Statvoci, Pajtim. “My Cat Yugoslavia: A Novel”, translated by David Hackston, Pantheon, 2017.
A Young Man, a Mother, a Boa Constrictor and a Cat
When a young Muslim girl is married off to a man that she hardly knows in 1980s Yugoslavia, what was meant to be a happy match quickly goes wrong. Right afterwards, Yugoslavia is torn apart by war and she and her family flee to Finland, where her son Bekim grows up to become a social outcast, It was not enough that Finns are suspicious of foreigners but is a gay man in an unaccepting society. Aside from casual sexual escapades, his only companion is a boa constrictor that he lets roam around his apartment even though he is afraid of snakes.
One night, at a gay bar, Bekim meets a talking cat, who also moves in with him. This cat is witty, charming and manipulative creature and manages to get Bekim to take a journey back to Kosovo to confront his demons and make sense of family’s history. This journey allows Bekim finally to open himself to love and he finds in quite an unexpected place.
This is a novel about “a snake and a sexy, sadistic, talking cat; online cruising and Balkan weddings; the surreal mess of identity; the things that change when we change our country and the things that never change; the heartbreaking antagonism between fathers and sons; the bewilderment of love”. Pajtim Statovci is original and powerful as he writes about life as it is today. He gives us a layered look at the life on a man who is marginalized and he does so with insight and meaning.
We have two story lines. One is told by Emine, a young Muslim girl in Yugoslavia. The other line is told by her son, Bekim. Emine’s story is fascinating and realistic but it is also horrifying at times. When a young man notices her walking on the road, Emine asks her to marry him (to pit it succinctly) and his family offers all kinds of financial help. We follow the story (in installments) through the years, including the move to Finland. While her life was terrible, we learn about life in Yugoslavia and as a refugee in Finland.
Bekim’s story is a realistic tale of a very lonely young gay man who lives alone with a boa constrictor and we see how he interacts with other men, the problems with his father, and how he returns to Yugoslavia after a number of years. He meets this talking cat who dresses like a human but I had a bit of trouble understanding about this talking feline. I figured that this is a whimsical story but then it became quite serious as the stories begin to alternate and we realize that we are reading about different cultures, different languages and different values.
The writing is beautiful as is the prose but I felt something was missing. I now understand that it takes a little time for the story to set in and suddenly it all becomes very clear and I realized that this was quite a reading experience. It is an allegory and a look at those who live their lives on the fringes of society challenging us to “break the conventions of structure and characterization”.