Finding Herselves

Charlotte Newman reviews Olja Knežević’s Catherine the Great and the Small (trans. Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać)

Olja Knežević,
Catherine the Great and Small.
Translated by Paula Gordon
and Ellen Elias-Bursać.
Istros Books, £10.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

The matryoshka doll smiling at you from the front cover makes perfect sense. Katarina, the almost-eponymous heroine of Olja Knežević’s Catherine the Great and the Small, contains multitudes; the trick will be slotting these comfortably into one another until there is a whole. The novel is Knežević’s first to be translated into English, thanks to the formidable duo of Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać, and the small — but great — team at Istros Books. Set in the former Yugoslavia on the cusp of — and later, during — Milošević’s rise to power, and leading up to the present day, this is a story of endurance and identity, of a woman, and of a nation. Trauma abounds, but there is also a wild turn of phrase here; poetry in spite of hardship.

Perhaps it is from the very start that Knežević issues a warning. The title advises the reader not to get too attached to any one version of Katarina. Other characters refer to her as Kaća and Katydid, and even Medena: just a few examples in a long list. She narrates the opening pages of the novel from the present, then proceeds to divide her life into two. Childhood friend Milica (also Mici), who dreams of stardom, tells her: “‘Every woman is split,’ … starting with my own mother. Tennessee Williams knew that and split one female character in two; he wrote them as sisters so the play would be understandable to a wider audience.” But if it’s true that an audience craves a simplification of self, they will not find it in Knežević’s Katarina.

The Catherine we meet in the first half of the novel is her child self. This Katarina is a child of the late seventies — it’s two years, in fact, before Tito’s death — and although she may be small, youth is all expanse, all potential and possibility. But it is also beset with danger and Katarina learns she has only vigilance in warding off sexual aggressions: “unprotected”, “bruised”, and “shot through” describe the physical and emotional experiences of this child verging on womanhood, in a country verging on war. Katarina’s story, at this stage, carries within it the divergent influences a young person faces while growing up between East and West in the late seventies and into the eighties. Patti Smith and Bruce Lee compete with dictators for linguistic and ideological space. They represent freedom of expression in a place where, before, “Philosophy lovers were rare, practically illegal” and “Communism was the crown of all philosophies”. Katarina and her friends belt out mistranslated Boney M lyrics (“Ra-Ra-Raspuchin, lava-rava-wash-machine”) and the acquisition of Levi jeans separates their reality from that of those who lived in the USSR. But psychological boundaries are not so easily defined and the spectre of war isn’t dead. Knežević is shrewd in the way she shows how this spectre warps the relationships between children and adults. “Guerillas and gendarmes”, a game played in Katarina’s neighbourhood, is referred to as “‘cops and robbers’ in front of the grown ups”, since children here are as attuned as any adult to the power of language. And when Katarina loses her mother, none other than her own Granny gives her short shrift, accustomed to the arbitrariness of death: “There you have it”, she says. “Your mother couldn’t bear living any longer.” Yet Granny, who will raise Katarina, is described as “Stalin in a skirt”: with humour undercutting tragedy, Knežević represents the fractured way humans cope with violence.

One aspect of Katarina’s coping strategy is to assimilate traumatic events into a worldview informed by fairy tales. Like Katarina herself, we receive only snapshots of her mother, Sanja: painterly dabs of colourful skirts, jewellery, art. Katarina tells us that Sanja had constructed a gypsy idea of who she wanted to be, and then was gone. “Until then”, she says of her mother’s sudden absence, “death had been part of the fairy tales I read where mothers die at the beginning of the story, and nothing is explained. Then the stepmother enters the life of the heroine, and no words are wasted on the death of the mother. The mother dies in childbirth, and that’s that, on with the story.” So far, so in-keeping with the tropes of fairy tales, and yet, for me, Katarina’s frankness feels distinctly regional rather than universal — a quality of character that could only have come out of a real place at a real time.

Knežević, born in Montenegro and now living in Croatia, is an emerging titan of Balkan literature. In 2019, Catherine the Great and Small won her an award for best novel written in the Croatian, Montenegrian, Serbian, or Bosnian language. This followed Amnesty International’s recognition of her short stories, and Birkbeck’s awarding of her dissertation (which would feed into her first novel). Knežević’s literary achievements stand alongside her humanitarian work, which she undertook during the Balkan War. With the fallout of that catastrophe bleeding onto the page, it is perhaps unsurprising that the characters in Catherine seek escape, and that drugs offer it. Beautiful Milica, poster girl for the hopes of a country, is devastated by their effects. In one passage glowing with lyricism, ‘Mici’ explains why, of the two young women, only Katarina is built for survival: “You’re a mermaid, but not me. I dive deep and I find only more darkness, a bottomless darkness, and that’s what I’m telling you about, but how can you understand me when you come to the surface with that ball of light cupped in your palms?”

That Milica and Katerina grew up together deeply saddens the fantasy here, and returns to mind the fairy tales and childhood games alluded to earlier. Whatever the validity of Milica’s theory, Katarina’s light is not so easily accessible as she navigates a trail of constant loss. The girl once described as “honey” spirals into her own harmful depths, facilitated, once again, by a ubiquitous trade in drugs — one from which she both suffers and profits. But surely such self-abuse is the result of a painful reality, one that persecutes and imprisons, for, as Milica says, “If we look more closely, [even] Coca-Cola becomes a trigger if a person’s susceptible.”

And it’s true that each character here does become increasingly vulnerable to their scarred surroundings, although, over time, what develops is a rhetoric of exile. In the second half of the novel, Katarina has become Catherine the Great, a persona cultivated by Milica, with the instruction that she should also be “great like a fortress” and thus invulnerable. Yet the older Katarina’s life has shrunken under the burden of grief, as various backdrops for her experiences — London, Belgrade, Podgorica — have each of them brought loss, be it of people or place. Examining the political in Catherine always loops back to the personal. Throughout the novel, Katarina, like so many women — fictional and otherwise — is required to be many things to many people. The tension arises as she attempts to mould her layered identity on shifting, Balkan plates, and furthermore when she relocates it. The only constant is her Empress crown.

During her time in London, where she attempts to balance the demands of work, children, and her estranged husband, her homeland returns to her in rich sensory detail. This return, however, does not cloud her vision, as she is aware of the contradiction of her yearning even within the first few pages: “yes, I even say home sweet home to myself”. Home is rife with instability, stifling heat, and the “Bad Guys” of her childhood who have become very real, very violent threats in adulthood. Nonetheless, she longs for it. Nonetheless, she feels cast adrift. Something similar was quite literally the case for Knežević, who, during the 1990s, operated as a journalist, as well as an editor and an interpreter, aboard a radio ship in international waters. While not wishing to too closely braid the author’s own life with Katarina’s, I find it impossible to overlook the novel’s depiction of some lived experiences. The first-person narrative reads like memoir, even if — or perhaps especially because — the character must assume as many roles as her creator has done.

It’s here where the book’s power lies, in the search for self among the debris of a splintering homeland, the demands of motherhood and pain of mourning. How to embark on this search, when you face attempts on your life in the streets and character assassination in your marital home? It is Katarina’s perennial first love, Siniša, who offers a balm: Siniša who, earlier in their relationship, angelicised Katarina and, in spite of dubious efforts “to trick his brain into seeing [me] as damaged enough”, was unable to “go all the way”. This warped attitude heralds betrayal, though sexual appetite is not necessarily what drives it. Ironically, or perhaps essentially, it is sex that also saves Katarina and Siniša. Their bodies are in harmony, with the pull of the sea, with each other, and it is in this sensual world that Katarina is able to heal. In Catherine the Great and Small, sexuality has the potential to liberate the individual, but it can imprison, too. We see this both in doomed beauty Milica and in Katarina’s own trajectory. Siniša points out that Katarina’s husband, Vuksan, sees only her “physical beauty, a trophy from home”. That sexuality can be so problematic in the novel makes Katarina’s daughter’s decision to embrace hers all the more rejoiceful. It might be only a series of moments, and only through a fissured lens that our heroine is able to thrive, but even if hers is a scattered happiness, it is happiness nonetheless.

For me, the incident that most strongly highlights Katarina’s hidden strength is her speech to camera following an explosion which means, to one resident of Podgorica, that “Summer has officially started.” When a news reporter asks Katarina how she would “clean” the streets of bloodied deeds, she responds with an insight that surprises even herself:

“Like cleaning a fish,” I start, then stop. I don’t know exactly — I’m not one hundred per cent sure if you clean a fish from the head down like I was thinking. I am so angry and I don’t know how to use the metaphor of a fish to express it and in my anger I’m being careful not to make a mistake, so I just stamp the pavement with my heel and spit. I spit! The camera crew is caught off guard as much by this as I am. My appearance had led them to think I was much more respectable. A freshly blow-dried middle-aged woman.

As ever, the slippery nature of language cannot assure Katerina that what she is speaking is truth. Instead, she relies on her body, while subverting others’ expectations of it. This is typical of the protagonist, who is a mother, but also a lover, once a best friend, now the subject of a piece of footage that goes viral and gets under her husband’s skin — her husband Vuksan, the man who will not grant his family space to breathe.

There is a host of flawed, witty, sympathetic and problematic characters in this novel, many of them residing within Katarina herself, though it is not only she who is fractured. In the English language edition of the novel, the afterword lists the various names which the different characters go by; everyone from Milica to Granny to Podgorica itself (formerly Titograd) to Aunt Sandra, who, when introduced to Katarina’s children, inveigles them to call her “Grandma” — “They don’t, they call her Auntie” — everyone has at least one nickname. Or almost everyone. There is the exception of Milica’s brother, Radoš, “who is always Radoš”, and whose immutability, as the reader will discover, is not a positive thing. There are times in the novel when these other voices make themselves heard through Katarina’s own mouth, with Granny’s idiosyncratic “Mm hmm, miscreant” being only the first example. Ultimately, though, a plurality of names aside, Katarina remains herself.

And she is not just Great and Small; much exists between those two extremes. Perhaps that is precisely Knežević’s point. Katarina’s experiences have been extreme, but a person’s inner world is more varied, variegated. Whatever life throws at her, Katarina determines to live authentically, even if authenticity is a mixed bag. Maybe then, the author has tracked Tennessee Williams’ footsteps more closely than is first apparent — at least, stylistically so — in providing us with a protagonist whose story is split down the middle. Yet, in spite of this schism, Katarina wants urgently to survive, and with this want she empowers herself to withstand the break.