CROSSING. By Pajtim Statovci. Pantheon. 257 pages. $26.
There are novels that you read because they entertain you, and there are novels that you read because the prose commands you to do so. Pajtim Statovci’s sophomore novel “Crossing” falls in the later category. Statovci proves adept at navigating the quagmire of sexual and national identity in a post-Soviet and war-torn Albania.
Statovci is noticeably absent from his own writing, which for a novel largely about storytelling is fitting. Instead, he lends his pen to the mouth of Bujar, an Albanian refugee who has countless stories to tell. Bujar begins his tale as an adult living in Rome, musing on his own death, but swiftly sweeps his listeners into his own past, plunging into a world of civil unrest, illness, folk tales and first love.
Despite the novel's light page count and simple vernacular, “Crossing” is anything but an easy beach read. In fact, it is a difficult book to categorize with a single phrase or in a particular genre. It is not simply a refugee novel, it is not simply a queer novel and it is far from just a novel of self-identity. To call it by any of these names would not be incorrect, but one alone could never do its complex themes justice.
The novel itself crosses two different timelines throughout Bujar’s life allowing for two wholly separate character developments of the same protagonist. The first is Bujar’s development as a teen grappling with his homosexual desires for his best friend, Agim, while trying to hold on to a national heritage that turns its back upon such things. The second is the story of Bujar navigating life as a non-binary, pan-sexual young adult refugee hopping across European metropoli in search of new identities and safety.
Statovci deserves a great amount of credit for his ability to maintain such palpable emotional impact through his unique writing style. He never falters from reminding us that we are not readers but listeners; “Crossing” is not Statovci’s novel, but Bujar’s story.
The entire novel is written in the first person, present tense. Bujar explains things as they happen, thoughts as they come and tragedies as he processes them. Through this unique style of writing Statovci aptly captures the spirit of folklore that runs so heavily through the veins of “Crossing.”
Although the novel relies heavily on the use of Albanian folklore to help flesh out the relationships in the novel, Statovci does not assume the reader is familiar with any of it. Bujar will take breaks in his narratives to tell us the story he is referring to. The mastery with which these interjections are included heightens the novel's impact. Each interjection is purposeful in placement and serves only to strengthen the pathos that the corresponding events have already planted.
“Crossing” is a gritty, gut-wrenching and heartbreaking read. It’s a novel about how the stories we tell define us. Statovci’s traditional mode of storytelling reminds us that our history is only as real as the stories we pass along.