Sunday, 18 March 2018


My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci  {Reviewed by STELLA}
Pajtim Statovci explores entrapment, isolation and dislocation through the two main characters in his debut novel, My Cat Yugoslavia. We meet Bekim - a disenchanted, lonely young man - as he surfs a gay chat room looking for a hook-up. His life as an immigrant - he came to Finland from Kosovo with his parents - is a series of incidents in which he tries not to be noticed and denies his past. At thirty he is living alone, estranged from his family, his closest relationship is with his pet, a boa constrictor, until he meets the audacious and, so Bekim thinks, irresistibly attractive Cat at a gay bar. The Cat, a highly unlikable fellow - arrogant, obnoxious, abusive -moves into Bekim’s flat and invades his controlled life. The second voice in this novel is Emine. The story travels back to 1980 rural Kosovo. Emine at sixteen dreams about a life devoid of the boredom and drudgery of her parents. She seems happy until the day it dawns on her that she isn’t a brilliant student, that she won’t be an actress and is unlikely to have any future apart from the dutiful wife. That this future comes so quickly in her life - she is spotted by the dashing Bajram and an arranged wedding is soon underway - is instantly beguiling (a whirlwind of rituals and gold jewellery) and ultimately terrifying. Bajram is the wolf in lamb’s clothing. Yet more violence is to come - the war, homelessness and the fleeing from Kosovo to Finland. Statovci splices the absurd, the comic and the tragic through these chapters and the voices of son and mother. The idea of a sleek, well-dressed Cat as an abusive interloper shouldn’t really work but it does, as an allegorical agent for aggression - racial and homophobic. The Cat is a tidy parallel to Emine’s husband Bajram - both are forceful, violent and righteous. While Bajram is controlling enough within the confines of his own culture and country, as a refugee the associated humiliations, lack of power and sense of belonging fuel the worst in his behaviour for both Emine and Bekim. Interestingly, the lives and loves of both mother and son run the same gauntlet - similar emotional minefields: they both crave a romantic love relationship based on an ideal, yet find themselves victims of abusive and controlling partners. Statovci like Bekim is Kosovo-born and lives in Finland and, unsurprisingly, his first novel draws on this fractured past. My Cat Yugoslavia draws away from other novels I’ve read set during the Yugoslav War, which have tended to focus on the chaos of the crisis and the abject behaviour of humanity. This novel focuses on the repercussions of war through generations: violence which impacts on the ability to form relationships. Bekim is a gay immigrant unable and unwilling to fit in. He is socially isolated, neither a Kosovar Albanian nor Finnish, not a Muslim yet fingered as different, bereft of a family. It is not surprising that he feels closest to a reptile, his boa constrictor. Emine's story is just as captivating - from her rural, naive beginning to her new life as a wife, and to the unexpected consequences of war - the spirited sixteen-year-old eventually rises again. Statovci writes with a light touch, curling intense emotion into crisp sentences and using the absurd to lead us through disarray.

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