I love it when a sentence takes an unexpected turn, surprising and delighting me. That happened early in Pajtim Statovci’s My Cat Yugoslavia. Bekim, a young Albanian Kosovar who lives in exile in Finland is at a gay bar and observing a striking black and white striped cat who moves from one side of the room to the other, up on his hind legs to chat, balancing the gift of his attention among his acquaintance. “Then the cat noticed me, he started smiling at me and I started smiling at him, then he raised his front paw to the top button of his shirt, unbuttoned it, and began walking toward me.” It was there that I fell in love with this book.
The story alternates perspective from Bekim, a contemporary gay man living in Helsinki who finds hookups on the internet, and Emine, his mother, a young Albanian Kosovar who is eagerly anticipating her marriage. Their stories progress through their lives, Emine’s story moves from her youthful optimism to the devastating disappointment of her wedding night and a long, brutal marriage within which she raised five children while subsuming everything that is herself in obedience to an erratic, brutal husband. Bekim’s story begins soon after he rejects his family who are living in Finland as refugees.His story is one of self-discovery, of finding out what matters, of going back to Kosovo and finding his own capacity for love.
This book is odd, in a way, so much action in the background, so little in the foreground. There is so much happening in their world, the death of Tito on Emine’s wedding day, the rise of Melosevic, the repression of Albanians in Prishtina, the Bosnian conflict, the war in Kosovo. The family moving from the country to Prishtina to Helsinki. But the action is external. Within the inner lives of our two protagonists, progress is achingly slow. Emine spends more than twenty years just cleaning, cooking, and raising children…a monotony of days punctuated by her husband’s rages. Bekim, too, drifts through life, seeking love but sabotaging it, believing that cat who seemed to curse him, telling him he will never be loved.
I liked My Cat Yugoslavia very much. I liked the honest portrayal of the frustration of being a refugee, that mixture of shame and embarrassment for being different and the anger that this new society they live in does not see them as individuals. I felt such compassion for Emine whose cultural mores left her no alternatives but who, through time, began to see her own path forward. I liked the parallels between Helsinki and Kosovo, the cat and snake so important in both locations.
The father, Bajram, was only perceived from without, by his wife and his son…and he remains a cipher. He inspired love and loathing in his family. Was he mentally ill, or was he simply a brute? Was he a religious zealot or disturbed? We don’t know. We never know why he told his son he was dying of cancer, we just know he did and that he lied to his son. But the why of Bajram remains a mystery….that’s okay. This is not his story, it’s the story of his wife and son…and their journey to find themselves.
My Cat Yugoslavia will be released April 18th, I was granted an e-galley for review by publisher Knopf Doubleday through Edelweiss.