Reviewed by Rachel Harland
In an interview given shortly after receiving the 2010 German Book Prize* for her semi-autobiographical novel Fly Away, Pigeon, Serbian-born Swiss author Melinda Nadj Abonji was asked whether it annoyed her that in the run-up to the award announcement commentators had labeled her book “immigrant literature.” Her response? “It doesn’t annoy me, but I think it’s an uninteresting way to talk about books.” Of course, she acknowledged, the novel encompasses “different worlds.” It follows the Kocsis family—Hungarian-speaking immigrants to Switzerland from the autonomous Serbian province of Vojvodina—as they struggle to establish themselves in an affluent village near Zurich while making periodic visits back to their Yugoslavian hometown during the years preceding that region’s disintegration. And yet, Nadj Abonji added, ultimately “language knows no bounds.” If her first remark addresses the homogenizing thrust of a category that lumps together highly diverse authors and texts, the second is rather more cryptic. It does, however, highlight a preoccupation with the fluidity of language in constructing and articulating meaning that challenges the potentially othering implications of the concept.
In fact, when they first come to Switzerland in the early 1970s, language severely limits Miklós and Rózsa Kocsis, who know only the word for work. By 1993, when the bulk of the novel is set, they have at last begun to reap the rewards of many years’ menial labor, winning the lease to a popular café in their village. Admittedly, life is not perfect. From their waitress Anita with her slyly malevolent comments about asylum seekers, to the faceless customer who purposefully defecates on the floor and walls of the café’s bathroom in an expression of his distaste for “Schissusländer” (shit foreigners), they must contend with considerable hostility from their community (189). Despite decades of irreproachable conduct, they have not yet achieved what Rózsa calls “human status” in their adopted country (56). Moreover, any pleasure in their success is tempered by the suffering of family members back in Serbia who have been impoverished, displaced, and conscripted as a result of the Yugoslav wars. Nevertheless, they are grateful for their Swiss passports, their thriving business, and the relative safety in which they live.
If memories of a less comfortable past (the details of which we learn through stories told by both Rózsa and Miklós’s mother, Mamika) induce them to remain silent when wronged, determined to assimilate into Swiss society at all costs, the novel’s narrator, their daughter Ildikó, chafes at such self-denial. Are they supposed to “assimilate to shit?” she asks after the bathroom incident, in her anger finally resolving to “disappear from this community, […] to stop fading into the wallpaper, […] to leave behind this divided life” (200, 196). But in another sense, Ildi benefits from a kind of integration her parents will never experience. Despite making significant advances in their command of German, Miklós and Rózsa nonetheless commit frequent errors. Many of these involve puns and humorous mispronunciation, which English translator Tess Lewis says posed one of the book’s toughest challenges. Often she had to settle for communicating the meanings of words while realizing that a degree of wordplay would be lost in the process. So whereas in the German original Ausweis (identification card) becomes “Eisweis”—amusingly close to Eiweiß or egg white—it is translated simply as “identation card” (30). And where Kinderstreich (prank) becomes “Kinderstreik” (children’s strike), in English it becomes “plank”—funny in its own way, but without the dissonance of the original image (66).
In contrast, Ildi and her sister Nomi grow up effectively trilingual speakers of Hungarian, German, and Swiss German. The novel is rich with examples of multilingual expression, from code switching and mixing to metalinguistic reflections on translatability and the unique precision of certain languages in describing specific phenomena. The girls switch between languages depending on who is around them and what they wish to conceal or reveal, or when discussing subjects (most notably those relating to the bureaucracy of immigration such as “family reunification permit[s]”) so rooted in one culture that they call for a particular language (31). When Ildi hears her father swear she wishes she could “reproduce [his] oaths, translate them into the other language so that they really shine” (110). The narrative likewise addresses varying cognitive associations and emotions to which different languages can give rise. The Hungarian word for family, for example, sounds like “a nice warm dinner” and the term for drastic measures “even more drastic,” while the German for oxtail soup is especially unappetizing (29, 63). When she meets and begins a relationship with a Serbian refugee named Dalibor, Ildi says: “I’ve fallen in love with you, in Hungarian, German, Serbo-Croatian and English” (132). The experience, in other words, is a different one in each language. Here, again, Lewis comments on the inevitability of a certain degree of loss in translation: In the case of “family reunification permit” the German term “Familiennachzug” (from the verb “nachziehen,” literally meaning “pull behind”) evokes for Ildi an image of newlyweds driving away in a car with cans dragging after it. Given that the association does not transfer to the corresponding English phrase, Lewis decided (in consultation with the author) to drop the relevant passage from her rendering.
As indicated above, alongside the Kocsis’ languages of daily use Fly Away, Pigeon also draws on English. Recounting a visit to a cousin in Vojvodina who has run away from home to move in with her boyfriend, Ildi reports: “Because I already know a few scraps of English, the word slum comes to mind and the film our history teacher showed us before summer vacation about the outskirts of Sào Paolo” (81). It provides a lingua franca for her and Dalibor and peppers the speech of other characters too, in a reflection of its influence on contemporary German. As Kristina Förster notes, there is some variation in how languages are marked in the text: not only passages in Hungarian and English but also those in (Swiss) German dialect are italicized, yet while Hungarian and some of the more obscure Swiss German phrases are either translated or explained, the embedded English is not. (Nor, indeed, are the few phrases in Italian and French, though translations are provided for Serbo-Croatian.) It is a distinction that may go unnoticed by readers of the English translation, but a significant one in that it “question[s] the binary construct of ‘foreign’ versus ‘familiar’” by attributing (no doubt accurately) to the original readership greater acquaintance with an entirely different language than with a regional variant of their own (Förster, 240).
Which is not to say, of course, that the book’s representation of language is purely utopian. If nothing else, Miklós and Rózsa’s struggles to communicate are evidence of that. Halfway through the narrative, which is arranged in nonchronological, episodic fashion around the guiding thread of 1993, Ildi recalls the day many years earlier when she and Nomi left Vojvodina for good. As they are driven out of town, they pass a sign indicating the city limits, of which Ildi says, “It meant nothing to me at the time that our town’s name was written three times—in Serbo-Croatian, in Cyrillic letters and in Hungarian” (119). In that moment, the coexistence of different languages alongside one another seems an unremarkable fact of life. But it is no coincidence that the novel opens in 1980, just months after the death of Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, whose death ushered in the fragmentation of the federation and a decade of civil war. While Ildi’s multilingualism flourishes in her new environment, the violence that overtakes her former home is a reminder of the otherwise complex relationship between language, ethnicity, and nationalism.
Even in Switzerland, the difficulties of immigration highlight the often fraught role of language as a marker and carrier of identity. Lewis points out that there are political overtones to the use of Swiss German in the text, where it is associated in particular with the far-right Swiss People’s Party, while Miklós and Rózsa ban their Croatian waitress Glorija and Bosnian cook Dragana from speaking Serbo-Croatian in the café out of deference to customer prejudice. When they themselves fail their first attempt at the Swiss citizenship exam due to a linguistic mix-up, Miklós compensates for his embarrassment over their German skills with a rant about the poverty of Swiss culture. Asked why an English-speaking public would benefit from reading the novel, Lewis alludes to nuances such as these: “What I love most about the book and what I think sets it apart from others—of course, it’s an immigration memoir, an autobiographical novel—is that it paints a picture of that particular part of the world where language and identity are in one sense so fluid but in the other so fixed. And because of that, what you say, how you say it, and which language you say it in is much more emotionally laden and can be a sign of affection or it can also be a sign of aggression. […] You get these subtle social cues, some of them nice, some of them not nice. […] It shows a side of Europe that is one of its great richnesses but is also one of its fault lines. […] It’s a book where it really helps if you have background knowledge, but on the other hand that makes it all the more important to signal to Anglophone readers that there’s this fascinating yet horrifying and heartbreaking history that points to a linguistic richness we just don’t have.”
For all that, however, Ildi herself remains unmoved by attributions of national or ethnic identity. The idea that she is supposed to hate Dragana, a Bosnian Serb, because she is from the Hungarian minority in Serbia strikes her as insane, and it is with more than a hint of sardonicism that she ponders whether the café’s customers are Swiss Germans or German Swiss. In turn, the novel resists being subsumed under categories like immigrant literature, which cast works of fiction as expressions of ethnicity and literary imagination distinct from the linguistic traditions in which their authors write. There is much to say about Fly Away, Pigeon besides that it is a narrative of immigration. It is a novel about family and memory, about young love and the history of post-1945 Yugoslavia, a novel written in lyrical, experimental prose. But it is also a novel that kicks against the concept of immigrant writing through the treatment of immigrant experience itself. As discussed by the French philosopher Etienne Balibar in his work on nationalism and race, language plays a crucial role in the construction of national identities because national languages unite people through “the common act of their own exchanges, of their discursive communication.” But, at the same time, “the linguistic construction of identity is by definition open. No individual ‘chooses’ his or her mother tongue or can ‘change’ it at will. Nevertheless, it is always possible to appropriate several languages and to turn oneself into a different kind of bearer of discourse and of the transformations of language” (Balibar, 97–98). In Fly Away, Pigeon, Ildi’s multilingualism exemplifies this process. Unlike her parents, she becomes a confident bearer of multiple languages—thus transcending the confines of a single culture. It is this, if anything, that defines her.
*The German Book Prize is awarded annually in October to a novel of outstanding merit written in the German language. The short list for this year’s prize has just been released.
Balibar, Etienne, and Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein. Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. Trans. Chris Turner. London and New York: Verso, 1991.
Förster, Kristina. “Foreign or Familiar? Melinda Abonji’s and Marica Bodrožic’s Multilingual Literature.” German Life and Letters 68.2 (2015): 228–44.
Lewis, Tess. Personal interview. 21 Feb. 2015.
Nadj Abonji, Melinda. Fly Away, Pigeon. Trans. Tess Lewis. London: Seagull Books, 2014.
“German Book Prize 2010: Melinda Nadj Abonji.” ARTS.21. Deutsche Welle. 11 Oct. 2010. Web.