Sound played for the enemy side


Sworn Virgin
by Elvira Dones
translated from Italian by Clarissa Botsford

This sounds like it could be a very serious, heavy book but it really isn’t; it’s a very readable, enjoyable, gorgeous novel that deals with issues, serious and light, familiar and unfamiliar.

Back in 1986, when Hana Doda was a happy carefree student in the city of Tirana, she got the news that her Uncle Gjergj, her foster father, was dying back home in the mountains of northern Albania. Hana is the last family he has left, but caring for him isn’t easy in their small village with its strict traditional roles and remote distance from anywhere else. Hana can’t work or travel safely to get her uncle medicine because she is a woman. So she makes a decision. Following an old Albanian tradition, she chooses to become a sworn virgin – she will live the rest of her life as a man. In return for the freedom to earn money, travel freely, drink and smoke and, crucially, read her beloved books, she must remain chaste.

14 years later she arrives in the US to live with her cousin. She’s been Mark for her whole adult life but now she can choose to be Hana again, only it isn’t that simple. It’s a huge wrench to see herself as female again and to interact with others as a woman.

“It’s weird but when she was Mark she was better with words. Mark weighed them out inside himself, observed and honed them, stroked them, at times erased them from his mind. As a man, silence was his ally. In silence there was hope; in conversations there often wasn’t. Sound played for the enemy side.”

That a novel covering such weighty issues as communism, patriarchal oppression, sexual violence, immigration and gender identity manages to be so warm and enjoyable is a huge achievement. The contrast between Albania just before and just after the fall of communism there, and the USA in the early 21st century is vast, but Dones paints both with assurance. The US is not entirely a promised land and Albania is not entirely awful, and while Hana has opportunities in the US she didn’t have back home, she isn’t entirely sure she wants them.

“It wasn’t life. It was the annihilating breath of fear. It was pain a whisper away from the atrocious pleasure of hearing death knock at the door, then move on. It was a daily ration of menace, a nightmare you couldn’t escape.”

Dones shows criticism and compassion for tradition, but Hana’s reasons for becoming a sworn virgin aren’t just about her desire to fulfil an obscure tradition. The full reasons for her choice are revealed slowly, as she comes to terms with them herself.

But as much as anything else, this is the story of an immigrant arriving in the US, a woman starting anew in her mid-30s, reconciling who she is with the life that she wants to have. And she’s a lovely woman to spend 270 pages with, sarcastically witty, fighting hard to keep up her prickly defences.

Apparently Dones is a popular and distinguished author in Albania. I really hope that means more of her work gets translated into English.

Vergine giurata published 2007 by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore.
This translation published 2014 by And Other Stories.

Source: I’m a subscriber to And Other Stories.