At the heart of this assured and subtle novel is a mystery about identity – that of the protagonist and more broadly that of each of us, as queer people, straight people, Europeans and non-Europeans, as immigrants and as indigenous people.
Following the lives of two queer Albanians as they escape their home country to make new lives for themselves in the West, the first impression is that the novel is told from the first-person point of view of Bujar, who relates two parallel narrative threads: one tracing past events in Tirana as he and best friend Agim grow up and then start to plan their escape; the other following our narrator as he travels to Rome, Madrid, New York and Helsinki. Doubt begins to creep in, however, about the true identity of our narrator. In the very first chapter – an extract from which is published alongside this review – we find the narrator dissembling:
‘I am a man who cannot be a woman but who can sometimes look like a woman. This is my greatest quality, the game of dress up that I can start and stop whenever it suits me.’
This same narrator offers each new person he meets in the West a different account of where he comes from, who he is. Sometimes he’s Italian; sometimes Spanish, and once, Turkish. He’s an actor, a student, a singer. Most importantly, sometimes he presents as a woman, sometimes as a man.
Back in Tirana, however, it is Agim, not Bujar, who has the talent for assuming new identities, who, for example, takes the lead when the pair claim to be related to a powerful gangster in order to buy a boat to cross the Adriatic. And it is Agim who, from an early age, presents as female. Does the fact that in the present day the narrator isn’t named suggest that it is Agim and not Bujar who is telling us this part of the tale?
Throughout Crossing identity is fluid. In the Albanian folktales Bujar’s father tells him, changes of persona are key – life is a series of transitions. In Finland, our narrator – is it Bujar? Is it Agim? – meets Tanja, who is transitioning from male to female, and hearing her story he ponders to himself:
‘Why can’t you simply decide to be a man or woman by wearing men’s or women’s clothing? … Why can’t everybody present themselves the way they want to? If I want to use a woman’s name or a foreign name, I can simply say so and nobody will ask me to prove why.’
But back in Tirana, Agim claims he wears his mother’s clothes not to assume an identity, but because he is female, not male. This experience is different from our narrator’s, who is clear his queerness lies in his mutability – not just in terms of gender but in terms of nationality, of his origins. Is this difference the key to our narrator’s true identity?
What we realise as the novel progresses is that we never see Bujar and Agim together after their departure from Albania, and that in this moment – the ‘crossing’ of the title – we will find the solution to the book’s central mystery.
However, we are not offered any trite ‘solution’ to the wider debate about gender identity. Instead Crossing deepens and broadens the discussion, perhaps suggesting that there is no issue to be solved, and doing so in an intelligent and moving way.
Reviewed by West Camel
Written by Pajtim Statovci
Translated by David Hackston
Published by Pushkin Press (2019)
Read an excerpt from Crossing here.
Read The Queer Riveter in its entirety here.
West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. His debut novel, Attend, is out now. www.westcamel.net.
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