MY CAT YUGOSLAVIA – PAJTIM STATOVCI

MCYPeople in our group were generally glad to have read it. It has fantastic episodes and intense descriptions of one’s inner life.

Here are also some loose ends – whom is the newe lover? How did he get here?

It’s essentially an allegory about identity, love, death, sex, and facing one’s fears, demons, and their past. It goes back and forth from the point of view of son, then mother, son, then mother, and by part 2, you somewhat lose whose voice is telling the rest of the story

It takes a while to work out who everybody is and how they are related to each other.

Despite a childhood history with ophidiophobic nightmares, he buys a boa constrictor and sets it loose in his apartment. The snake takes up residence under his sofa, driving away his few human visitors, and quickly adopts strangely companionable behaviors more befitting a dog than a reptile.

Emine is brought up in a quietly conservative village near the Kosovan capital of Pristina, she was married off to a man whose name, Bajram (“celebration”), belied his fierce temper, and it has taken her decades to pluck up the courage to leave him.

In the 18th and 19th century. British writer and Albanian advocate Edith Durham wrote High Albania in 1909, and described the customs she encountered amongst the Albanians of what is now northern Albania and Kosovo. The language she used to describe Albanians then calls to mind the trope of the noble savage today: men who kill for honour and women who spend their lives in childbirth or domestic servitude.

An urgent longing for love belies Bekim’s inscrutability. We find echoes of that same longing in Emine’s girlhood reminiscences. She is a fiercely intelligent daydreamer at odds with her strict and superstitious father. In one of the novel’s most affecting passages, she realizes that the objective of her education has always been to make her a more suitable wife.

There’s too much stereotyping – no Albanian man in My Cat Yugoslavia, apart from Bekim, is anything other than a rustic bigot, and no Albanian woman is anything other than a besieged housewife. The nuance and care afforded Bekim’s character doesn’t appear to be extended to his countrymen and women. It’s clear that Statovci means to depict the closed, conservative nature of Kosovar Albanian society when he describes Emine being sexually harassed in a marketplace and Bekim’s father beating his family

It’s a literal take on ‘crushing the serpent’s head’ in Christianity, though Islam doesn’t have a serpent in its fall myth.

The snake that Bekim brings into his apartment is both foreign and fear-inducing; most of his days he spends cooped up in a terrarium, just as many of the Kosovans in Finland felt penned in at their reception centres and gawped at when they stepped outside.

The pet serpent becomes a peculiar character in its own right, its reptilian coolness and shedding of skin reflecting Bekim’s progressive loss of his own warmth. The book’s most notable animal, however, is the one in the title: an anthropomorphic talking cat named Yugoslavia, whom Bekim meets at a gay club. The cat quickly charms Bekim, despite sharing so many of the hatreds that torment him: the cat is anti-gay, anti-immigrant, and as selfish and abusive as Bekim’s father. Even so—and much as his mother did, for years, with his father—Bekim caters to Yugoslavia, bringing the cat home and attending to its every need.

Is the cat really aloof or is it afraid of exposing its neediness? There is more than one cat. The first cat talks. The second cat was abandoned, uncared for, unloved in the native country until rescued and restored to health. And finally, there is the black cat in a litter, “just normal, mongrel kittens,” in the author’s words, to distinguish them from the black and white cat who speaks, and the orange cat who doesn’t. The talking cat so full of himself could be the author himself, and the follow-on cats could be those who’d suffered during the war, coming finally to the children, those ‘normal’ integrated ‘mongrels’ who’d adjusted to their new environment in their adopted country and married with locals.

These relationships are as visceral – the boa constrictor’s intimacy crushes, almost asphyxiates – as those of family and home country. War destabilises and mangles identity – “We were vagrants,” Emine says. “We were stuck between the truth and the lies. We no longer knew what was real” – and it’s in these bizarre, intense interactions with animals that the reader gets a feel for the hybrid nature of migrant life.

In his History of Albanian Literature, linguist Robert Elsie describes the Albanian literary canon as lacking in eroticism. I would argue that this has changed over the past two to three decades, as more Albanian women have begun writing about love and sex (and writing novels, period).

Year after year, Kosovo is ranked as one of the most homophobic countries in Europe, which is why we need more protagonists like Bekim to normalise queerness and forms of love divorced from domination

However, somebody knowledgeable has pointed out: Kosovar Albanian characters inexplicably use phrases that belong to the Toske dialect of Albanian, which is not spoken anywhere in Kosovo. Someone else pointed out that those who left kept their language whilst those who stayed developed it.

The author: “When I told people where I come from, instead of interest, I many times received pity.”

This (the cat) unusual relationship, Statovci told me, may represent, for Bekim, “a different kind of love” from the others he has known, “stronger and more powerful, because it has crossed borders and walls. Maybe he thinks that if he can get someone like that to give him love and acceptance, he will be O.K.,” Statovci added. “Maybe he needs to feel that it is possible for people who think in a similar way the cat thinks to see him as more than a refugee or as a gay guy—to fall in love with him.”

Statovci has long been haunted, he told me, by George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” particularly the famous line “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” which Statovci called “a beautiful analogy of the world we live in.” Yugoslavia the cat may also remind readers of Behemoth, the demonic feline in Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita,” who mixes his devilry with charm, though Yugoslavia seems more devil than charmer. And midway through Statovci’s novel Yugoslavia becomes a regular house cat, which Bekim carries around. The novel never explains how or why a talking cat existed or what to make of his disorienting return to ordinariness. Had Bekim imagined Yugoslavia into existence out of desperation? Had something in him shattered, and Yugoslavia emerged? The feline’s shift may contain a cultural metaphor: in Finland, Statovci told me, “cats are domesticated, whereas in Kosovo they are seen as dirty.” But this only says so much. Perhaps, the novel seems to suggest, this is how a mind can break, folding in on itself, elaborate as an origami swan, until it is torn apart.

My Cat Yugoslavia is a work of fiction – from start to finish, but I do make use of some autobiographical elements

I also wanted to show the different levels of discrimination and racism and how integral and automatic it often is, with characters that are guilty of doing it and with characters that are its victims and with characters that first suffer from violence and then act in a violent fashion. Bajram, who himself has suffered from racism, ends up acting racist towards Finns and being more and more violent towards his family. Bekim’s mother, Emine, who loathes working Finnish mothers, ends up landing a job herself. The cat in Bekim’s story is ruthless towards Bekim, at first for no apparent reason, but later on starts showing symptoms of being a victim of bigotry. It’s the saddest thing ever when people who have confronted intolerance and hatred end up being intolerant and hateful, but that’s how it goes. What hatred generates and what it calls upon is hate.

I’m actually just turning in my master’s thesis on animal representations in some selected short stories of Ernest Hemingway and Franz Kafka

MCY 2Quotations:

“Gays. I don’t much like gays… How repulsive. Men’s hands don’t move through the air like that, and men don’t talk the way women talk. And men don’t wear such tight tops and wiggle their bottoms like that – like a prostitute, a whore!”

“When people on the television talked about the disputes between the Albanians and the Serbs, I didn’t bother listening; the news anchor might as well have been speaking in Chinese.” (To suggest Emine would be unaware of the roots of the Albanian-Serb conflict in Kosovo is laughable.)

He starts to use false names, like Michael and John, simply to “avoid the next question, which is, ‘Where are you from?’ ” “It’s one thing to tell someone you are Swedish, German, or English,” Bekim says, “and quite another thing to say you are Turkish or Iranian. It’s only very rarely that someone’s home country is of no significance at all.”

“I noticed the cat across the dance floor”

I had never seen anything so enchanting, so alluring. He was a perfect cat” with gleaming fur and muscular back legs.

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 towards me.”

I didn’t answer. He glanced quickly out of the window where the evening was beginning to darken and turn red. What if I stopped loving him or what if he could no longer bring himself to say it, or what if he fell in love with someone else or got a job on the other side of the world? Anything could happen. He could die.

…“Don’t think too much. That’s your problem.”

He moved his hand on my stomach; his fingertips felt warm and soft and his skin smelled of sliced almonds.

Then I said it too, because it would have been sheer madness not to say those words to a man like that.

only pretty and good at housework, or so I’d been told,

never heard of a single female politician, a female teacher or lawyer.

All of a sudden tanks and soldiers were filling the streets. When Albanians started being systematically removed from their jobs, from positions in hospitals and the police, and when it became impossible to study in Albanian, the situation turned desperate. There was no room in the city to breathe. The caretaker in our apartment building didn’t bother to clean the floors with Albanian residents. The bosses at Bajram’s office were sacked and Serbs were appointed in their place, and eventually Bajram too lost his job. Local authorities gave Serb-owned businesses tax cuts while general taxation for Albanians was increased. Albanians had to study in basements and private apartments, in secret, and teachers caught teaching Albanians were routinely attacked, gas grenades were thrown into civilian apartments, and innocent people were beaten up in the streets.

The air became thick and damp, heavy with the smell of burning, because it was breathed in turn by the desperate and the insane. I worried that I would wake up to find our apartment building on fire or that my children and I would be kidnapped and taken away, that we’d never see one another again. How was it even possible to experience hatred to such a degree that you altogether lost your sense of right and wrong?

When war broke out in Bosnia and we heard about the bru­talities to which the Bosnians were subjected—they were driven out of their homes, their houses were bombed, pregnant women were tortured and raped and taken to concentration camps—I wondered what was happening to this planet. At what point had humans turned into beasts that mauled one another, that held their neighbors’ heads beneath the water?

“What? What did you say about religions?” he interrupted me angrily and slammed his coffee cup on the table.

“Yes, at school the children learn about all different reli­gions,” I said warily and breathed out as calmly as I could.

Bajram hit the table with his fist so hard that coffee spilled from the cup. He stood up and walked over to me. I didn’t dare look at him because I could feel his expression without looking. It was red-hot, like a ceramic burner turned on full.

“Why have you sent our children to a Sunday school?” he asked and hauled me to my feet.

“I haven’t done that,” I tried to assure him. “In schools here they teach children about all religions.”

I tried with all my might to calm him down, to escape the ensuing conversation. “It’s part of their basic education, part of their curriculum,” I said and tried to slip free from his hand.

Bajram looked at me for a moment with that same expres­sion on his face, that bloodthirsty expression, the kind of expres­sion you see only on the face of one who is about to exact the final, ultimate revenge. He held my shoulders with both hands, moved his right arm round my neck, and began to squeeze.

The very next day Bajram marched into the children’s school and forbade the teachers to teach them about religion. Accord­ing to Bajram, the teachers had stammered in response, trying to lie to him, and said that this was an optional course about life philosophy in which the students were encouraged to think about the world and its various phenomena, including religion. At first Bajram had scoffed at them, dug his fingers into his fore­head, and shaken his head as though he had a headache. Then he asked them why he hadn’t been told about this. Its as if you’re trying to steal my children from me, he said.

When he came home he told me how he had shown them what’s what. I couldn’t understand how he seriously imagined he would be able to change their ideas of life by talking to them about Islam. On some level I admired his determination and resolve. He blindly believed in his own world and trusted that his own faith would save him from all imaginable sins for which he feared divine retribution. It wasn’t a bad way to live your life.

The following month Bajrara lost his job. He was genuinely shocked at this—despite the fact that he knew his employers had found out that he had been deviating from the prescribed syl­labus. He had been talking to the.students about Islam and told them their life philosophy classes were a pack of lies.

He had been given two options: he could either resign or he would be fired. Upon realizing the difference between the two and the implications they might have, he took the former option. After this he seemed depressed for a long time because he truly loved his job and had wanted to do it full-time, not just in the afternoons and evenings.

His employment record arrived in the post. Bajram looked at it for a while and slipped it into his desk drawer. He took it out again, read it for a moment, then put it back in the drawer. He did this so often that one day, when he had gone out for a walk, I took out the sheet of paper and read it for myself.

Employment terminated at the employee’s behest due to dis­agreement over interpretation of the school’s aims and values regarding equality.

That’s what it said.

At times it seemed as though what we saw on television couldn’t really be happening. It was a mirage, an unreal reflec­tion of unreal events. But it was all truly happening, the lives of every single one of those people had ended, and I felt like a coward for refusing to die in the conflict. We will all die one day, I thought, and there will be nothing left of us. Wouldn’t it be nobler to die back home rather than to run away? To die in battle rather than of old age?

When the news reported the events in Ratak on January is, 1999, we began to question the existence of God. What had that woman, gunned down, ever done to the Serbs? What had that child done, what had those desperate men done, men who real­ized their village was surrounded by Serb troops? And when those men saw the soldiers shooting randomly at innocent peo­ple, where was God then? Where was he? When men who had been captured were suddenly told, Run away, and when those men ran away up the hill only to be cut down halfway there, where was he? And when after this skirmish they showed video footage of an orphaned little boy weeping, what did God do with that child?

I told the woman that I didn’t particularly care for cats either, I am like my son. They are too erratic, too quiet. I said I couldn’t understand why Finnish people kept them as pets because in Kosovo the cat is considered a dirty animal.

She was convinced that this was not about a fear of actual snakes but about things the boy associated with snakes, the images and memories he had of them.

She was convinced that this was not about a fear of actual snakes but about things the boy associated with snakes, the images and memories he had of them.

Bajram showed the imam into the apartment and the imam followed him after taking off his snakeskin shoes and leaving them in the hall. His socks, the same color as his suit, were damp at the toes.

All at once my cat started hissing. It had walked to the edge of the boulder, its teeth bared, and began to hiss at something moving around in the long grass below us. The cat was lean­ing forward—it looked almost as though it might topple off the edge of the boulder. Its fur had become bristled and restless, and its sharp shoulders stood unnaturally high and its mouth opened and now looked extraordinarily large compared to the rest of its body…..The snake was plump and must have been about a yard long. It was clearly a sand viper, Vipera ammodytes, the most poisonous viper in Europe.

“Wipe it away and you’re dead, they said, wipe it and you’re dead, you fucking parasite refugee.”

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