[Istros Books; 2020]
Tr. from the Montenegrin by Paula Gordon & Ellen Elias-Bursac
In Catherine the Great and the Small, Montenegrin author Olja Knežević has created a contemporary Slavic fairytale set in the Balkans and spanning the final decades of the twentieth century. Like many Slavic fairytales, it overflows with traumatizing events and should not be read to children. In her teenage years, the protagonist Kaća suffers the death of her mother and eventually every other woman she cares about. For some reason, this is never the fate of the unwaveringly awful men who wander drunkenly through the novel’s pages. The men’s continued existence allows them to diversify the kinds of trauma inflicted on the protagonist and her dearest friend Milica, or Mici. Horrible sexual encounters and dangerous drug deals accumulate, and in true fairytale fashion, hardly anything is explained.
This lack of explanation or even pause between traumatizing events makes it difficult to fully empathize with the characters and understand why they have the emotional responses they do. As I read, I wondered why Kaća’s most intense depression comes when she discovers that her (rather forgettable) boyfriend Siniša has been cheating on her with her landlady and also his landlady (they are not the same landlady). Knežević devotes pages and pages to Kaća’s despair, but at no point do we learn what is so great about Siniša that she should destabilize her whole life and become a drug addict to forget about him. We do, however, learn that he’s conventionally attractive and that Kaća considers him “the boyfriendliest boyfriend in the whole world.” Your mileage may vary. While the book has many beautiful moments, for instance “I slid into sleep like a child going down a long, winding slide,” the Siniša parts are not to thank for them. Her love for her self-sacrificing grandmother — “her voice, her words, which were home to me” — moved me far more than her feelings for Siniša did: “His embrace was my home-sweet-home.” I was delighted to find that other reviewers have also been unimpressed by Siniša, calling him irrelevant and unquotable and even repeatedly misspelling his name as “Staniša.”
Though Kaća’s attachment to her boyfriend was not initially compelling, her description of heartbreak and its distorted temporality was:
Ever since learning that Siniša had left for America, I’d been experiencing time simultaneously as an eternity and an instant, without such human interventions as hours and minutes.
But despite the beautiful lines that emerged from her heartbreak, I kept wanting to shake her and remind her of Mici’s advice about men:
All those letters are made up . . . They publish only those wimpy ones, where the women are unhappy and pining for a man all day long, because if women don’t suffer and pine, then they’ll soon become stronger than men, which is out of the question.
The tragedy is that Mici, too, destroys her life for the sake of men, including her married drug-dealer boyfriend. When after years of addiction, Mici ends her life via overdose, she leaves a letter for Kaća in which she codes drugs as male:
I’m sitting there, next to God, and God’s name is Drugs. . . . I love you most of all. Still, I love you less than I love Him, I love him with a sick love, sadomasochist, he is my sadistic husband.
Here the novel’s interlinking themes of drugs and toxic men come together to suggest that pining for men is an addiction it’s best to avoid, because once you start, you may lose the ability to care about anything else.
More than just a narrative flaw, then, Knežević’s relentless chronicling of the ravages of heterosexuality and women’s centering of men invites us to read the novel as a quiet act of queer subversion in a hostile Eastern European climate. Writing in Croatian and living in Croatia, Knežević may have felt constrained by local attitudes to homosexuality to keep the novel’s queerness quiet. A 2017 Pew poll found that 64% of Croatians opposed same-sex marriage, a figure that reached 83% percent in Serbia, where much of the novel takes place and where Knežević attended university. As someone from a nearby homophobic Eastern European country, I wondered if passages like this were the most direct way Knežević could let Kaća express queerness:
If I were a man — I’d always thought this — even I would fall in love with Milica, with her fallibility, her vulnerability. She dressed somewhat carelessly, which meant that her breasts were always somehow on view to everyone, with prominent nipples . . . And those full lips, for God’s sake.
At another point, she and Mici touch each other’s breasts and possibly kiss, but Kaća never explicitly identifies as queer. Instead, this explicit acknowledgement appears displaced onto a host of other, marginal characters from Milica’s “bisexual” brother Radoš to Kaća’s aunt Sandra.
Reread as quietly queer, the novel’s cringeworthy heterosexuality becomes hilarious mockery. In fact, breathtakingly bad straight sex writing can be considered a time-honored tradition in queer literature. In Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin has his male protagonist think during sex: “Deep within, I felt her moving, rushing to open the gates of her strong, walled city and let the king of glory come in.” Knežević contributes, “All I could think of was him, my avenging knight, lying on top of me, warming me with his body, protecting me and kissing me passionately.”
Hilarious or not, a queer reading is also fundamentally a tragic one, illustrating not only the constraints facing contemporary authors in Eastern Europe but also the impoverished life awaiting women — straight or queer — who grant men primary importance in their lives. Throughout, it is women like Granny and Mici who best care for Kaća, who encourage her to persevere with her studies when she wants to give up, who lie in bed with her and hold her as she cries, but this is never enough for Kaća, who who goes on to marry the abusive Vuksan and later returns to Siniša. Kaća is constantly mourning the deaths of her beloved women, but the novel allows us to mourn for the greater centrality these women could have had for each other while living. If this bleak fairytale has a moral message, it is surely that men are not the happy ending.
Anna Kasradze is a culture writer and has also written for the Moscow Times. You can get in touch with her on Twitter @gogolized.