Finnish-Kosovan author Pajtim Statovci's debut, My Cat Yugoslavia, mixes surreal invention with late twentieth century history to examine the trauma of war and displacement.
Bekim is a young man born to Albanian parents. He has four other siblings, three sisters and one brother. When war breaks out in the early 1990s, the family must flee their home in Kosovo. Bajram, the socially conservative father, considers moving to America or Australia, but finally settles on Finland. Life in Finland, an advanced democracy with a first class economy, turns out to be a place hostile to foreigners. While Bajram and his wife Emine watch the news, with its daily stories of their country being ripped apart by war, their children find their own identities torn. Neither Finnish or Albanian, they don't fit in anywhere and drift emotionally from their parents.
Pajtim Statovci's debut novel My Cat Yugoslavia (translated by David Hackston) runs two parallel stories, of mother and son. First the reader is introduced to Bekim. He's gay, somewhat emotionally detached and is struggling to form a permanent relationship. For company, he buys a pet boa constrictor, a muscular creature that is nonetheless quite placid. Later, in a bar he meets a cat that wears human clothes and talks. He invites the cat back to his flat, but discovers the cat is xenophobic and homophobic.
The second story is a history of his mother, Emine, from the time she marries as a teenager to when her children are finally grown, covering the time span from 1980 – 2008. She endures a horrible “traditional” marriage, is beaten and treated like a slave rather than a wife. Despite these hardships, she sometimes feels pity for her husband and can understand his grief in losing his country.
There is much to enjoy in this fine debut. Pajtim Statovci writes an urgent and compelling prose that is hard to put down. His subject matter – loss, displacement, generational trauma – comes from a place of personal experience, giving his story authenticity (Statovci's family fled Kosovo in the early nineties).
For those who have forgotten the Balkan Wars, My Cat Yugoslavia is a stark reminder of the atrocities suffered during those years. Statovci also adds surrealistic features (mysterious cats and laid back snakes), giving his story a pleasantly beguiling aspect.
A fascinating debut and an author to watch.
My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci. Published by Pushkin Press. RRP: $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books