"The human mind is fragile and it can tear at any time"
Early on in Pajtim Statovci's highly original debut novel his protagonist Bekim meets a handsome, charismatic and talkative cat in a gay bar. Bekim observes the cat loping "contentedly from one place to the other, chatting to acquaintances in order to maintain a smooth balanced social life". For a young man like Bekim who lives alone, with only a boa constrictor for company, the socially confident and handsome Cat is alluring and promptly invited to move in.
Just as you're about to reside this story to a whimsical tale about a lonely and confused man Statovci introduces increasingly personal layers to the narrative that expose some profound truths about Bekim, a man like Statovci, who finds himself living in Finland as an outsider having, along with his family, fled his home in Kosovo as a child.
Structurally the story flips between Bekim's narrative and that of his mother some twenty years before at home in Kosovo marrying and starting a family. Initimate family portrayals of life in the Balkans are rare in English language fiction and Statovci fills the gap expertly. As tensions rise in the region and the family look to begin a life elsewhere we feel every desperate heart beat that drives their ambition. A life in Finland must be brighter than the fear of conflict the family escape from.
Finland through the eyes of Bekim and his siblings is hostile and cold. Bekim does everything he can to find the "freedom to do everything differently" from his own parents but escaping the label of 'immigrant' proves impossible. The very worst racism and xenophobia is brilliantly articulated by the Cat who turns against Bakim in spite of the accommodation and food he provides.
Bekim's relationship with his domineering father is tense and intolerable. Fear and violence are always lurking round the corner "like a beast bound up in a straight jacket" yet even when Bekim rents an apartment of his own he allows a pet boa constrictor to live beneath the sofa, addicted somehow to threat and victimisation.
My Cat Yugoslavia is complex and unnerving. Hats of to David Hackston for his translation, particularly the anthropomorphic aspects, to English from Finnish. This is literary fiction that asks more questions that it answers but what is does achieve is a startling window in to the immigrant experience that is profound and deeply moving.
Themes of isolationism and talking cats sounds Murakami-esque but this is far from homage. For me, Statovci's talking cat is a well crafted means to expose both Bekim's isolation from the society around him and the same society's very darkest response to immigration.
My Cat Yugoslavia is beautifully written, immensely original and a highly commendable piece of literary fiction. I just hope David Hackston can keep translating Statovci's work for the English speaking audience.
My Cat Yugoslavia by Patjim Statovci translated by David Hackston published by Pushkin Press, 272 pages.
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