Finding a voice

13 November 2014 | Authors, Reviews

Pajtim Statovci. Photo: Tommi Tuomi

Pajtim Statovci. Photo: Tommi Tuomi

Here it is, finally: Pajtim Statovci’s debut novel is the first book of literary merit written in Finnish by an author who originally came to Finland from the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo. Kissani Jugoslavia (‘Yugoslavia, my cat’, Otava, 2014) is a wild depiction of identity, told simultaneously from the perspectives of the mother of an immigrant family and her son. Statovci builds a keen sense of tension between the narrative of the Albanian woman and that of her youngest son.

Born in Podujevë, Kosovo, in 1990, Statovci came to Finland at the age of two. He is studying comparative literature at the University of Helsinki and film and television scriptwriting at the Aalto University. The French and Norwegian translation rights to Kissani Jugoslavia were sold before the book had even been published.

Emine, a girl from the countryside, is married at the age of 17 to the handsome Bajram who, despite his university education, behaves in typical macho fashion, subjugating and humiliating his wife from the very first day of their marriage. When the family flees the restlessness and arrives in Finland in 1994, now with four children in tow, Bajram continues in his previous role as the master of the family.

But in a foreign culture things gradually change: Bajram loses his job and, eventually, his family too. Emine, meanwhile, becomes more independent and emancipated, the new environment finally offering her a life of her own. The cost of this, however, is the loss of contact with her own family and children. As a family they don’t seem able to cope in the new environment without emotional scars.

The son’s story is completely different from the realistic historical narrative used to tell the mother’s story. Young Bekim is a sexually confused young man now forced to find a place for himself in an often unwelcoming Finnish culture. The novel’s narrative style incorporates fantasy and elements of the grotesque as Bekim explores human relationships and sexuality.

Cats and snakes represent everything previously shunned, the despised and the desirable associated with human sexuality and, in particular, with the inherent use of power. In Kosovo the cat is a ‘dirty’ animal, but Bekim nonetheless tries to build a shared life with a handsome man – in the feline form – he meets in a bar.

In her homeland Emine too has previously been frightened of cats, but at the end of the novel she takes a cat as a pet. In the world of the novel both characters bravely confront their fears – and transcend them.

The figure of the snake is more multifaceted. The terror associated with snakes that Bekim experiences as a child is very real: he suffers from debilitating nightmares and anxiety attacks – for which his father is largely responsible. Therapy helps him, and as a young student he takes a boa constrictor as a pet, and thus begins a fascinating exploration of his own fears.

The novel succeeds in giving cats and snakes strong, vivid characters. These fantasy animals nonetheless retain their realistic personae too: when, as an adult, Bekim returns to Kosovo, the land of his ancestors, he captures a poisonous adder and hurls it at his grandfather. The scene can be read as a final greeting to the restrictive patriarchy which has ordained the fate of his family.

Translated by David Hackston

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