Archive for the ‘Pajtim Statovci’ Category

My Cat Yugoslavia

September 25, 2017

Pajtim Statovci’s My Cat Yugoslavia (translated from the Finnish – an important point in itself – by David Hackston) is a first novel which matches bravura with accomplishment. Its opening gambit is a gay sex scene where the encounter has been arranged via social media – a daring nod towards modernity – but within a few pages we are in the presence of a talking cat, a character which ranges menacingly though literature from Puss in Boots to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Not only that, but Statovci comfortably pursues two narratives: the first set in contemporary Finland, following Bekim, the son of Yugoslav immigrants, as he comes to terms with who he is; the second relating the story of his mother, Emine’s, early life and ultimate departure from her home in the face of persecution. To Statovci’s credit, both narratives are equally compelling.

Before the cat, however, there is a snake. In the second chapter Bekim acquires a boa constrictor in a scene which also has homoerotic overtones:

“I gripped the snake with both hands and wound it round my neck, and as its scaly sides touched my bare skin, as it touched my neck with the tip of its tongue, goose bumps appeared all over my body. Its slow progression across my bare skin felt like a long warm lick.”

While the snake (and the cat) are clearly linked to Bekim’s sense of his own identity, the novel cannot be reduced to a symbolic schematic. Bekim frequently mentions looking at his reflection in the snake’s eyes, but, while the snake may be how he sees himself (particularly in terms of his loneliness), this is not the same as saying it represents his true identity. The cat, on the other hand, seems to embody the worst aspects of the society in which he is now living, making him one of the most infuriating, repulsive, and entertaining talking animals you are likely to encounter. He pronounces his opinions in the same way that he dances: with attention-seeking conviction:

“Gays. I don’t much like gays… How repulsive. Men’s hands don’t move through the air like that, and men don’t talk the way women talk. And men don’t wear such tight tops and wiggle their bottoms like that – like a prostitute, a whore!”

His over-bearing masculinity is also redolent of Bekim’s father, who we are meeting for the first time the other narrative. It’s noticeable that the first story Statovci chooses to tell us about Bekim’s mother, Emine, demonstrates the deeply religious and patriarchal society she lives in. Taken to the market by her father, she pauses to look at herself in a compact mirror, before becoming aware of a young man “eyeing me for an unsuitably long time”:

“The man lowered his eyes to my chest, raised both hands to his cheeks, shook his head and shouted, ‘O-paa!’”

Her father’s response is to tell her, “Never do anything like that again” – and he does not take her back to the market. When she marries, aged fifteen, she is shocked by her new husband, Barjam’s, groping in the car to his home, but when she protests he simply slaps her “so hard that my head almost turned right round.” Her main thought is, “I will be the perfect woman for him.”

Emine’s story is fascinating for the insight it gives us into life among the Albanian Muslims in Yugoslavia, a life circumscribed by tradition. We also see the increasing fragmentation of nationalities after Tito’s death:

“The situation grew tenser with every passing day. Party Chairman Milosevic diverted more and more government funds to building projects in Belgrade, millions and millions of dinars… All of a sudden tanks and soldiers were filling the streets. When Albanians started being systematically removed from their jobs, from positions in hospitals and the police, and when it became impossible to study in Albanian, the situation turned desperate.”

Barjam loses his job and eventually the family leave for Finland. Barjam in particular finds the change, which he regards as temporary, difficult, as Bekim explains:

“I learned to speak and read in a language he didn’t understand, to live among people whose culture he despised, to talk about subjects he couldn’t fathom. I learned to avoid him and everything to do with his life.”

Bekim, too, struggles to know who he is: he may absorb the language and culture of Finland but he remains an outsider, and at one point returns to Kosovo in search of his past. As his father has warned him:

“One day you’ll see that if you try to become their equal, they’ll despise you more,”

The novel is a poignant exploration of isolation and identity, one which Statovci handles with a verve and subtlety beyond his years (he wrote it aged twenty-one). It examines the experience of immigration by a family rather than an individual, and the generational difficulties created. Yet, for all its serious intent, Statovci uses a wide palette of emotions with a light touch in a novel deserving of a wide audience.