Sunday, 2 March 2014

'Ekaterini' by Marija Knežević (Review)

It's time for another offering from a small publisher dealing with literature in translation, and today's book comes courtesy of Istros Books.  While based in the UK, their heart is very much in the Balkans, with today's review looking at a very typical choice.  It's a tale of two countries - and one woman...

Marija Knežević's Ekaterini (translated by Will Firth, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) is the story of a life both ordinary and extraordinary.  While the tale is told by a young narrator, the undisputed star is her grandmother, Ekaterini.  Born in Greece, but spending most of her adult life in Yugoslavia (then Serbia), she is a woman caught between two related, but different, worlds.

The story is structured so that we follow her life and the events of much of the twentieth century.  Starting in Greece with Ekaterini's parents' courtship, the novel gradually introduces both sides of the narrator's family, merging the Greek and Serbian strands until we finish up with the birth (and life) of the grand-daughter.  Despite this, we're never in any doubt that it's really Ekaterini's story.

Ekaterini is a personal tale set against the history of twentieth-century Yugoslavia, from the second world war to the Balkan conflicts.  By observing the Greek woman's struggles to keep her head above water, the reader bears witness to the hardships of wartime, the greyness of the Communist era and the dangers of dealing with the secret police.  As a skilled seamstress, our heroine has access to some powerful people (or their wives, anyway) - at one point, even Tito crosses the stage ;)

As much as the book is about history though, it's also about nostalgia and the difficulties of leaving your home behind.  Ekaterini's marriage takes her away from Greece, and she struggles to adjust to life away from home - and, of course, the problems of a new language:
"That's why she so readily became melancholic whenever she heard Greek songs, even if she didn't understand all the words, or when she listened in on Greek students in the bus - not because their relationship problems interested her but because of the words; she longed to hear those words and their sound, their melody, as she used to say.  Language is pure longing.  Our first and final love, although we only discover it through its lack."
(Istros Books, 2013)
The longer she stays in Serbia, the more serious her confusion becomes.  Having forgotten a lot of Greek, and never having mastered Serbian, she becomes trapped in a linguistic limbo, belonging neither here nor there...

It's not just the language she misses though - there's also the small matter of food, films and songs (Ekaterini can get very emotional about Greek music).  Even smells can evoke the memories of her home country:
"She taught Lucija and Ljubica not to throw away the peels but to lay them on the top plate of the stove.  The walls greedily imbibed the aroma.  The beauty of the south lies also in the unforgettable.  Once scented with the orange and yellow peel, the house remembered that smell forever."
The citrus fruit she brings back from her holidays helps maintain a small feeling of Greece in her small corner of Serbia...

Don't be fooled into thinking that Ekaterini is a depressing book though.  The old woman eventually manages to straddle the divide between the two countries, and by the end of the book, we have a woman who radiates calm, enjoying her split personality.  It's an attitude she passes on to her grand-daughter, who also manages to accept life as it is (in a way Ekaterini's daughter can't).  The contrast with the insular American friend who comes to visit Greece at the end of the novel is certainly a striking one.

Ekaterini consists of short scenes, brief snapshots which the reader glimpses before moving on.  In its style of skipping over sadness, it's reminiscent of another short European book I've read recently, Chasing the Queen of Hearts.  In both books, the tragedy of war(s) is evident but glossed over, and the stories of hardship are crisp and factual, told with little wailing.  Like its Polish counterpart, Ekaterini is also a novel where the women are very much in the spotlight - the men here mostly play supporting roles:
"We had protected that moment in its glory, uniqueness and eternal memory from the invasion of pathos which swooped down on our nomadic lives in various formations, sometimes even with the best intentions.  That bond remained and was ours alone..."
This special bond between Ekaterini and her grand-daughter is perhaps what the writer wants to leave us with at the end of her story.
It's a simple story, touching at times, but while I enjoyed it, I did have some reservations.  It's a touch too simple in places, and with little plot, I found myself wishing for a more complex style of writing which simply wasn't there.  The prose was very plain, and sandwiched between George Eliot's Romola and Andrés Neuman's new book Talking to Ourselves (the books I read immediately before and after this one), Ekaterini didn't really come off that well.  It's a book which will provide an enjoyable couple of hours - I'm just not sure that it will linger in the memory for that long.

It is a pleasant read though, one which becomes more interesting as it progresses, and as an ex-pat myself, I identify with Ekaterini and her grand-daughter in their efforts to cope with life between two cultures (well, except for the heavy smoking...).  It's hard to balance life between old and new homes, and (from personal experience) I know that it's a struggle which will never go away.  As they say, there's no place like home - unless, of course, you have two...