Translated by Michael Mitchell
“…being missing mutates into the birthmark on their forehead, into the scar on their cheek, into their predilection for swimming in the rain, strolling along streets after midnight.”
Such are the sorts of details that forensic archeologists and forensic anthropologists look for when trying to find missing persons. It’s not enough to know what the missing person looked like, but how they lived, even their favorite foods, places to eat, and ways they liked to travel are also important. Habits assist in placing the victims, dental records and medical reports come in later to confirm the identity. Such is the difficult work of locating and identifying missing persons in wartime, in this novel, specifically during the Kosovo war. The conflict between Albanians and Serbs was intensely violent, and cases of mass executions and random kidnappings were common.
The title comes from Nora’s observations about a man, Luan, who is searching for his wife Fahrie, who had been abducted seven years before and was presumed dead. “Your present and future have been amputated, leaving traces, phantom beings, they complain whenever you forget your grief, even if only for a moment, your life frozen at the moment when you discovered Fahrie had disappeared, no, it’s not your life that’s frozen but your time, frozen time which doesn’t count, you wish it would finally pass, it is passing, but as it’s frozen, it passes infinitely slowly. Or is it less a matter of being frozen, more of experiencing particular minutes, days and months in an endless loop?” Her interviews with him are painful, as he deals with the guilt of not protecting her, guilt for his own survival, and the guilt that he feels when he tries to move on with his life. Yet in order to find her, and differentiate her from all the others, she has to probe, unemotionally and distant, to find clues.
As she interviews him and builds a paper trail of Luan and Fahrie’s life, their shared history, another dimension is revealed as the courtship and marriage rituals unique to the region are explained. Arranged marriages are still common in Albania, and in the case of Fahrie and Luan, they cleverly met in advance to see if they could stand each other, and fell in love on their own, which required them to hide their affection at their marriage because it was assumed they’d never met. Sweet little details like that make Luan’s grief, despite the seven years of solitude, palpable and intense.
The story is told in a documentary style, based on the styles of interviews that are typically done in these cases. This means no dialogue tags, quotation marks, and a few areas of abbreviated text. It feels very real-brisk-and yet despite that, or maybe because of it, the details of the atrocities that are still being unearthed and exposed are shocking and hideous. I remember this time period, my children were little, and it’s hard to imagine such a medieval scope of violence occurring within their lifetime. Even having studied the region in previous nonfiction texts, I was still astonished at what unimaginable horrors have been meted out to innocent victims. The book doesn’t focus on these, but they are there in the background, begging the reader to consider where such violence comes from.
An especially important detail is that the author, Anna Kim, doesn’t get into the politics of the war; she doesn’t push for one side’s guilt over the other, instead, she concentrates on the recovery process. In a situation where, say, one hundred bodies are discovered in a mass grave, it isn’t enough to have a photograph or DNA; knowing if the missing person frequented the area, what they wore (were their ears pierced?), and if they were right or left handed is more useful in the initial stages.
This book was hard to put down: the style of writing and subject matter had me glued to it to see if Fahrie would be found. I marked so many interesting passages of text I couldn’t even begin to sort them out for this review. There was only one thing that drove me nuts: extensive use of italicized words and phrases. I’m not sure if it was on the author or translator or even editor’s end, but very often in the narrative, a few words would be italicized to remind you that they are very important. But the context was clear and concise, if you’d read anything in the book you knew that without needing italics to tell you it was significant. It sounds completely trivial but it put my teeth on edge at times, because it was distracting and unnecessary. It almost came off as childish, which makes no sense given the serious nature of the subject matter. See, I just did it…isn’t that obnoxious? The book was still very much worth it, but it had to be mentioned!
An excellent title for the Eastern European Reading Challenge!
Special thanks to Jorun Johns of Ariadne Press for the Review Copy.