[Fern Books; 2024]

Tr. from the French by Daniel Levin Becker

“And you, how would you go about stealing the Mona Lisa?” a father asks his young daughter, time and time again. In her new novel Like a Sky Inside, Jakuta Alikavazovic writes about family and the Mona Lisa’s famous home. The narrator of this autofictional novel has obtained permission to spend a night in the Louvre, alone but for some of the world’s most prized works of art. These famed objects stir questions and musings in the narrator about her father and her feelings of belonging. In this novel, the story of a life is told in objects.

Like a Sky Inside was translated from the French by Oulipo member Daniel Levin Becker, a writer and translator of works by Éric Chevillard, Laurent Mauvignier, and others. Set in the liminal first week of March 2020, the novel unfolds as the internal monologue of the unnamed narrator as she wanders the museum alone at night, evoking the isolation and imposed interiority of the coming pandemic lockdown. Alikavazovic’s writing is contemplative and digressive, roving like the insatiable gaze of a consummate museum goer, if at times verging on the solipsistic. The novel recalls other quiet books about art and family, such as Hisham Matar’s A Month in Siena or Rachel Cusk’s The Last Supper. But Alikavazovic’s writing most closely resembles the peripatetic prose of W.G. Sebald, who blended fact and fantasy in his wanderings across place and time. Similarly bereft of traditional plot, Like a Sky Inside can at times feel directionless and prone to choppy sentences, but the novel is short enough to avoid losing its way.

As the narrator sets up her cot among the antiquities in the Hall of the Caryatids, she is lured in by the marble stare of the gallery’s Greek gods and heroes, its centaurs and satyrs. Sculptures so fine as to seem alive, to look back at her, to nearly make her forget they are but objects. For, in Alikavazovic’s telling, objects are so much more than inanimate things surrounding us. The canvas overnight bag she brings to the museum recalls a former relationship. A Venus de Milo figurine she gives her mother as a child wins her entry into Moscow’s Lenin Library. Some objects kill, like an exploding cigar; others tell us who we are or where we come from. Memories of her father, an immigrant to France from Yugoslavia (contemporary Montenegro), are evoked by the handsome coat he once wore, which he buys because “it’s bad enough to be foreign, if you look poor too you’re screwed.” That coat, in turn, becomes “a coat to smoke in,” “a coat to play chess in,” and “a coat in which to nod off.”

The novel pays tribute to the narrator’s father, filled with regrets over questions unasked and mysteries unsolved—although she never clarifies whether he is still alive. During their many visits to the Louvre in her childhood, her father tells her that the museum “was the first French city where I felt at home.” Surrounded by objects long familiar from those visits, she has returned in the present to walk in her father’s shoes and, of course, to answer his question about stealing the Mona Lisa.

Much of her father’s story remains elusive. The narrator realizes that he worked hard to scrub “all forms of difficulty” from the stories she hears. He tells her he moved to Paris in 1971 out of love for her mother; she later learns he fled military service in Yugoslavia. Once in Paris, his love for the Louvre flourishes in no small part because it was heated better than the tiny apartments in which he lived. But also because “it was his place, his own place, a place where beauty triumphed . . . over politics.”

Time-worn books, filled with her father’s notes and circled words he didn’t know, come to represent his gradual integration and study of French. Her father’s books shaped the way he spoke—and the way he spoke shaped “the books I would later write.” He takes pride in “the idea of his novelist daughter,” who was once told by a preschool teacher that she would never speak French. Both must stake their rightful claim to the language. Her success, when it comes, is revenge.

The novel, then, is also a story of the narrator’s struggle over her sense of belonging, to understand her own heritage and the burden of her father’s expectations. Growing up, she disowns her father’s tastes, spurning French for English and moving to the US. Even still, she brings along a cellphone and a watch—gifts from her father, objects that accompany her until lost or defective. The metaphor is well-taken, but, in place of abstraction, the reader is at times left wishing for greater specificity and detail about her and her father. The deeper meaning seems to flicker along the surface of things. “[D]id I understand it correctly?” the narrator asks herself.

Yet it is in art—the objects that adorn museums and the world around us—where the difference between the narrator and her father reveals itself most clearly. Her father admires art from a distance and prefers the Old Masters of the Louvre, while she prefers artists “who had spurned the gallery,” Land Art in particular, for its ability to capture the unvarnished passage of time. She travels to see Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, a monumental sculpture of stone and mud that unfurls in the Great Salt Lake. There, she sees that “[s]alt crystals, little by little have formed on it. The waters of the lake rise and submerge it, or recede and reveal it.”

Her father’s perennial question is, at its core, also about art and ownership. In her musings, she recalls the infamous theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 by the Italian Vincenzo Peruggia, who evaded arrest for over two years in part due to misspellings of his name and hometown. Similarly, her father’s name is “[m]ispronounced, manhandled, amputated,” and one of her exes even mistakes him for a Croatian art thief. Their very existences marked as deviant, neither man is considered to belong.

But any question of ownership is inherently fraught. Much art is stolen or looted, taken from its original creators or owners. Peruggia cited his desire to return the painting to what he averred was its rightful home in Italy. Maybe, the narrator muses, “art is made to be stolen.” Perhaps nothing and no one belongs to anyone else—a country or a language least of all: “the question of belonging always, one day or another, catches up with us.”

The narrator knows that the bonds we form with objects are elusive, as our most profound feelings defy physicality or objectification. Love, she says, is a “feeling like a sky inside of us. And, like a sky, ever changing.” While we try to assign it shape, love “moves on, always.” Moreover, if we place too much value on art—or any kind of object—what is correspondingly devalued? Recalling the siege of Sarajevo, the narrator cannot help but think of “all the lives history has granted less importance than that raw matter from which art is made.” And anyways, art doesn’t last forever: “No matter what we do, works of art are lost, destroyed.”

But even while objects may not belong to us—nor we to them—her father’s question about art becomes a means of constructing their relationship. While the two of them would stroll, the question and its answers “would lend rhythm to the afternoon,” and what happened in the meantime “was daydreams, was tenderness. What happened was time.” Their relationship pivots around their speculations about an object—that most famous of paintings—and the novel unfolds as a continuation of this dialogue, her father’s question opening up like “one of those magicians’ trunks” that contains more than meets the eye.

Whether we favor classical art or contemporary art, Alikavazovic suggests that the way we see ourselves in objects and find meaning in them is a reflection of our bid for permanence, for belonging, for memory, and for ownership: “We see something we like and we take it. We take it because we wish we could catch the entire moment and hold onto it forever—swallow the sky, become one with the landscape.” In fact, the narrator reveals that she has snuck an undisclosed object—a part of herself—into France’s most hallowed of museums: “I will leave behind me a trace, an addition that will change this place forever.”

Eamon McGrath is a writer and critic currently based in Brooklyn. He writes about literature from Southeastern Europe on Instagram @balkanbooks. His work has appeared in Balkanist, The Upper New Review, and La Piccioletta Barca, among other places.

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