cover image My Cat Yugoslavia

My Cat Yugoslavia

Pajtim Statovci, trans. from the Finnish by David Hackston. Pantheon, $24.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-101-87182-9

In current day Helsinki, Bekim, an isolated, gay, 20-something ethnic Albanian born in Kosovo, acquires a boa constrictor and intentionally keeps it out of its terrarium, preferring to let the snake wrap itself around his body instead. Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, readers follow Bekim’s history: the story of his mother and father before they were married and he was born, the Serbian destruction of Islamic Albania, and the family’s eventual move to Finland. As each story line progresses, the gap between the two timelines closes, illustrating how the past and the present have shaped Bekim. The chapters featuring Bekim’s mother, beginning in 1980 when she was 15 years old, powerfully reveal her strained marriage to a traditional, domineering man and her endless domestic responsibilities because “a Kosovan home should always look tidy and shouldn’t look lived in.” She works tirelessly to placate her husband and protect her children, a task made infinitely more difficult once the family is displaced to cold, foreign Finland. But the thread following adult Bekim is far more difficult to track, particularly once he meets a cat in a bar: “he [the cat] raised his front paw to the top button of his shirt, unbuttoned it, and began walking toward me.” The reality here becomes hard to parse, and it’s unclear if the cat is whimsical or a reflection of Bekim’s disturbed mental state. While the story of the family is compelling, the juxtaposition with the talking cat becomes a jarring counterpoint, interfering with the otherwise important exploration of the aftershocks of war. (Apr.)