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)

Albania: fire power

You’d be hard-pushed to get through a Creative Writing master’s course these days without some bright spark reminding you of the old Raymond Chandler advice for livening up lacklustre stories: ‘When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.’

Usually it crops up when you and the whole room know you’ve written a terrible, dreary scene in which nothing happens and from which all the linguistic flair and literary elegance you thought you’d slathered it in at 2am that morning have evaporated overnight.

As a result, the phrase has somewhat negative connotations for me (and I suspect for a lot of aspiring novelists). But if I ever needed a demonstration of its truth (well, the gun part, at least), the brutal and brilliant opening of Ismail Kadare’s Broken April provides it in spades.

I was already excited about reading Kadare, having had several book fans rave about him to me when I was preparing for this project. Still, nothing could have prepared me for the tense magnificence of the opening chapter as young Gjorg Berisha lies in the scrub, looking down the sights of his rifle, waiting for the arrival of the man he is obliged to kill even though doing so will bring the same vengeance upon him.

His plight arises from an elaborate honour code, dictated by the ancient Kanun laws, which sees many of the mountain families of this remote part of Albania locked in blood feuds, watching their young men pick each other off and paying the blood tax on each death to the region’s prince while their lands lie fallow and their communities perish.

Into this mysterious and cruel world, comes the writer Bessian and his new wife Diana, eager to experience something rare and untested for their honeymoon by ‘escaping the world of reality for the world of legend… the world of epic that scarcely exists anymore’.

As the couple travels around the region, with Bessian discoursing on the local customs and curiosities that he has read about, and as Gjorg discharges his duty and embarks on the 30-day truce that will spare his life until the middle of April, their paths cross, setting in motion events which means that none of them will be the same again.

As with all great writers, Kadare presents the contrasting perspectives of his cast of characters in a rounded and compelling fashion. What sets him apart is his ability to make us see how it would be impossible for them to be any other way.

We feel with them even as we shake our heads at their inconsistencies and blindness, the way they forge ahead with their mistakes all the while cursing the cruelty of their lots. We see Bessian’s pomposity and inhumanity as he expounds on the absurd, yet terrifying beauty of the mountain people’s rules and codes, but sympathise with his incomprehension of Diana’s coldness. We stumble with Gjorg under the burden that has been handed down through 70 years of bloodshed, all the while wishing he would run away yet recognising the ties that bind him.

This, coupled with spare, vivid prose and an unfailing eye for the tiny shifts that precipitate an emotional landslide, puts Kadare up there with the very best. Killer.

Broken April by Ismail Kadare (translated from the Albanian by New Amsterdam Books and Saqi Books). Publisher (Kindle edition): Vintage Digital