On the surface, Pajtim Statovci's debut novel My Cat Yugoslavia appears to be reader-resistant. Its off-putting contents include snapshots of Balkan brutality, bouts of anti-immigrant cruelty, a violent and intensely unsympathetic patriarch, a time-jerking, character-switching narrative, a talking cat, and, perhaps most heinous of all, an epigraph from Lady Gaga.
What should be an array of enticing measures on the author's part seems instead like a barrage of distancing techniques. However, it pays to scratch that surface and delve deeper, for the novel proves to be a deeply immersive reading experience.
Kosovo-born Finnish writer Statovci has blended grounded and sometimes gritty drama with flighty magical realist flourishes to produce a startlingly original story about the trials and upheavals of losing a homeland and adapting to an adopted one. Statovci braids together two separate personal accounts. One strand follows Bekim, a reluctant student, part-time postman and full-time loner, who feels disconnected and rudderless in Finland. One day he buys a boa constrictor for company and lets it loose in his pokey, spartan apartment.
A new chapter in his life begins in which he will care for his pet and watch it grow; he will learn to understand it so well that "it won't have to say a single word".
The reader has little time to query this – a talking animal? – as Statovci then leaves Bekim's strand dangling and starts to weave in another.
Back in the spring of 1980 we meet Emine, a young Muslim girl, who attracts the attention of a stranger in her Kosovan village. Bajram introduces himself and very soon Emine is engaged to him, a man she barely knows.
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She has doubts about the marriage and the responsibilities involved – "we would be like two factory workers thrown into an operating room and expected to perform heart surgery" – but those doubts curdle into fear and dread on her wedding day when she learns the hard way that her husband is a sadistic bully. Gradually, it becomes apparent that Emine is Bekim's mother. Bekim's narrative confines itself to present-day Finland. Emine's story on the other hand covers more ground, coursing through the turbulent 1980s and 1990s and taking in the trauma of an abusive marriage, bubbling tension and stoked-up ethnic persecution, and eventually the dislocation of exile and the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
Emine's tale is filled with enough tumultuous events, both at home and in her homeland, and doesn't require any additional zany embellishments.
For a while, Bekim's story is rendered entirely naturalistic, consisting of snake teething troubles, flailing attempts to find love and his hatred towards his fellow students with their ignorant, insular views about immigrants.
"They even asked me about it," Bekim tells us, incredulous. "When are they going to stop shafting the welfare system, lazing about, and harassing women?"
Then things take a manic turn when Bekim encounters a cat in a bar. Not only is he standing upright on the dance floor, he is singing along to songs by Cher and Tina Turner.
"One paw was clenched to his heart and the other reached out as if to take a lost lover by the hand."
Statovci cranks up the madcappery: the coffee-drinking, film-loving cat moves in with Bekim and the pair go on hikes, play squash and visit spa hotels. Bekim has to put up with regular insults and endure more tirades against "troublemaker" immigrants. But thanks to the cat's coercions, Bekim comes to open up about his past and makes tentative steps in confronting his demons.
This is a novel which takes a succession of considerable risks to perform dizzying feats. Statovci is equally adept at depicting stark reality (Serb atrocities, marital strife, paralysing culture shock) as he is in weird fantasy. Emine's husband is at once terrifying and disgusting ("the stink of his breath: tobacco, garlic, tobacco, leek, tobacco, and aged beef"). Bekim's cat steals every scene he is in. Unlike other talking cats in fiction, whether Lewis Carroll's grinning, riddling Cheshire Cat, or the shapeshifting demonic Behemoth that stalks the pages of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, Statovci's feline is conceited, bigoted and outspoken. He is also useful, and once he has served his purpose he slinks off.
Heightening the real and the surreal is an abundance of memorably quirky or evocative imagery. In such places the book's translator David Hackston excels himself. Finnish words "seemed to crack like brittle, unhealthy bones" while the snake's dry skin "rattled like a broken amplifier".
A new city "didn't draw attention to itself but warmed up slowly like a jogger's muscles". When war breaks out and ravages lives, Emine realises that "Death was the very clothes we wore" whereas "Life was no longer a unique journey; it was a short slit, a pinprick on a fingertip, a bottle to the head in a dark alleyway, and there was nothing unique about it".
Not all readers will relish the brisk chopping and changing between mother and son, or, as the novel nears its conclusion, their increasingly undifferentiated first-person voices. The rest of us won't mind, and will gladly share the characters' disorientation and parallel mindset. We feel for Bekim in his isolation and confusion, or in his torment at the hands of a Turkish imam turned exorcist; we cheer on Emine, willing her to stand up, fight back and break free.
Don't be discouraged by pages of war, displacement and a condescending cat. This novel's singular ingredients combine to make a strange but thoroughly intoxicating brew.