'Catherine the Great and the Small', by Olja Knežević. Translated by Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać (published by Istros Books)
The novel is divided into two parts, both narrated by Katarina (often known as Kaća) in her inimitable voice. In the first part she is a teenager, growing up in the city of Podgorica (then known at Titograd) the capital of Montenegro. After leaving school, she goes on to study economics at the University of Belgrade. There are two other important characters in these turbulent years: a boyfriend Staniša and her closest girlfriend, Milica. But this is no ordinary tale neither of young love and loyal friendship nor of academic success (though these are part of the story).
In the 1980s, the country then known as Yugoslavia is under great pressure. The leading politicians are sowing deep fractures with nationalistic speeches, stirring antipathies among its different nationalities, ethnicities and religions. Olja Knežević shows how this fragmentation of society reaches into the lives and psyches of individuals, how the pressure can break them down and pull them apart. Our main characters struggle with life in Belgrade, a city with a vast basement of illegal trafficking and violent crime. Though there are tragedies, the story is far from negative or dismal. You empathise with the characters, the writing delicately balances irony with pain, it is fast-paced, and rich in metaphor and emotional highs and lows, a roller-coaster that keeps you gripped, never knowing what will happen next. This is one of the greatest gifts of this book – the rich language and the juxtaposition of highs and hopes with fears and failures.
After passing her exams in Belgrade, Katarina moves back to Podgorica and tries to forge a life and career for herself and put her friend Milica back together, pitting her hopes against the worsening situation of Yugoslavia (and we know from history what will happen). 'My peace in the world was there on the [film] set. Peace on earth did not enter the picture, that mudslide was on the move somewhere beyond the mountains, far away from me.'
The second part of the book takes place several years later, after the war in former Yugoslavia. Katarina has moved to London, with husband and three children. She returns for a holiday to Podgorica (escaping from her husband, brilliantly portrayed as awash with negativity and criticism, blaming her for everything he sees as wrong).
She meets up with old friends in Podgorica (including her first love, Staniša, who had betrayed her, or so she thought, in Belgrade). But remember that you never know what is going to happen next in this story, so you follow the twists and turns of events, holding your breath almost, for we're back on the Delight and Disappointment Carousel. The political situation in now independent Montenegro is mercilessly exposed – the running of the country is oiled smoothly by corruption and cronyism – in this tiny country everyone knows what others are up to and an old friend, now a high Government official is 'False Radoš of the false empire, hidden behind his pot belly as if behind a shield'. But her friend Enisa has a hairdresser's salon which provides rituals of renewal, and a meeting place for group therapy and parties.
The turmoil of the dismemberment of their country and of their own lives has given psychological insight to some, as Staniša says of people like Katarina's husband: 'Grace is weakness, they think. Or a sort of disability'. But others cling on to their fears and prejudices and 'are afraid of the possible transformation of any woman. They experience it as a disturbance of cosmic equilibrium'.
There are some gorgeous descriptions of the Montenegrin countryside, the scent of grape vines 'with a fragrance so piercing, smelling of sugar on the verge of ferment. Pine needles and wild plums, beaten down by the crazy sun; on the chapped earth, crushed mulberries; next to them, dusty plastic shoes'.
And when Katarina returns to her home town she senses that 'untold stories were waiting for me. They loitered, lounging against walls at the end of dead-end streets or stretched across the ground like the elongated shadows of people smoking, remembering, counting their remaining days and hours'. And stories certainly emerge, revelations from the past that had been buried for years, sometimes for generations, and they piece together some of the oddities and fragments of personal and social histories, make sense of betrayals, absences, deaths.
The splendid language of this novel is skilfully and vividly translated, and the narrative is compelling. What is also striking is the portrayal of the characters with all their flaws and foibles (and who gain our sympathy perhaps particularly because of them). This inclusiveness of vision towards both characters and places – without judgement, rejecting nothing – is a special quality. It is the viewpoint of our greatest organ of perception, the heart, a territory that Olja Knežević knows well and has made her own.
Photo at top of Milenium Most (Bridge), Podgorica, by Morelle Smith