July 22, 2017 | Rome, Italy | °C
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Fiction

A Little Lumpen Novelita

Roberto Bolańo's understated Rome-set novella is a posthumous example of the Chilean writer's genius.

Barrow's Point

Robert Schirmer invents a Wisconsin town and packs it with homophobia and its fallout.

The Hunger Saint

Olivia Cerrone's evocative novella is a searing journey into turn-of-the-20th-century Sicilian mines.

Lincoln in the Bardot

George Saunders' ambitious journey into the world of limbo and Abraham Lincoln's grief at the death of his son is a gossip-fest.

Exit West

In "Exit West," Mohsin Hamid gives global migration a magically compassionate new look.

The Story of a Brief Marriage

Anuk Arudpragasam's debut is a superior work of fiction and poised rendering of unimaginable sadness.

Transit

In her latest novel, Rachel Cusk can't enough of playing disappointment's biographer.

The Last Days of New Paris

China Miéville reinvents postwar Paris in a clever but stilted homage to Surrealism.

Bios & Memoirs

War and Turpentine

A Flemish-Belgian writer "reinvents" his grandfather to brilliant and dramatic effect.

Nonfiction

A World Apart

In 1951, Polish writer Gustaw Herling recalled his Gulag days, and entered a rare class of writers.




BOOK REVIEW
My Cat Yugoslavia
By Pajtim Statovci, translated from the Finnish by David Hackston
Pantheon, 2017. 272 pages

A Kosovar immigrant to Finland, Bekim, has an unsatisfying one-night-stand with a gay lover, after which he decides on more permanent (and reliable) company: a boa constrictor. The boa makes for fine if quirky companion until he meets a talking cat in a bar out of which comes an edgy ménage-a-trois. Where is all surrealism headed? Into the past, of course.

Pajtim Statovci, himself a Finn from Kosovo, uses his "animated" introduction to dig into how stranger-in-a-strange land Bekim became the man he is, introducing his mother Emine (the novel's second narrator), his abusive, Allah-fearing father Bajram (he calls Bekim a donkey and a dog), and the family's Tito Era roots in Kosovo. Gradually, Bekim's snake and cat are revealed as half-imagined, half-real "pets" reconfigured from his Balkan youth and uneasily installed in foreigner-loathing Finland. The talking feline wears "thick-rimmed sunglasses" hates gays and immigrants — "There are quotas for people like you, though they’ll never admit it. A bit of color, something exotic, you know, something different." — and behaves every bit as insultingly as Bekim's estranged father. Both cat and snake ooze metaphors (the title is hint enough) and add a dreamlike, self-loathing component to the repressed mix. "No one will ever love you," spits the cat.

Mother Emine, meanwhile, has her own stories to tell: of growing up in rural Kosovo, her arranged marriage to Bajram, bearing seven children (Bekim the most troubled), and Bajram's madcap decision to move the family to a place as remote from Kosovo as Mars. There's a steep price to pay, and no one in the family emerges unscathed.

This is, to put it mildly, an ambitious effort to cover the compass points of dislocation, at times both luminous and brave. Statovci, only 24 when he wrote the novel, effectively portrays the superstitious and sublimated anatomy of personal and cultural displacement, but it can be jagged going. The novel's triumph is in the unconventional means it uses to get to core of being someone or no one in a new place, all the while tugged at by old values. Its weakness is that same ambition, putting snakes, cats, memorable mothers and angry fathers into an overly thick stew. It is at its best when narrated by Emine, whose recollection of her Albanian upbringing is a tapestry of an Ottoman world. Once free of Bajram, she will adjust as best she can.

This is a Pilgrim's Progress story with strange pilgrims and an even stranger notion of progress. In Emine's eyes its moral is twofold. It is trauma that makes for reptiles and talking cats — "The war had changed everything. It laughed at things that had once been sacred and didn’t care about people’s faces." — and to swap one country for another, while feasible, even admirable, takes an indelible toll that non-émigrés cannot fathom. Straps break and old luggage pops open, what's under the lid too great to ever pack back in.

Reviewed by Book Staff
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