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Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Ekaterini - Marija Knezevic

From that day on, I began to notice that people in difficult situations express themselves exclusively in monologues. Trapped in the conviction that they have to have their own opinion, stance and judgement, they don’t notice that it makes things even worse for them; they don’t hear the others.

I generally don’t open my reviews with quotes from the novels but this one is such a wonderful observation that I couldn’t help but open with a bang. This book is littered with an amazing array of these observations.

The back cover of Marija Knezevic’s “Ekaterini” informs us that “while written in homage to the ancient story of Odysseus this remarkable novel sees the roles reversed, so that it is a modern Penelope who must travel and suffer in search of her homeland”. Our heroine here is Ekaterini, the grandmother of our narrator (who is nameless but is referred to once as Marilyn, after Marilyn Monroe), who spends the majority of her life in wartime and planning to go home. Greek by birth she marries an immigrant worker and follows him to Belgrade, there she witnesses the collapse of Yugoslavia, the last Balkan war, the Kosovo crisis and the bombing of Belgrade”  as well as losing her husband. A single mother raising two daughters this is a rare gem whereby the female characters aren’t shaped or moulded, nor put into the shadows of their male counterparts, they are the lead here. A truly female novel (and they are rare to find, at one stage I did recall Carol Shields’ “unless” an unashamedly feminist novel, but here a more subtle example);

The lives of women, if we accept that ever more dubious biological dichotomy, are still little explored. In literature, as well as in psychology and other disciplines largely informed by literature, women are viewed, described and analysed either by men or in relation to men. Female communities remain unchartered, although much happens in them, perhaps more than in the vertical postulates of father-son and child-father-mother. Female stories are more like overlapping circles on a horizontal, very flat surface, and sometimes they overlap. That flat, flat, flatness’ is all I remember from the poem ‘Three Women’ by Sylvia Plath. Details of the kind that the menstrual cycles of women who live together synchronise over time are not insignificant. Women build a zone of understanding among themselves, which is naturally inaccessible to others, while at the same time constantly vying with each other, and only in such communities do people discover the significance of the inviolability of personal space. A woman who once gets to know her own territory with never relinquish it and will defend it at all costs from everyone, even from her own children. Sometimes even to her own detriment.

Here we have a novel with the men merely the shadows, but of course the ones who have dictated the course of the women’s history. Ekaterini, her daughter and her daughter (Ekaterini’s grandchild and the narrator) are the stories here, from different lands, different languages and cultures they explore and interact, struggle and survive in a harsh world, one that is being destroyed and moulded by men.

As per a number of novels that I have reviewed over the years we do have the constant struggle with identity, the inability to find somewhere that we truly call home, the displacement etc. but unlike a large number this novel manages to perfectly articulate that struggle. Ekaterini’s journey (like Odysseus) to finally return to Greece, there is no Trojan Horse (or is there with a stalemate at the border) but we do have a peaceful settlement.

Another novel which explores the eternal existentialist angst, the wars are going on all around, the bombs are dropping, the fear is real, but the battle to know oneself, to understand one’s existence and meaning is a battle that continues throughout this novel.

Our first and very major limitation is that we don’t know what it is like to be born. Form that very first moment on, we depend on other people’s versions and we have no way of learning the truth. Everyone talks about how they felt;  no one even thinks that we might have felt something at the time too, let alone what, although we were the cause of all those manifestations of happiness, excitement, fear, inebriation and sobering-up because of the birth of a child.

Marija Knezevic has published fourteen books of poetry, fiction and essays and has won the Dura Jaksic Award for her poetry collection ‘In tactum” and her poetic language shines through here, obviously giving the translator, Will Firth, a decent challenge. There were a few times where I did have to reread a sentence or two, maybe not the translator’s fault, just my ignorance of nuance.

The world is sometimes beautiful, but language is always a miracle. ‘I know that you miss here most: jokes in your own language,’ an American friend said. It’s a widely held belief that when we live in a different place for a long time the ‘here’ and the ‘there’ converge almost to the point of overlapping. Real bonds are those between two abstractions. Ekaterini’s daughters teased her for forgetting Greek and never learning Serbian properly. I was horrible and told her on a completely different occasion that she spoke like the Serbian-Greek comedy figure Kir Janja, but she didn’t get angry. She took these comments as if they didn’t relate to her at all, as if they were beyond her and from a totally different plane. She knew that no one could fathom the mystery of language; and she knew that she didn’t know, which is a significant realisation. That’s why she so readily became melancholic whenever she heard Greek songs, even if she didn’t understand all of the words; she longed to hear those words and their sound, their melody, as she used to say. Language is pure longing. Our first and final love, although we only discover it through its lack.

A worthwhile novel to hunt down, again you’d be supporting an independent publisher and exploring the little exposed Balkan literature, an area I’ve wifely enjoyed through Istros Books.

My copy was courtesy of the publisher.

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