BORN AND RAISED in Montenegro, Olja Knežević studied English literature at the University of Belgrade, Serbia, before completing her MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London, in 2008. Now living in Croatia, she is one of those effortlessly international authors whose peripatetic life could make her nationality, and thus her art, difficult to place. Whatever her origins, her fourth book is simply marvelous.
Katarina, Velika i Mala (Catherine the Great and the Small) was published by VBZ in Croatia in 2019 and by Istros Books in English translation in June 2020. It is a delightful thing: part social commentary, part matriarchal epic, part comedy, and part tragedy — not necessarily equally weighted. Stunning, humorous, tragic, but always true, the novel features three generations of characters, most of them female, all from small-town Europe. But the author’s real triumph is what she leaves out. Catherine, the eponymous Russian empress, is an allusion that only makes sense after reading the book. The period and locations in which the story is set include a number of very bloody and notorious incidents, but Knežević, thankfully, makes almost no mention of military matters. The novel is ultimately not about war; it’s about human fragility, peace, growth, life, death, and everything else in the narrator Catherine’s life.
Catherine the Great and the Small is divided into two parts. The first begins in 1978 in Podgorica, Montenegro, as we follow Catherine through childhood scrapes and adolescent adventures to university in Belgrade and then her struggles in early adulthood after she returns to Podgorica. The second part of the novel finds Catherine in London, but she is soon called back to Podgorica again. Her life is populated and enriched by relatives and friends, loss and recovery, infatuation and disappointment, but never disillusionment. Her early promise is fulfilled before she is gently distracted by children; after much exploration, she ends up happier and wiser for it all.
There is, however, another Catherine — “Granny Katica,” who lights up the narrative. Always available and always wise, never bewildered and always in control, she is so amazing that she could only exist in fiction. We meet her early on, as her granddaughter Catherine is reflecting sadly that her young mother (Katica’s daughter) “wouldn’t live to the age when one learns to sit still and enjoy gazing at the violets.” Observing that her daughter was “old enough to die,” Granny Katica just gets on with the funeral arrangements. Catherine moves in with her granny shortly afterward.
Catherine’s father, like all the men in her story, is comically one-dimensional — an academic philosopher and philanderer who departs from the text after six pages. (He is mentioned again but only to note his absence.) Catherine’s other male relatives, when they get mentioned at all, are uniformly defined by their vices: drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes or weed, sitting down a lot (or occasionally driving a car). It is the women in her life who comfort Catherine when she feels down, who encourage her to study when the work seems hard, and who ultimately embolden her to leave their small town to pursue her ambitions.
A possible exception to this gender divide is the handsome hero of the piece, Siniša. Catherine is obsessed with him. We spend pages and pages in love with them in love with one another. Despite being a model noble soul, however, Siniša remains as one-dimensional as the other men in the novel. He arrives, he departs, he returns, but he seems mostly incidental. Like some storybook hero of old, he is handsome and athletic but largely irrelevant.
The real heroes of the novel are Granny Katica, Catherine, and their female relatives and friends: Ceca, Milica, Alma — a “women’s circle of witches” whose humor and wisdom punctuate the text. Ceca denounces Milica, a heroin addict, for “celebrating the devil and all his holidays.” Milica thinks that “most schizophrenics have green eyes, you know that, don’t you, right?” Alma describes the political situation in Serbia as “a horror show of impotent microfascists.” Though Catherine views Siniša as her “keeper of the light,” she also observes, when meeting him after returning to Belgrade, that “he didn’t fit with the gray city — he was fresh and clean, like the mornings at the seaside I had left to be with him.” For his part, Siniša doesn’t say anything worth quoting.
As for Granny Katica, she sees her role as to “not only outsmart life but also dreams.” When Catherine returns home after falling very ill, and nothing prescribed by the doctors in Belgrade works, Granny Katica acts quickly. Her solution is a mixture of oregano oil, water, and “no mercy.” After some time spent “throwing up three times a day,” Catherine is cured of the stress of Belgrade, and the laconic Granny Katica observes that “[l]ife is not even worth the plot at the cemetery.”
Though much of the narrative takes place in the period surrounding the most recent Balkan Wars, the conflict is rarely mentioned directly. Grown-ups tell Catherine and her little friends that they are “the lucky generation,” and that they “should be disgusted by revenge and butchery, [they] should break the cycle.” But those children soon turn into “The Mangled Generation,” and it isn’t difficult to imagine why. The deteriorating economy is described as “Balkan cash, acquired in just a few years from looting and kidnapping.” Relatives aren’t drafted; they volunteer or emigrate. They aren’t shot by snipers, maimed by mines, or killed by mortar rounds, but unfortunately there is a price to be paid for this apparent mercy: Catherine’s noncombatant female relatives die at regular intervals. Her aunt Sandra is the last to go, with Catherine thinking, “I’d forgotten my aunt was seventy-seven years old because she seemed so much younger, like she’d been effortlessly holding age at bay for another fifty years. The heart — that traitor.” As she also observes, toward the end of the book, “[w]omen definitely become more radical the older they get. Around fifty, step by step, inching forwards, no falling back.”
Knežević’s original Croatian has been rendered into the most spectacular and lively English by the dynamic duo of Ellen Elias-Bursać and Paula Gordon. Gordon, interviewed by the excellent Translating Women blog run by literary scholars at Exeter University, probably offers the best summary of Catherine the Great and the Small:
I’ve never read another book that celebrates a woman’s individuality the way this book does. And not only the individuality of the heroine, but of every woman and girl who crosses the page and at every age and stage of life. It acknowledges our fantasies and even fulfils them in its pages, but it doesn’t sugar-coat the unexpected and sometimes unpleasant consequences of getting what we wish for.
It is difficult to add to that, other than to hope that this novel proves to be Olja Knežević’s breakthrough because she has a remarkable talent for plot, observation, and humor. I would certainly like to read more. Still, while Catherine the Great and the Small is a fabulous novel, be warned: instead of a bookmark, you will need to have a handkerchief handy, because the laughter comes at the cost of tears.