In Crossing, Finnish-Kosovar novelist Pajtim Statovci’s second novel, a queer narrator starts over in every city—sometimes presenting as a man, sometimes as a woman. In each new location 22-year-old Bujar claims a new heritage and a new history. The book opens after Bujar’s unsuccessful suicide attempt in Rome, travelling from place to place, restlessly pulling on and discarding identity after identity—in Germany claiming to be a woman from Bosnia, in New York claiming to be an actor who has acted in small-scale productions all across Europe, in Helsinki claiming to be an immigrant from Italy. He constantly seeks a city in which he can be comfortable, where he can be himself, though what he considers himself to be is sometimes in flux and ambiguous. The one identity he declines to claim is his own: the name Bujar, the life of starvation, deprivation and tragedy in Albania he led and fled ten years ago with his close friend and sometime lover, Agim.
Crossing, translated from the Finnish by David Hackston, is a book that looks with intensity at every aspect of identity, questioning every element of its ever-inventing narrator’s conception of self. The book follows two narrative threads, one in the past tense, which begins in 1990 in the ruins of Communist Albania, and one in the present tense, which follows Bujar as he travels across Europe and briefly to the United States from 1998-2003.
In the present, Bujar engages with his own amorphous identity and sexuality, as well as the complicated identities of the people with whom he forms (generally ill-fated) relationships. Bujar questions the concept of an absolute identity, and whether the building blocks of that identity include conceptions of gender, of nationality or of race. He turns over ideas in a complicated way—often expressing contradictory opinions and occasional gaps in knowledge or understanding and is consistently unable to or uninterested in defining his own complicated sexuality. He says: “I’ve never thought that I might like men who like men, only men who like women and who could therefore never like me, but I’ve been with women too […] I find it impossible to become aroused, but I have still had sex with both men and women when the men and women in my life have wanted it.” The Bujar of the present is confused and searching, both a victim of violence and an occasionally violent person himself, seemingly impossible to fully pin down or categorize.
The narrative in the past details Bujar’s flight from Albania to Italy with Agim, his gender-fluid friend with whom he has an undefined sexual relationship. This friendship is another thing in the book that is hard to label. Their love (or friendship?) exists in a liminal, un-nameable space and yet it is the most vital, solid thing in the book: the only thing the narrator is ever sure about, the only thing that has a sense of permanence. Though born a boy, Agim identifies as a girl and is comfortable with that identity (though Bujar still refers to this character as “he”). Agim is conspicuously absent from the narrative in the present, although it is notable that the way Bujar describes himself in the present often seems to resemble descriptions Agim more than they do the Bujar that we follow in the past, to the degree that the Bujar we meet in the present almost seems like an blend of the two characters. In fact, it becomes clear throughout the novel that much of Bujar’s current identity—the dreams he expresses, the periods of time that he dresses as a woman, his attitude toward his Albanian heritage, are deeply informed by Agim, by the absence of Agim and the haunting circumstances of their separation.
Though the Bujar of the past and the Bujar of the present differ greatly, a thread that undeniably connects his past and present is the Albanian myths that run through the whole book, myths that were told to Bujar by his father before he died. These myths firmly place the question of Albanian heritage and identity at the heart of the book. Alongside the questions of gender and sexual identity in this book, there sits a brutal portrayal of the refugee experience: a portrayal that is steeped in shame, deep loss and rage. So much of Bujar’s searching in the present comes from his inability to return to his home or to find a new one, and much of his pain comes from the loss of his Albanian identity and the horror of his experience as a refugee.
Crossing is a timely book, shedding light on the experience of the marginalized in a way that refuses to offer simple answers or idealized characters. It’s a book that offers nuance and dark complexity, a book that is heartbreakingly truthful, violent and at times truly tender.