Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

An emotional biography of a migrant

Translator Roksolana Sviato on how the outbreak of war in Ukraine changed her idea of Melinda Nadj Abonji’s book
28 January, 2016 - 12:21

We are going to speak today of Tauben fliegen auf (English edition title: Fly Away, Pigeon) by Melinda Nadj Abonji, a book that can contend for a place as one of the Top 5 Ukrainian translations in 2015. A German-speaking Swiss writer, musician, and performer born to the family of Serb Hungarians in Vojvodina, she seems to have made readers fall in love with her by means of a light and at the same time dramatic story that has been translated into almost 20 languages, won several prestigious international prizes and lots of rave reviews. But is everything so simple in this story of Yugoslav migrants who went abroad in search of a better life? Does the multiculturalism of present-day Europe exist on paper only? The Day discussed this and other things with the translator and literature researcher Roksolana Sviato.

Roksolana, why did you choose to translate no other than this book? What is the prehistory?

“It was an attempt to find a book that is topical for the source-language literature and, at the same time, is of some use to the Ukrainian reader. And in this case, I was lucky very much. In 2013 the journal Prostory was preparing a special issue on contemporary Swiss literature (which rings almost no bells to the Ukrainian reader) and suggested that I look through this novel and try to translate a fragment. So, I did the first chapter. I liked and sank into it so much that I hit upon an idea to translate the whole book, find a publisher and a grant in aid. Then I translated a chapter for a translation studio established by the Literary Colloquium Berlin, which supports translators of German-language literature throughout the world. My senior colleagues criticized me rather harshly. And I must say this partly changed my further manner of dealing with this book.”

OK, we can say it was an outer stimulus. And what about the inner one?

“It seems to me that migration is a very interesting topic for us, and reading this kind of books is even a must in the current European context. This study of the social adaptation of poor and despondent people in more affluent and allegedly safer countries is full of non-trivial and painful aspects and can spotlight the problem from different angles. For it is not only a material immersion, but also an attempt to find your place in a different culture and language and not to lose yourself. This was the first stimulus.

“But when I got down to translating the whole novel in October 2014 (when the Swiss foundation Pro Helvetia agreed to issue an aid grant), the story had already assumed a different shape, which resulted in a new personal view of war. And this discourse of a Hungarian woman who was born in Serbia, a part of the then Yugoslavia, and now lived in Switzerland and had very mixed feelings about the identity of her origin and the Balkan war, suddenly began to resound in me. I felt that I, a Ukrainian, began to understand her better in a state of war, the annexation of Crimea, and events in the east – you can’t possibly change the situation which does not depend on you, you can only go through it completely.”

And what about the lacelike Balkan context, for the translator not only translates words but is also immersed in deeper realities? What was difficult and unexpected?

“I would not refer the novel Fly Away, Pigeon to the Balkan literary stratum. Yes, naturally, it is inscribed in a Balkan context at least thematically, but I’d rather view it in the light of Swiss emigre literature. It is a logical phenomenon for a country that has a long experience of multiculturalism, where the four main languages coexist, and second-generation descendents of emigrants have often been integrated. Therefore, the life stories of their families become a discovery, not a burden, for them. Incidentally, they say there is such a thing as ‘migrant literature’ and even a certain migrant ‘canon’ represented by, for example, the Rumanian-born authoress Aglaja Veteranyi and the Croat Dragica Rajcic who writes in ‘ungrammatical’ German… And Melinda Nadj Abonji is also part of this.

“As for ‘Balkan literature,’ I can’t say I am an expert in this matter. I have mostly read what was translated into Ukrainian (one of my latest ‘loves’ is the Bosnian-Croatian writer Miljenko Jergovic). When the war began, Slavenka Drakulic visited Ukraine. I’ve read some of her texts and taken a glimpse into history – in other words, translation was almost simultaneous with reading Balkan authors, especially their texts on war.

“And the difficulties of translation… This novel has been published in 17 languages, and this helped me very much. All the more so that the abovementioned Literary Colloquium Berlin held an international workshop a few years ago for translators of this very novel, and its participants drew up a ‘protocol’ of sorts – they were discussing various aspects of the novel, clarifying some moot points, sharing their advice, and suggesting linguistic moves. Even the novel’s title sounds differently, and there are a lot of things of life that need to be explained. After all, even the spelling of the authoress’ middle and last names can be the subject of a heated debate.”

And what can you say about the plot? What grips the reader?

“At first, like the characters of the book, you seem to be ‘driving into’ this story on your chocolate-color ‘Chevrolet.’ After the first few pages you find it difficult to translate but, at the same time, you come across an ideal combination of drama, lyricism, and humor. This humor ranges from almost Rabelaisian, with all those descriptions of viands at a Serb Hungarian wedding party, to very affecting.

“There are also some very revealing moments. For example, during the Yugoslav events, an acquaintance asks the heroine, who has long been living in Switzerland, studies at a university, and works at her parents’ cafe, to translate something from Serbian and help him properly understand the events. But she can’t do so because she just doesn’t know the language well, for she comes from the Hungarian minority in Serbia’s Vojvodina and, besides, she somewhat resents being associated with a country which is ‘not exactly’ hers now. But, on the other hand, when a war breaks out, all these intertwined roots begin to produce rather unexpected results.”

In other words, migrants are no longer supposed to remember their homeland, although they are reminded of this all the time…

“This book shows very well the duplicity of the myth about a happy Europe, a ‘paradise of affluent countries.’ Nobody is waiting for anybody there (and why, after all, should they?). We can see this very well now in practice – in the situation with Syrian migrants. And anybody else can find themselves in their place. This brings about entirely different things: struggle for survival, misunderstandings, and all that is on the other side of the good word ‘tolerance.’

“Fly Away, Pigeon is an emotional biography of a migrant, even though the narrator – Ildiko Kocsis – is not a first-generation immigrant and it is her parents who chose immigration. It is a triple inconvenience: she has her own parents and roots but lives in a totally different society, so she must find herself as a Swiss and overcome her roots, but she must, above all, become a personality. This novel shows, so to speak, a universal pattern of the experience of moving into a different culture, when one must no longer answer for his or her homeland – it is not their duty because they must establish themselves individually.

“Interestingly, I failed to find any negative reviews of this novel – the comments of Swiss and German critics were very complimentary. And this poses a certain ethical problem: on the one hand, there is a review of a literary work and, on the other, a reality that is often unprepared to put up with this kind of ‘characters,’ for these people are still ‘guests.’”

And what was the reaction to the book in Serbia, Abonji’s homeland?

“In Lviv, this book was presented together with the novel Satori by Srdan Srdic, and another guest, the writer Zvonko Karanovic, noted that he had read Fly Away, Pigeon in the Serbian translation and seemed to find himself on the other side of a mirror: his ancestors resided in the same place, Becej, but his story is shown from the Serbian side, while Melinda Nadj Abonji takes a feminine look from a different ethnic minority – she uses this fine lace to join together what seems to be unjoinable. The book had certain success in Serbia. But it was much more acclaimed in German-speaking countries. Firstly, the authoress was awarded the Swiss Book Prize in 2010 – a prize the writers of non-Swiss origin receive not so often. Secondly, she won the more prestigious German Book Prize in the same year. Incidentally, it would be right to note that the idea that one can only write fiction in the native language is being gradually watered down. Let us recall the Odesa-born authoress Marjana Gaponenko, who was awarded the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize a few years ago for the novel Who Is Martha?, and, naturally, Katja Petrowskaja, the Kyiv-born authoress of the novel Perhaps Esther which brought her the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and was published in the Ukrainian translation this year. And, getting back to Nadj Abonji, I will say that her text brilliantly combines such things as political topicality, subject matter, and writing skill.”

Interviewed by Yulia STAKHIVSKA