Olja Knežević: Katarina, velika i mala (Catherine, Great and Small)
Writing one’s memoirs, a hobby worthy of an empress, of Catherine the Great, Catherine (Katarina) tells us at the beginning of the novel in 1990s London but we are soon back in 1978 Yugoslavia. Catherine is a skinny teenager, her mother is in hospital, dying of cancer (she will die soon after) and her father has fathered a child with another woman.
Her grandmother soon moves her in to her house, away from her father and Lela, his lady love. Apart from her grandmother, a strong-minded, determined woman, two people have a big influence on her. Firstly, there is Siniša, the gendarme. He is a good hugger. Secondly, there is the free-spirited Milica. One way or another, we’re going to ditch this backwoods town. You and me, kid. You can do anything, remember that. This place will stunt your brain. And I don’t intend to live my life with half a brain.
This town is Titograd, now known as Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. Milica’s aim is to get to Belgrade. Milica’s mother, whom Catherine knows as Aunt Ceca, is a black marketeer. She will be caught and sent to prison.
But in Yugoslavia of the time the West is a temptation. Catherine has an ice-cream stall and she plays, as others do, British and US pop music. However, when Milica goes to Belgrade to study drama, she discovers another Western 60s phenomenon – drugs.
Catherine is sent to Belgrade, nominally to work as a child minder but also to keep an eye on Milica. It does not always work out well. Siniša appears, Milica struggles mightily and not terribly successfully with her demons and Catherine, seemingly safe with Alma and looking after her children, tries to cope with the children, study, Siniša and Milica.
Things go from bad to worse and Catherine becomes a drug dealer and sex addict while Milica is back in Titograd, unable to cope with life.
Catherine heads back to Titograd, where she tries to make a life for herself. While all this going on Yugoslavia is falling apart and Slobodan Milošević is trying to create a Greater Serbian Federation, which would include Montenegro. Catherine, meanwhile, meets Vuksan, and they head off to London.
The first part of the book is called Catherine the Small, the second part Catherine the Great. We now find Catherine and Vuksan in London. They have three children. He has a girlfriend. She goes back to Montenegro. and tried to reconnect with her past, though missing her children.
This summary does not begin to do justice to this fine novel. Above all, it is about a woman who is far from a saint, who makes lots of mistakes but, somehow, always. manages to pick herself up and soldier on, even while those around her let her down, disappear or simply fail. Her boyfriends and husband have feet of clay, her mother and, eventually, her beloved grandmother die, she loses her friends and, of course, her country falls apart and, unlike her, struggles to pick itself up again from the ruins.
One of her boyfriends says to her You walk with majesty through the moorlands of human debris and this may sum her up. However, he also adds that her grace can also be a drawback: Grace is weakness, they think. Or a sort of disability and this can and does cause her problems.
It is also a feminist novel and is much about how a woman can make her way in what is clearly a man’s world. Men know what real male power is, and when they lose it, they fill the vacuum with evil. I’m not saying all of them, but most. Most of the men in this book do not come out too well. However, Catherine manages to cope with them, more or less, though her friend, Milica does not and that is the cause of her downfall.
Part of the success of the novel is not just because of Catherine, even though she mainly carries it. Her friend Milica is a fragile woman, who tries to be tough. If I were a man − I’d always thought this − even I would fall in love with Milica, with her fallibility, her vulnerability,says Catherine. This vulnerability lets her down, particularly as far as men are concerned. However, Catherine’s mother, taken early because of cancer, and her grandmother, who is carrying a dark secret, are both strong women and clearly influence Catherine.
This is not a they lived happily ever after novel, not least because they lived happily ever after all too often does not happen in the real world. Catherine struggles, she falls, she fails, she picks herself up, she carries on, for herself and those she loves, and, somehow, she does not get the perfect situation but makes an accommodation with those around her, keeps her head help up high and marches on. We can only wish her well.
First published in 2019 by V.B.Z.
First published in English in 2020 by Istros
Translated by Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać