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‘We are not the space we live in’ [book review]

A review of Catherine the Great and the Small by Olja Knežević, translated from the Croatian by Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać

I learned briefly about Catherine the Great at school. Eighteenth-century empress, Russia’s longest-serving female ruler: modern, enlightened, feminist – or at least what passed for such things at the time. Change comes to all of us, though – countries, people, movements, ideologies – an incontrovertible fact that is at the very heart of Olja Knežević’s newly translated novel, a book that has given me not only a new Catherine, but one even greater than before.

Olja Knezevic Catherine the Great and the Small

Catherine the Great and the Small is one of those instantly gripping reads that relies on the voice of its narrator for its sustained and immersive power. Tough, prickly and utterly engaging, it’s a challenge not to fall for Katarina right from the opening pages, as she begins the recounting of a story that will lead us from her childhood right through into middle age. Along the way we encounter tragedy – the early death of her mother is just one of many losses – and moments of pure comedy, triumphs both personal and professional, and difficult decisions that sometimes result in heartbreak. Throughout it all, her voice remains essentially the same: straightforward, empathetic and unapologetic, the kind of woman who tells it exactly like it is. She isn’t without her faults, our Catherine, but she knows what they are (or at least tries to) and doesn’t refuse to acknowledge her fears or emotions. However uncomfortable the episode, she wants us to know everything – one of the crucial ingredients of fine storytelling. In fact, so engaging is her story that it was hard sometimes to remember it wasn’t real.

Of course, many elements of Catherine the Great and the Small are real, set as the novel is against an all-too-genuine historic backdrop. For anyone unfamiliar with the small Eastern European country of Montenegro (and I will be the first to put my hand up and admit that this is me), this is a crash course in recent history, from the late 1970s – when it was still part of Yugoslavia – right up to almost the present day. Political scheming, drug barons, violence on the streets – it all comes into the novel, providing the background to and often unwarranted effects on Katarina’s life. Despite the fact that she often ridicules or despairs of her country, even going so far as to leave it for a new life in first Belgrade and then London, Montenegro is an integral part of Katarina, the place she will always refer to as ‘home’.

For me, this was one of the most winning aspects of the novel: its ability to so perfectly capture the messy, sometimes damaging, often poignant relationship between exiles and their home countries. At one point, towards the end of the book, I was struck by the almost offhand comment that ‘we are not the space we live in’, a statement so casually made and yet so entirely true that it made me stop reading to think. Especially pertinent to exiles, who will always be more than the country they live in, it is something that is true of all of us – rather than being merely a product of the spaces we inhabit, we are made by our history and what we carry within us. Looked at as a whole, Catherine the Great and the Small is a perfect illustration of this perhaps obvious but still meaningful concept.

Montenegro, it has to be said, is not always painted in the most charming light in this novel, but I felt a genuine affection for it seeping out of the pages and, perhaps strangely, immediately wanted to visit it. Though not given to long-winded descriptions of beautiful landscape, Knežević (who grew up in Montenegro and California but now lives in Croatia) captures the country of her birth in judiciously placed and evocative images: stone bridges and roadside dogs, the bright colours of a beach towel, overripe fruit orchards and the pungent smell of pine trees that seems to imbue the entire novel. Montenegro is always slightly wild and disorderly, especially when seen through the eyes of Katarina’s London-born children, but it is composed of a series of intimate details that make it come alive. As is said of it at one point: ‘Nothing is tended here . . . Only what grew all by itself and survived’ exists. It is a country, I sensed, that requires toughness to live in – and that applies not just to the plants, but also to the people.

Katarina is without a doubt a tough woman, possessed of a strength of mind and courageous disposition that she herself seems largely unaware of. ‘We thought we were tigers’, she says at one point of the younger versions of herself and her best friend Milica, implying that, of course, they were not; yet I found this to be exactly what Katarina, her beloved grandmother, her aunts and friends are. It’s a characteristic shared by most of the female figures in the novel, who almost to a woman have to deal with varying degrees of incompetence from the men surrounding them. Sometimes this is more minor – the ‘domestic wasteland’ created by a layabout, work-obsessed or alcoholic husband – and sometimes explodes into far more damaging instances of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. There’s some difficult material in this novel, some of it explored in a chippy, almost offhand way that makes it all the more devastating. The women, however (with a few notable exceptions) possess such hidden reserves of strength that they invariably come out on top.

This is a novel about women, but it isn’t in any danger of straying into fuzzy, feel-good territory. The real world is too close for that, too sharp and raw, and both pain and anger are threaded tightly into Knežević’s writing. At times the imagery used might be a little obvious, the reader given slightly less credit than she deserves – for example in the use of the seasons, with summer representing carefree youth and autumn a time of both increasingly troubled adulthood and national political unrest, a metaphor which is underlined on several occasions by sentences such as ‘autumn was yet to come’ – but this may also be a feature of Katarina’s rather direct, sometimes dramatic tone. And there are many more moments that are beautifully defined: the ‘clean soft grass of our new countries’ that somehow holds the entire weight of an expat’s yearning for home, the description of untold stories lurking in shadowy alleyways like loafing smokers.

Knežević has also been careful to reflect the passage of time, allowing Katarina’s voice to develop as she grows older – though we are aware from the beginning that she is sitting down as an adult to write her life, the narrative style is immediate and so we encounter her innermost thoughts and feelings as a young girl first. It’s an authentic touch that makes the story even more compelling, and by the time the novel ended I felt I had almost lost a friend.

‘The deeper it is buried, the stronger it grows’, says Katarina at one point, comparing herself to a root in soil. It’s a fitting image for both her and the novel itself: Catherine the Great and the Small is without doubt one of those books that will plant itself in you, growing on you the deeper into it you read. Exploring many themes on many levels – I have touched on just a few of them here – it’s a gratifying reading experience that strikes just the right balance between being intricate and enjoyable. Montenegrin literature might be little known beyond its borders, but Knežević’s writing is a brilliant demonstration of why this needs to change – and how small can actually be incredibly powerful.

Catherine the Great and the Small is published in paperback by Istros Books on 15 June 2020. Many thanks to the publisher for providing an advance review copy.


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