Book of the month: Elvira Dones

My latest Book of the month came out of a conversation on Twitter in which I and a number of other people were asked for suggestions of books by women from rarely translated countries in south-east Europe. As usually happens in such situations, I learnt far more than I contributed. There were a number of fascinating suggestions, including the delightfully sour short story collection My Husband by Rumena Bužarovska, translated from the Macedonian by Paul Filev.

One title, however, got particularly enthusiastic recommendations: Sworn Virgin by the Albanian writer and documentary maker Elvira Dones, translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (and made into a film in 2015 – see the trailer above). These were further strengthened by the quote on the cover of the e-version I bought, an endorsement from Albania’s Nobel laureate-in-waiting, Ismail Kadare.

Drawing on a tradition still alive in the north of the country, where blood feuds sometimes wipe out a family’s men (a situation memorably depicted in Kadare’s Broken April), the novel follows one woman caught up in the consequences of this brutal situation as she attempts to reclaim her identity. After years of living as a sworn virgin – a status that grants a woman the rights and protections of a man in return for chastity so that they may take on the patriarchal role in a household devoid of men (explored in a series of striking portraits by photographer Jill Peters) – 35-year-old Hana/Mark leaves her small village for the suburbs of Washington DC. There, living with her sister Lila, she finally has the chance to shrug off the expectations and duties that have weighed on her and explore the femininity she has been forced to deny for so long.

The fact of the novel being built around Hana/Mark’s escape to the US makes it an excellent candidate for translation. As Hana is obliged to explain herself to those she becomes close to, the challenge of elucidating the little-known and complex tradition that has warped her adulthood is overcome relatively easily. Like so many of the most successful novels to travel around the world, the story acts as a bridge, connecting a lesser known culture (to Western minds at least) with more widely familiar, anglophone ways of looking at the world.

The insights that come from this are fascinating. This is particularly true of the book’s treatment of gender identity, which feels startlingly different to the conversations around gender fluidity that have become relatively familiar in the English-speaking world in recent years. Far from something she has embraced gladly, Hana’s male identity, Mark, is ‘a product of her iron will’. Her masculinity is something that she has worked at grimly and resolutely, drinking and smoking heavily and aping male behaviour until even male thought patterns are ingrained in her – ‘It must be a woman thing,’ she tells herself when Lila does something she can’t explain. In the face of such extreme self-denial, her faltering attempts to find her way into her own femininity and sexuality are as moving as they are painful.

The broader insights into rural Albanian society that come through Hana’s recollections are equally compelling. Against the backdrop of a rigid world in which women are ‘made to serve and have children’ and where the young Hana thought nothing of carrying a knife to protect herself from rape when she travelled alone, the decision to eschew your gender and don the mantle of masculinity for strategic reasons ceases to seem quite so strange.

Dones and Botsford’s greatest achievement is taking readers into the emotional implications of the novel’s extraordinary events, often while using language very sparingly. With reticence and silence playing a huge role in conservative Albanian society, words often have to be as muscular and ruthless as the people they describe. The best instances of this are extremely powerful. ‘There are wolves out there, my daughter. This place is full of wolves,’ Hana’s beloved and ailing Uncle Gjergj tells her when she proposes going to fetch the medicine he needs. They both know he is not talking about animals.

All that being said, there are problems with Sworn Virgin. Although elements of Hana’s journey are deeply engrossing, there are less successful parts that feel underdeveloped and thin. Her relationship with the patient American who sits next to her on the plane ride over, for example, never quite comes to life and feels more like a device needed to help demonstrate the protagonist’s progress than a living, true part of the book. Similarly, there are some stilted sections and conversations that appear sketched in rather than fully fleshed out.

As the title implies, Hana remains a representative of her unusual social group and never quite makes the transition to being a fully rounded character. This may be a deliberate choice and a reflection of the emotional stuntedness to which her situation has subjected her, but it could also reveal the difficulty that can come from letting a single issue sit too prominently in a narrative, to the point that characters’ actions become largely tools to explore and elucidate it rather than organic happenings.

As a result, this is a book that is probably more important than it is lovable. But it is nonetheless very much worth the price of admission. Brave, imaginative and thought-provoking, like the best of literature, this novel will require readers to reimagine not only a part of the world about which they may know very little but also their own assumptions.

Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones, translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (And Other Stories, 2015)

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