, and the most laughable part of it is that, despite all this, I wanted nothing more than to be an Italian, I wished that by putting on their clothes I would change and become them, that the smell of the clothes I was given would become my scent, too, though all the while I hated them with all my heart.
This is Statovci’s writing at its best, longing and rage compressed in a single sentence at once sweepingly plangent and rooted in granular detail. Soon, Bujar and Tanja are living together. Tanja, unlike Statovci’s other characters, is tormented by her body—she doesn’t want to be touched or to be seen in public as a couple with Bujar. “She does everything like an Albanian wife,” Bujar says. He, in turn, adopts the gender stylings of his childhood, demanding that she consult him before spending large amounts of money, and insisting, despite her demurrals, on meeting her family. “I could say anything to her and always get the same answer, an apology and all the love that she has to give,” Bujar says.
As Tanja tells Bujar about the difficulties of transitioning, the bureaucratic hurdles and intrusive examinations, a curious transfer takes place. “Once she has told me her story, I feel as though I’ve been touched inappropriately, as though I, too, had been stripped of the basic right to exist and live the way I want to,” Bujar says. He begins to dress in Tanja’s clothes; he sits in on lectures at the university, prepared to tell anyone who asks that his name is Tanja. His appropriation of her identity helps us make sense of the inconsistencies between the two strands of his story: it was Agim who studied assiduously, who starved himself, who was beaten by his father. Like Tom Ripley, Highsmith’s talented impostor, Bujar has assumed the details of the life of a beloved.
At one point, Bujar auditions for a reality-television singing competition while wearing Tanja’s clothes. The judges cut him off seconds after he begins; when he’s told that he neither sings well nor has an interesting story, he blurts out, “I’m a trans woman,” and he quickly finds himself passing through round after round, despite his mediocre performances. In interviews for the show, he combines details of Tanja’s story with extravagant invention. One of the judges tells him, “You’re such a unique individual, the world needs more people like you.” Here, Statovci’s critique of identity politics takes a heavily satirical hand. Bujar consistently rejects collective identities, from the classification of refugees as “barbaric” to the liberal championing of minorities. But “Crossing” is equally ruthless in its critique of the heroic individualism implied by the reality show’s motto—“Share Your Story”—and by a creative-writing instructor’s admonition, earlier in the book, that “all writing stems from deep within. You can’t tell a story if you’re not being genuine.” Bujar has learned that the uniqueness of one’s life means nothing in the context of poverty, war, and indifference. Of the time after his arrival in Italy, Bujar says, “I waited and waited, a year, a second and third, for someone to see my uniqueness, but the authorities and social workers didn’t care for my plans and hopes, they scoffed at my dreams.”
Sometimes Bujar’s outlook reads as defiance in the face of bureaucratic categorization. “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,” he insists, as though every day were a festival of self-invention. But Bujar comes to realize that his refusal to be defined even by his own past condemns him to loneliness, making meaningful relationships impossible. “Crossing” arrives at a moment when many of us have grown suspicious of monolithic categories—gay, straight, Finnish, Albanian, man, woman—and have begun to recognize how inadequate such labels are to encompass the reality of individual lives. The novel memorably portrays the pain those labels can cause; it also suggests that we may not be able to live without them. ♦