The debut novel of the Finnish-Kosovar writer Pajtim Statovci is a heartfelt coming of age story about a queer immigrant, but stumbles when depicting the hardship of life in Kosovo.
Recently I met up with a writer friend of mine in a downtrodden Berlin bar, blocks away from “Tetova” and “Shkupi” cafes filled by the longing of the Albanian diaspora. We were conversing about whether all one can offer as a writer was the experience of being from the Balkans and whether that would be the most honest subject for us to write about. But when the Balkan author writes to an audience that goes beyond the local (and specific to their language), they have to address the issue of ‘the minority writer’ who does not have the luxury of universality (as say Dickens or Dostoyevsky do). They can only exploit their cultural exoticism to draw the reader in (some blood, some honey, voila). This can be extremely problematic for the minority writers whose work as ‘World Literature’ is sold for its cultural difference, perhaps more so than for its literary value. (I apologize for simplifying some basic tenets of postcolonial studies for the sake of argument here.)
The problem needs to be faced head on – whenever we write, we do not write in a vacuum. We write in a discussion with a history of literature about the Balkans written by western travellers.
At the same time, when one is from a minority culture one has both the right and duty to represent it. But like a western author/traveler who can exoticize the Balkans or other areas where ‘the Other’ exists, the minority author who is writing to an audience that is non-minority is also walking the thin-line between representation – giving voice to an experience, and the exoticization of that experience – the reduction of that experience to cardboard stereotypes.
Pajtim Statovci’s debut novel My Cat Yugoslavia raises the same issues. Having moved to Finland from Kosovo at the age of two in the early 1990s, Statovci writes in Finnish and now with his book being picked up by Penguin Random House, his first novel is also available in English. With very few books written in Albanian that end up translated into English, and even fewer books about or from Kosovo, Statovci’s tale of an Albanian immigrant mother and son from Kosovo is bound to spark the interest of Balkan aficionados and locals alike. To that effect, the title My Cat Yugoslavia seems to be there for no other purpose than to signal to booksellers and readers that the book is about that god forsaken region, although Yugoslavia is certainly no one’s feline pet.
The novel is a fearless debut, nevertheless. Chronicling the stories of Emine and her son Bekim in first person narrative, the book gives the reader an intimate look into the private lives of two people who could not be more different, although they suffer similarly from shame and the violence perpetrated by patriarchy, represented by the character of a brutally violent husband and father, Bajram.
Published in Finland in 2014 to wide acclaim, the novel is also most strikingly a coming of age novel about a queer immigrant coming to terms with his sexuality and the burden of coming from a traditionally homophobic culture (a sexual encounter with a married gay man in present-day Prishtina is supposed to shed light on the repressive environment in the narrator’s homeland Kosovo).
The book is divided into chapters about Emine, whose story begins in 1980 in a small village in Kosovo before she meets and marries Bekim’s father, and chapters written from Bekim’s perspective in contemporary Finland. Emine’s story unravels slowly, depicting step by step a traditional betrothal and marriage in Kosovo, while Bekim’s chapters have an urgency and manage to encapsulate a larger vista, from bile accumulated from mistreatment as a refugee in the early 1990s, the towering figure of the absent and abusing father, all the way to failed romantic relationships. In many regards, the two storylines read like separate novels.
This is also a quirky book: Bekim gets a boa constrictor although since childhood he has a deathly fear of snakes, and has to hide the pet when a talking cat he meets at a gay bar moves in with him. The cat, an overbearing drama queen, is eventually almost choked by the snake but Bekim saves him in the nick of time.
Statovci’s writing has flashes of genius – it is genuinely funny when the author embraces absurdity and queerness. But it is also bogged down by anthropological voyeurism, depictions of plot-wise unnecessary violence, and haphazardly-thrown metaphors (when does a cat become one too many?).
Bekim’s story is far too relatable – shame is central to the education of the timid and orderly young man, who cuts all connections to his siblings and parents after coming out to his father and leaving his childhood home for good. Shame also marks his memories of summer visits to Kosovo, where his broken Albanian worries his grandfather that the children are forgetting where they come from and who they are. Shame follows the young Bekim in the supermarket translating Finnish for his clueless parents who can’t speak the language; shame is what his father teaches him when he advises him to never tell anyone where he is from. Statovci’s prose is powerful in depicting the alienation of a youth who is between cultures, but identifies little with either.
Bekim’s mother Emine, on the other hand, is a plot vehicle for much of the Kosovo-based storytelling in the book. To a Kosovar Albanian reader the Emine chapters will read like a jarring anthropological expose, voyeuristic to an incredible degree when it comes to customs; filmic in their detailed depictions of violent Albanian men, but with very little grasp or intention to talk of politics. It is a shame that a book with Yugoslavia in the title fails to engage the political ramifications of being an Albanian in 1980s and 1990s Kosovo. It is also too bad that Statovci does not focus on the the social stratification in Kosovo between the rural and urban, especially since Emine and Bajram move from the village to Prishtina.
Instead, Emine describes news about disputes between Albanian and the Serbs as if someone was speaking Chinese to her. Often she also sounds anachronistic, describing houses and people as “Kosovan,” an adjective most Kosovo Albanians would never use to describe houses, and most definitely not prior to Kosovo’s 1999 war and independence in 2008. This lack of political consciousness on part of the characters is forgivable to the second-generation immigrant Bekim, but seems entirely incredible when it comes to ‘a typical Kosovan woman,’ as Statovci would perhaps call Emine.
Along the same lines, Statovci’s choice for an epigraph is a quote by Ivo Andric, the Bosnian Serb Nobel-prize laureate, in the original Serbo-Croatian. It is a bizarre choice considering Andric’s anti-Albanian nationalist politics – an ideology that eventually led to Statovci’s family fleeing Kosovo – and considering the complete absence of Serbs in the book (with the exception of a cameo by the Sarajevan Zdravko Colic on Emine’s TV set). But this too, like the title, seems forced – they seem like editorial additions to provide the reader with a context to Kosovo as part of a wider region, but somehow fail to offer an insight into the book or the story itself.
Perhaps like Bekim, who travels back to Kosovo once he’s all grown up and has faced his demons, Statovci is looking for his literary roots in the Balkans. But it will be difficult to find those without due diligence in research about the history of this region and its people, and definitely not without engaging with the politics of life in this corner of the world. Anything less will leave this immensely talented writer in the position of a native informant peddling in difference, but not much else.