Luan Starova: My Father’s Books

Starova, Luan (2012), My Father’s Books, U of Wisconsin P
[Translated by Christina E. Kramer]
ISBN 978-029928794-8

So I had been looking at the Macedonian language for a little while, which is fascinating with its closeness to my own Russian. Somewhere in the process, I took a look at literature from the country translated into English and there’s remarkably little of it. One writer who has been graced with a translation is Luan Starova. And boy o boy is this a lovely book. It’s a childhood memoir, but also an ode to books, to language, and to the feeling of being at home in books, rather than in a specific place – I say, childhood memoir, but Starova uses his childhood memories as a way to try and understand his father rather than offer us stories from his childhood. The child in this memoir is mostly someone who looks, who admires, who is sometimes hungry or sad, but very rarely actively doing anything. No, this book circles around books, more importantly, around Starova’s father and his attempt to find a place for himself in this world. The father uses books to build an identity, and to interrogate one. And throughout his whole reading life, the ebbs and flows of Balkan history shake his father’s life, but never really imperil his true calling: reading, collecting, annotating books.

Luan Starova writes his book in small vignettes, small episodes, that start with the basic elements of the house the family lived in, and where the library in it was, and how the family and the books co-existed. Later sections look at his father’s friends, of which he had few, in fact, “towards the end of his life, my father had many books but few friends,” as well as at various important objects in his life. The order is not random – as we near the end of the book, the circles Starova draws become larger and larger, returning again and again to his father’s migrancy, to his family history, to the decisions he made before he became a reclusive book-obsessed Macedonian, and in the final sections, we look at a process beyond reading – a process of creation, as Starova’s father uses old manuscripts he found to untangle not just his family history, but the cultural heritage of the Balkans altogether. His father died before finishing his work, and some of the book concerns the spidery traces of his father’s notes in his books, his father’s attempt to “shore up these fragments,” to borrow a much-borrowed line of poetry. Starova’s father was obsessed with order – and reading the book, including the almost unbearably moving final chapter, one feels a similar purpose in his son.

It’s enormously odd, for a memoir by a son about a father who is obsessed with family history and books, to be so disinterested in actual books. But the movement of his father’s life, after all, is from life, into a life in books, and then, as he neared death, back into life itself. As Starova writes: “he had found an exit from the labyrinth of manuscripts that led out into life.” And in a sense, Starova’s own book follows that path, I suppose. Starova, born on the shores of Lake Ohrid, but on the Albanian side, is a multi-lingual writer who dedicated his writing life to writing the work that his father had begun as he died, at least that’s how it looks when I peruse his biography. Still, it leaves me with an odd feeling: some of the book feels almost anthropological, a book about this strange tribe of people who love books as much as life itself – like the professor of French, who wanted to die while reading a book, and was buried holding a copy of André Gide. Or entomological, with the concentric structure of the book like a microscope, looking at these people as if at a strange group of bugs.

I don’t mean it’s cruel – it’s loving and warm and lovely throughout. But it is not a book by someone similarly obsessed, very clearly, Starova is not a book person to the same degree as his father. I mean, he’s a different category of people, very clearly. We are warned of this, although maybe warned isn’t the right word. In the small section “The Cabinet,” very early in the book, Starova tells of his acts of accidental vandalism in the cabinet, leaving that space of valuable books and documents in disarray, with valuable books and documents damaged beyond repair. I mean, reading it, my heart broke for these books. But the section isn’t written to evoke my kind of heartbreak – it is about the way his youthful misdeeds impacted the family, in particular his mother. It is his mother who finds the chaos, it is his mother who tries to get things back in shape – in fact, his mother knows her way around that inner sanctum of that house-cum-library better than his father does. She doesn’t share her husband’s predilections, but it seems as if her distance from what’s in the books helps her deal with them better than Starova’s father who is too distracted by the books to stay on top of things.

Indeed, it is the mother who is the most interesting figure of the whole book, and the fact that she survived his father and helped the children understand their father’s self-chosen mission in life maybe explains why the book is like it is. It is unbothered by what’s in the books and is thus well positioned to contextualize the reading and collecting and thinking that went on in Starova’s childhood home. His mother supported and protected his father, until the very end, without having his need for books. In fact, the very first story of the book is called “Love” and that’s what we understand to be a dominant theme of the book, running underneath everything. The marriage depicted is old-fashioned, and nobody could view an arrangement like this as ideal today, but Starova posits love as the glue that holds that household together, a small house full of people and even fuller of books and objects. Because of course his father’s obsessions didn’t stop at books, they also included all kinds of unwieldy objects like a globe or a spyglass. Love, Starova tells us, kept the household running through all the troubles. And I’m not a hundred percent sure I agree.

I agree that his father was mostly useless outside of his profession as a judge and his hobby as a reader and scholar. But the way the couple came to be married sounds a bit off, and the whole arrangement – sure, love could explain it. But you know what also could explain it? A woman trying to make a very difficult situation work, love or not. And that fits the way his mother is depicted in the book generally. In fact, she is the book’s most compelling character. It is her, whose skill with languages saves them twice from being killed by Italian soldiers during WWII, as the Axis marched through the Balkan. The very description of her knowledge of the way the books are sorted throughout the house is a marvel of practical dedication. If nobody knows where the books are, nothing will get done, and so it falls to her, who doesn’t even particularly love books. It’s curious that her son, who is clearly much more her son than his father’s, doesn’t have enough empathy for his mother to interrogate the way his childhood household was run. There’s always a bit of a haut goût to these male narratives of bookishness where the preoccupation with books allows them to filter out the practical aspects of life, forcing women who are with these obsessive men, to do all the emotional labor, to work through it, to make it work.

All this is in the book, but it bubbles under the surface. Starova admires his mother, but I don’t think the book does her justice, or his father’s blinkered blindness. The best example for the latter is an episode involving a similarly bookloving friend. This one is obsessed to the point where he accidentally uses money set aside for an ophthalmologist and buys himself a van full of books. So this friend and Starova’s father lend each other books, but they don’t always read the books and upon returning them they test each other over this. As it happens, one day, the friend borrows a book in which Starova’s father forgot food stamps. The children are angry, desperate and hungry, and as the friend returns the book, the stamps are discovered. Starova’s father does not discuss his hunger, his wife’s hunger or that of his children – instead he gloats because this discovery is proof his friend did not read the book all the way through. I mean, he is a hell of a difficult man, and making a household work around a man like that must be hard; loving a man like that must be even harder, however, and if Starova is right about his mother’s feelings towards his father, that’s even more impressive than her feats of survival.

All of this is told in a very simple language. Macedonian is, as far as I understand it, a Slavic language. I know, we all grew up on stories of Alexander and Macedonia, but that Greek Macedonia is not the same as today’s Macedonia. If you speak Russian, and you hear Macedonian spoken, you can sorta-kinda understand it. My Russian is bad, but I watched a Romanian movie this year and listened to the music of Toše Proeski at some point this spring, and even I can get the gist of it. All this is to say that Russian is a difficult to translate language – you can always either see the seams or accept that the translator papered over it. Christina Kramer translated this book with, I think, an emphasis on accuracy – that explains the extreme unevenness of style. Sometimes it flows, sometimes it sings, sometimes it reads angular and awkward. Have you read Green Integer’s Ko Un translations? Yeah, that awkward. And speaking of awkward, sometimes, and this is not a translation issue, Starova likes to end his vignettes on overly clichéd phrases or on a sentence brimming with somewhat unearned pathos. It gives the book a feeling of being overdetermined, of an author who tries to get things to come out with the same emotional power that they felt when writing it, but that’s not how writing works. However, the structure of the book, which repeats phrases and observations again and again, leading readers to the powerful ending, is extremely well done. The book works best when its language is simple and declarative. Some of the most shattering sentences here are unremarkable in terms of style, but Starova imbues them with meaning.

You should read this book. There are other topics I haven’t even touched on, like his father’s attitude towards language and script. And despite some of my gripes, the portrayal of someone who loves books is heartwarming, and as a fellow book nut, I connected strongly to the book. But the most important aspect of the book that I haven’t touched on is the idea of migration. I’ve talked before about James Clifford and traveling cultures – in a sense, Starova’s book works like an example of that. His father lived in Turkey for 4 years, talked to Atatürk and was happy – but he returned home, to the “hell” of the Balkans, to connect with his family, and ultimately, to write an anatomy of the post-coloniality of the Balkans as they recovered from the Ottoman empire. He brought his books with him, wherever he went, but once he settled in Macedonia, he didn’t actually go anywhere, but he traveled through his books, but even in his travels through ink and paper eventually he returned home, as he found documents that helped him understand his country, his family and his heritage.

 

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