Catherine the Great and the Small, Olja Knežević’s fourth book and first to be translated into English, is a clinic in the art of contradiction. As its title suggests, it is a novel concerned with resisting the rigid binaries of selfhood, one which reaches for nuance, plurality, “a feeling of and”, as American author Maggie Nelson would assert. As Katarina, the narrator, traces her childhood from 1970s Yugoslavia to modern day Britain, we witness a life struggling to resist definition, to remain elusive, to find a certain private clarity in the confusion of exile and grief.
For it is hardship that accompanies Katarina most intimately throughout the novel, in the death of her mother, her on-off-then-on-again relationship with Siniša, her drug-addled best friend Milica and the painful collapse of her country. Each of these episodes threatens to knock her off her feet, and yet, Empress-like, Katarina remains rooted, emboldened even, by these traumas. “Trauma is not pathology but history”, writes the British academic Jacqueline Rose, a fitting maxim for our ordinary hero.
Knežević’s novel is segmented into two parts, both written from the perspective of a present-day Katarina looking back at her past. The first part, “Catherine the Small”, recounts Katarina’s life as an entrepreneurial young girl in the twilight years of Tito’s Yugoslavia and her time as a student in Belgrade’s counter-culture underworld. The second, “Catherine the Great”, flits between the UK and Montenegro as Katarina negotiates a failing marriage, motherhood, and the death of her grandmother. Knežević’s style favours accumulation over explanation; like a modernist collage-maker, she heaps together fragments of memories, dialogue, song lyrics, dreams, histories, into a richly detailed and busy diptych of Katarina’s life before and after the Yugoslav Wars.
For Katarina, the West meant Paris, London, a place of “Blondie. Queen. Bowie” and “Riv Ghoshshsh” perfume. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, meant the gulag, which Katarina imagined to be “a goulash made of human flesh”.
Growing up, Katarina wore shirts and jeans with “Levi’s tags on them, like we wore in the West”, and came across as a “little Patti Smith” to her classmates. While her grandmother — nicknamed “Stalin in a skirt” — lived by Tito’s motto: “we do not want what is yours nor will we give you what is ours,” Katarina saw the West and beyond as a place of cultural and economic exchange and opportunity, an expansionist philosophy she shares with her royal namesake. For Katarina, the West meant Paris, London, a place of “Blondie. Queen. Bowie” and “Riv Ghoshshsh” perfume. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, meant the gulag, which Katarina imagined to be “a goulash made of human flesh”.
Inserted into this East-West divide are domestic issues, too. As “Slobo” (the former President of Serbia, Slobodan Milošević) consolidates his hold on power and the prospect of war marches into view, Katarina experiences these political movements as distinctly private events. “Our country was coming apart at the seams,” she writes, “from an illness whose cause I didn’t understand; it was as if I were reliving the loss of my mother.” Moreover, the gleaming West of Katarina’s childhood idealisations no longer appears as benevolent as she once thought: “They couldn’t care less about a bunch of tribes somewhere in the corner of Europe: so what if they killed each other, the West decided, they’re useless anyway.” This is not a book about the geopolitics of the Yugoslav Wars, but rather, the way war decentres and destabilises the mind, chipping away at even the most treasured fantasies.
Amid the dizzying turmoil of war, Katarina, however, remains decidedly anchored, reinforced by the arborescent imagery in Knežević’s prose. Katarina’s young lover, Siniša, refers to her as his “tree-lined boulevard”, while Katarina describes herself as “a root: wherever I go, I plant myself in the ground”. And later, she says: “I wanted to be the sturdy tree in the centre, the ever-present mother and their wellspring of strength.” In the popular imagination, we like to address trees as both living creatures and eternal statues, witnesses to ancient times. A source of peaceful contradictions and collapsed binaries, Katarina too contains something of this duality, both open to the changing winds and yet rooted to her sense of self.
Names too act as spaces of contradiction and multiplicity. By their nature, names assert and stabilise identity, and yet they remain malleable, open to improvisation and modification, perhaps even more readily than any other word category. The novel opens in Titograd, Yugoslavia, in 1978, which by the end of the book will have become Podgorica, Montenegro. Meanwhile Katarina is referred to as Kaća, Kaćica, Kaya, Kati, Kate, Katydid throughout the novel, while her best friend Milica and Sinisa also enjoy diminutive alternatives. While this is an everyday, familiar phenomenon to Slavic-language speakers (as are changing place names due to geopolitical shifts), in a novel concerned with relativity and contradiction, these monikers become symbols for Katarina’s fragmented selfhood. They ensure she remains free, never confined to just one thing.
Knežević, who grew up in Podgorica but moved to California as a teenager, writes vividly and unsentimentally about the anguish of exile. Here is Katarina, writing from London, on her new home: “Always at the start of summer we pine for the pungent smell of home,” she writes. “We are called back by the selfish pergola whose heavy, cloying smell fills our nostrils while we shoo away thirsty wasps. And the grape vines, dry and anorexic, untended, left to the mercy of the elements, but with a fragrance so piercing, smelling of sugar on the verge of ferment.” Rarely do writers capture what is not there so convincingly, without resorting to saccharine hyperbole. Nostalgia is synonymous with forgetting, writes Milan Kundera. But here, the narrator remembers faithfully; nostalgia gives way to reality.
With Catherine the Great and the Small (translated by Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać), London-based Istros Books have gifted the English-speaking world another as yet untranslated writer from the region, joining literary heavyweights such as Daša Drndić and Biljana Jovanović who also sit, immortalised, on their list. Knežević adds yet more colour and nuance to a region so often reduced to generality or cliche by the West. In her essay “A Little Red Dot” from her brilliant 2001 collection, Thank You For Not Reading, Dubrava Ugrešić writes humorously about books from the former Yugoslavia, sitting in “a neglected corner of some Slavic library”, on dusty shelves “all equally alone in an enforced library community”. It is a sad image, perhaps brightened by the prospect of a new English-language shelf housing gems, such as Knežević’s, growing in number, prominence and readership.
Catherine the Great and the Small is published by Istros Books. Get your copy here.