Pajtim Statovci’s second novel Crossing, translated from the Finnish by David Hackston, follows the story of Bujar – “a man who cannot be a woman but who can sometimes look like a woman” – as he leaves the turbulent post-communist Albania and moves from one country to another, assuming a new identity every time he crosses a border. Ashamed of his background and pushed by a desire to “wipe [his] past away like a smudge of dirt from a shoe,” Bujar moves across nationalities and genders, becoming a Bosnian student in Berlin, a Spanish actor in New York, or a Turkish singer in Helsinki. Haunting and original, Crossing is an evocative exploration of loneliness, belonging, and the boundaries of self-invention.
Bujar learns the storytelling craft from his father – “a liar, just like all storytellers” – whose favourite are long Albanian folk tales, related throughout the book with often more attention than is given to the multinational settings. Details, Bujar realises, are what can turn a good tale into a brilliant one: “the sound of the hoarse, the colors, the dust on Konstandini’s metallic armor.” This is how he approaches inventing the narratives around his multitude of lives, too:
It would feel almost absurd to question the authenticity of a story so emotional and vivid – the fog like rose petals, the rattling soda machine – and, as Bujar finds, few people ever do. As long as the lie is convincing, he can be whoever he pleases.
Although Bujar talks about his identities being a superficial copy of life, “a lie that must be created from nothing,” they always stem from something – as much as he wishes to become an entirely new creation, unburdened by past experiences, his identities blend reality and fiction. His suicide attempt in Rome creeps into the new narratives, as if to reflect his constant thoughts about death and dying: it is the only factual thing that he says about himself as twenty-three-year-old Ariana studying in Berlin; in New York City, he claims to have starred in an Italian film about life after a suicide attempt.
And at times, he steals the reality of other people. Inventing himself is not just about a different name and backstory – “I decided to create new hopes and dreams,” he states after receiving the right to remain in Italy. In Helsinki, he starts a relationship with Tanja, a shy transgender woman who dreams of being a singer, and he uses her identity to enter a singing competition – from her name and clothes to her experiences as a trans woman in Finland. This is also the moment when the narrative turns almost into social satire: Bujar enters an environment that rewards his pathological lies, where the programme producers care less about the contestants showing vocal talent than about them having a good backstory – whether it is real or not.
This idea of being “real” is something that returns throughout the book – what is a real identity, and why does it have to be set in stone, permanently attached to a single gender or to the place we were born in? You can, according to Bujar, practise “telling lies in such a way that it’s not lying at all. It’s just a way of being.” When Tanja tells Bujar about her hormone treatment, he wonders, “Why can’t you simply decide to be a man or a woman by wearing men’s or women’s clothing? . . . Why can’t everybody present themselves the way they want to?” – seemingly baffled at the prospect of anyone going to great lengths to change their body when you can simply bring a new one into existence by telling a believable story. After all, people are “eager to construct,” easily assigning roles without asking any more questions beyond what they see as basic facts – Where do you come from? Are you a man or a woman? And to Bujar, facts can be moulded, too – your desire to be impacts your being, your shoulders can broaden, your feet can shrink. At times, he appears to be testing the boundaries of his creations: as Ariana, for instance, he goes home with a man he had just met and is violently attacked when his biological sex is discovered.
Crossing takes place in many settings and touches on weighty topics without space to flesh them out – homelessness, suicide, and transphobia to name a few – and it is quite impressive that the narrative feels detailed and complete nonetheless, centring on Bujar’s development. The reader might not learn much about New York City, but will know how New York City makes Bujar feel. (Like he can achieve anything and be anyone if he works hard enough – or not, because success, as he soon realises, is often a mix of coincidence and privilege, and there are a hundred failures for every success story.) A rich, captivating, and beautifully written novel.
Crossing by Pajtim Statovci is translated by David Hackston and published in the UK by Pushkin Press on 2 May 2019.
PhD Researcher at the University of Stirling, examining the past five decades of Scottish publishing in collaboration with HarperCollins and Publishing Scotland. Graduated with an MSc in Publishing from Edinburgh Napier University and a BA in English from Queen’s University (Canada). Loves Inside Llewyn Davis, Peter Gabriel, and flat design.