Abonji, Melinda Nadj (2010), Tauben Fliegen Auf, Jung und Jung
[Translated into English by Tess Lewis
Abonji, Melinda Nadj (2014), Fly Away, Pigeon, Seagull Books
German language literature is full of tales of migration – often these are among the better books published in the language. Melinda Nadj Abonji is a Swiss writer and performer, and her second novel, Fly Away, Pigeon, is such a tale of migration and identity. It was also a runaway success – winning two German language book awards, garnering praise from critics and readers alike. And it’s been translated into English. There’s no doubt: Fly Away, Pigeon is a lovely book. It is very smart, well written, and moving. And yet – at slightly above 300 pages it is twice the size of Abonji’s 2004 debut novel and her third novel, published just this year. That her sophomore novel is sandwiched between two such significantly shorter publications suggests that writing novels longer than 300 pages doesn’t come naturally to the author. Indeed, the novel sometimes feels a bit padded, a bit overlong, stuffed here and there with slightly too much detail, slightly too much sentimentalism. It’s true, the novel tells a story about the dissolution of Yugoslavia, about communism, about immigration, about integration, and about the way all these stories contribute to identity formation. You’d think this does require some space – but Abonji doesn’t always use the space well. Her debut novel, while a bit flashy and melodramatic, showed the author’s skill for using allusion and fragments to tell a deeper story than the words on the page appear to tell. Somehow, despite the fragmented, back-and-forth seesaw structure of Fly Away, Pigeon, one never feels that a story was left untold, or was told only partially. It feels as if we were told everything, exhaustively. And yet, obviously, we have not, but something about Abonji’s calm style in the novel makes us feel as if we are told a full complete story. I feel framing this as something bad, because I wanted the book to be more. At the same time, the kind of story it tells is fairly unique and Abonji has a clear sense of how languages and nationalism and identity interact. The book is very clever and a very pleasant read, despite some harrowing stories within its pages. I guess this is a kind of literary comfort food. A well executed story with a relevant subject, by a writer in control of her prose and her thinking. Honestly, it’s hard not to recommend this book.
In some ways, Fly Away, Pigeon provides a contrast to some of the German language books I reviewed here recently. It discusses the way an immigrant family attempts to become Swiss citizens, a theme that also comes up in Meral Kureyshi’s Elefanten im Garten. But in that book, the process is humiliating and alienating, whereas Abonji’s characters are accepted by their village. You may not know this, but in Switzerland, the individual communities get a vote as to whether foreigners living among them get Swiss citizenship. And these villages are quick to reject foreigners if they, for example, wear, O sin of sins, sweatpants around town. Or if they don’t like to go for hikes in the mountains. Or if they are vegan. As we know from Swiss writers like Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and from the success of the SVP party, bigotry bubbles just under the surface in Switzerland. But Abonji’s novel is like a calming balm, in contrast to Kureyshi’s irritant. Abonji’s family is accepted, and the handful of bigots in the village are presented as exceptions. The reason Abonji’s family does so well can maybe be traced to another difference. In contrast to Barbi Marković’s Superheldinnen, the family at the heart of Abonji’s novel are stable and secure economically. They worked their way up to owning a café in their Swiss town, overcoming early skepticism and gaining economic and social success. It’s hard to believe that Abonji’s novel is particularly representative of the immigrant experience – but then again, as a novel it doesn’t have to. And this choice of economic comfort – it’s clearly a choice. Because in her debut novel Im Schaufenster im Frühling, Abonji discusses a much more difficult, marginalized existence. Migration only enters the novel in passing, but it is connected to that novel’s themes of exploitation, loneliness and violence. There are no rose tinted glasses in that book, which packs a punch, but is also freighted with the melodrama and eagerness of a debut novel. It follows, then, that the choice to depict a family rising to comfortable middle class status has a specific literary value rather than merely reflecting the author’s views on immigration.
As it turns out, Abonji uses the calm waters of the immigration narrative to hide some darker stories below the surface, lifting them out of the water one by one as the novel progresses. This allows her to focus on certain issues without having to to make them stand out against a loud background. In many ways, Abonji’s calm look on language and nationalism makes her work an apt comparison to the many German takes on immigration by writers with no immigration background. In those books, there’s often a disinterested, distanced, almost pathologizing view of that Other, the migrant and their culture. It’s not that it’s critical and negative – it’s often benevolent, in the most condescending fashion. That condescension explains why critics can feel insulted when a foreigner, who won one of their coveted awards, isn’t properly grateful to their Germanic munificence. Abonji’s novel shares some of the distanced intellectualism, but she never condescends to her characters. We are always aware that their issues are important, urgent and are in no need of anthropological curiosity. Abonji approaches the whole topic intellectually – in another essay, published by Volltext, she discusses her multilingualism, and starts toying with language, layering puns and allusions. She does the same in her novel: almost bemused, characters remark on the way words in one language echo words in other languages, she uses multilingualism for puns, for allusions and the like. But within the glitter of language games, there’s always the core of identity and belonging.
The family at the heart of Fly Away, Pigeon are Hungarians from the Vojvodina, which is an autonomous region in Serbia today, and was then part of Yugoslavia. The father of the family in the novek was horribly mistreated by Tito’s pseudo-communist dictatorship (the grandfather was tortured and interned in a work camp), and doesn’t leave out any opportunity to malign the man and his reign. He’s also our main window into how the novel views nationalism. He views himself as Hungarian, and often praises the food and cultural achievements by Hungarians, but whenever he visits the Balkan, he brags with the cleanliness and efficiency of Switzerland. He equates Yugoslavia with Serbians, who he hates with a fiery passion. His view of his nationality is one where he as an individual is front and center – his identity isn’t constructed by nationalist discourses: it’s the opposite, he constructs national narratives to fit his identity, to distinguish himself from others, to elevate himself and denigrate others. Even if I may make it sound bad, the book doesn’t judge him for it, but on the contrary uses him to make a larger point about how identities and national narratives interact. The question is always the amount of agency an individual has in the overall scheme. The father of the family in Abonji’s novel has the most agency, the most freedom to act as he sees fit. Meral Kureyshi’s characters, by contrast, have much less agency, have to undergo more pressure and parry more attacks. Even within Abonji’s novel there are differences. The protagonist, the daughter of the family, is much less able to move between national identities. In fact, at one point a love affair appears to trap her between loyalties and nationalisms. That the book ends with her moving out (no spoilers there) supports my feeling that some of the book’s themes are about individual identity and freedom. These tensions are brought to a boil during the Yugoslav Wars, which happen at the same time that the family receives plaudits for integrating so beautifully into the life of the Swiss town they live in.
Another theme of the novel is memory. Melinda Nadj Abonji herself moved to Switzerland at the age of 5. Her memories of Yugoslavia are by necessity flawed, but the novel provides a model for how first and second generation immigrant memory can work. A tapestry of languages (the novel is written in standard German, but it contains words and phrases in Hungarian, French, English and Swiss German) foregrounds the oral nature of the novel’s narrative. Most of the novel’s stories are not told in flashbacks, but are told to someone. There are three generations of storytellers in the book, and between them, they create this curious amalgam of memory, with the book itself, published years after the end of the Yugoslav Wars, an extra layer. The optimistic view of culture, of the possibilities of immigration and the endurance of memories are not undercut by doubts, cynicism or criticism. Explicitly, Abonji presents many of the stories of the past as constructed, sometimes offering conflicting versions of the same story, but the higher (or deeper, depending on your choice of metaphor) truth survives even this construction. In this time of anxieties, with its rising tides of bigotry, the calming voice of Fly Away, Pigeon is welcome. We will go on, we can go on, and we will talk to each other about where we have been so we can see where we need to go. Do I have some skepticism? Sure, but this is well executed literary comfort food, with a pulsing core. Before you pick up someone like Ingo Schulze, go and read Melinda Nadj Abonji.
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