Year of the cat

13 November 2014 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Kissani Jugoslavia (‘Yugoslavia, my cat’, Otava 2014). Introduction by Mervi Kantokorpi

I met the cat in a bar. And he wasn’t just any cat, the kind of cat that likes toy mice or climbing trees or feather dusters, not at all, but entirely different from any cat I’d ever met.

I noticed the cat across the dance floor, somewhere between two bar counters and behind a couple of turned backs. He loped contentedly from one place to the other, chatting to acquaintances in order to maintain a smooth, balanced social life. I had never seen anything so enchanting, so alluring. He was a perfect cat with black-and-white stripes. His soft fur gleamed in the dim lights of the bar as though it had just been greased, and he was standing, firm and upright, on his two muscular back paws.

Then the cat noticed me; he started smiling at me and I started smiling at him, and then he raised his front paw to the top button of his shirt, unbuttoned it and began walking towards me.

Before long he was standing in front of me in all his handsome glory. It was as if the cat had got my tongue and at first I was unable to utter a word. The famous hits of yesteryear were playing in the background, and the cat clearly felt an affinity with the lyrics, as he was singing along to songs by Cher and Tina Turner with such gusto that I thought he might burst with the force of his own memories.

Give me a lifetime of promises and a world of dreams / Speak the language of love like you know what it means / You’re simply the best, better than all the rest / Better than anyone, anyone I’ve ever met.

And then:

What am I supposed to do? / Sit around and wait for you? / Do you believe in life after love? / I can feel something inside me say / I really don’t think you’re strong enough.

The cat leaned his head back and grinned so widely that his chin formed three different chins. The expression on his face was as dramatic and fateful as that of an opera singer arriving at a climax: his eyes had creased shut, his mouth was wide open as though he were about to sneeze and his knees bobbed in time with the chorus from Believe. One paw was clenched to his heart and the other reached out as if to take a lost lover by the hand.

After praising his extraordinary rendition, I looked him in the eyes and smiled.

‘I know,’ he began. ‘Nothing short of astonishing, isn’t it?’

The cat’s white stripes shone in the dark, and the flashing strobe lighting sometimes made him disappear altogether, as though he weren’t there at all. The cat was such a wonderful, beautiful, gifted interpreter that I took him in my arms without waiting for any indication that he might be interested, and straight away I noticed that his silky smooth fur smelt good and that his body was muscular from top to tail. The mere sensation of touching it was so magical that, goodness me, I needn’t have touched anything else ever again.

During one flash of the strobethe cat bounded back on to the dance floor, leaving my arms momentarily embracing nothing but thin air.

I prowled round the bar a few times and started to get agitated. I realised I wanted the cat so much that I’d already decided I would have him. My upper lip tensed, my head was pounding and my focus sharpened. And just then his magnificent, arched back appeared from behind a corner, his long black tail wagged up and down and he crept forward as though he were stalking fresh prey.

The cat stopped a short way away. He peered discreetly – even seductively – over his shoulder and looked me right in the eyes. With his front paw, he gestured for me to follow him, winked at me the way the other men in the bar winked at meand disappeared once again round the corner.

I began following at his command, and before long I was standing right behind him, and I felt like saying what a beautiful cat he was, a truly lovely kitty-cat. After walking across the corridor, the cat found a free table. It was one-thirty in the morning, the music was blaring and the dance floors were crammed with party animals. The cat leapt on to the sofa and settled himself by the table with a look of pride: his eyes were closed and his stately face slanted up towards the ceiling in a truly aristocratic pose. When I sat down on the sofa beside him, he made room for me but still didn’t look at me directly.

‘Well, well,’ he quipped, nonchalantly scratching his chin. Suddenly he was wearing a pair of glasses. ‘And who have we here?’

I mumbled something indistinct, stumbled over my words and stammered. Eventually I managed to spit it out, told him we’d just met, over there, on the dance floor, you hugged me and I hugged you, do you remember?

‘You look terrible,’ he exclaimed in a grandiose tone. ‘I don’t know you and I certainly wouldn’t hug you, ugh,’ he said as though spitting in the other direction. ‘A brute like you.’

I was so shocked by the cat’s judgemental tone that all I could do was sit quietly next to him.

‘Right, hah hah – that was a joke, you wally! We do not know one another, so don’t talk as if we did,’ the cat reprimanded me. ‘But we can get to know one another, hah hah, I’m open to suggestions. Do you want to get to know me or not?’

The moment I said yes, the cat wanted to know things. Everyday things, my name, my date of birth. And I told him my name, and he said he’d never heard such a funny name, such a frightful name, he continued, utterly dreadful, hah hah, laughed the cat. Bekim. It’s such a dreadful name that I’m not sure I want to hear it ever again!

Only now did the cat turn his head towards me, peer through his narrowed cat’s eyes and find a face for the name he found so disagreeable, ears and eyes, a mouth and body. He brazenly crossed his legs, all the while gawping at me, and started guffawing, his mouth set in a grimace.

Nomen est omen,’ he said. ‘Did you know that? The name is an omen, hah hah.’

And I told him of course I’d heard that and that it’s just a collection of letters and that, by the way, my name means ‘blessing’. But before I could continue, the cat burst into a volley of such raucous laughter that I could no longer think anything at all, and he rolled and writhed on the spot without trying to control himself in the slightest.

‘Well, in that case it’s the worst possible name for you!’ shouted the cat through the roar of his laughter.

‘Okay, it might well be quite a bad name, but isn’t that a little impolite?’ I said, trying to effect a mature, adult tone of voice.

‘Well, now!’ the cat shouted and sat up straight. ‘Sourpuss. It wasn’t the least bit impolite,’ he said, trying to imitate my tone of voice and continued laughing as though he didn’t care how uncomfortable he was making me feel.

‘Oh, do forgive me, monsieur,’ he began, raised both front paws into the air, and with a pout he began stroking his whiskers at both sides. ‘Or should I say, mademoiselle, hah hah,’ he continued. ‘I didn’t realise I wasn’t allowed to joke about your name. This all seems deadly serious now, doesn’t it, meow!’

I gulped. ‘Do you fancy a drink?’

‘Of course I fancy a drink,’ he replied. ‘And only now you ask me – how rude!’

I stood up and fetched us both a gin and cranberry juice, and when I placed the long drink in front of him, the cat muttered something to the effect of how bloody long it had taken to bring the fucking drinks.

‘There was a bit of a queue,’ I said in my defence. ‘Sorry.’

‘Ooh, what beautiful eyes you’ve got, what beautiful dark-brown hair,’ said the cat once he had relented and unexpectedly leapt on to my shoulder and began stroking my hair.

The tender, soft touch of his paws made my skin tighten into goosebumps, but after only a short moment the cat jumped away again.

‘So, what do you do for a living?’ the cat asked, now serious, and pressed his fingers against his lower lip.

And so I began to tell him this and that, talked about my studies and my lowly job as a postman, my apartment and all the various courses I’d taken at all the various faculties, my hobbies, my likes and dislikes, my free time.

The cat didn’t seem to think my story sufficiently interesting, as his attention drifted and now he was looking at other men in the bar and their behinds. His eyes were half shut and drool trickled from the corner of his mouth.

‘Ugh,’ he said as though he were about to vomit.

‘What?’

‘Gays. I don’t much like gays.’

I was astounded. People don’t come to a place like this if they don’t like gays. When I asked the cat why he didn’t like gays, he explained that he had nothing against homosexuality per se, just gays. Before I could ask him another question and point out that people usually liked gays but not homosexuality, the cat clarified his answer.

‘Naturally, I like all kinds of toms, but I can’t abide bitches!’ he said abruptly and crossed his paws on the table. ‘You have to decide whether you’re a man or a woman,’ he continued and leapt suddenly on to the table, raised his backside in the air and stretched his front paws on the table.

‘Look, just look at that,’ he said quickly, fixed his eyes on the men on the dance floor and wagged his tail. ‘How disgusting. 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 or wiggle their bottoms like that – like a prostitute, a whore!’ the cat snapped so loudly that the dancers turned to look at us.

The cat wound his way between the pints of cider and jumped back on to the sofa. Christ alive, and sex between men is even more disgusting! Unnatural through and through. Horrific, absolutely! he declared. Wouldn’t it be easier just to leave people in peace, I asked, and let them be themselves?

‘Hippie,’ said the cat pointedly. ‘It so happens that the world works rather differently. People have expectations and opinions, there’s no getting away from it.’

‘Yes, I think you’re right,’ I said.

‘That would hardly be a surprise,’ he said, wallowing in self-satisfaction as he smugly stretched out his paws and gave a brazen smile.

The cat assured me that his opinion of gays wasn’t based on mere hearsay but on personal experience, for he had once met two gays. He had been backcombing his luxuriant fur in the bathroom of a local restaurant when two gay men had cornered him. According to the cat, the men marched up to him, stood on either side of him and began pointing at his handsome flanks and gleaming tail as they might a piece of meat, and the cat had felt so objectified that he had been forced to stop his preening and cover up his sweet curvature.

A moment later the cat said I should tell him something that would make me special, someone worth getting to know, because otherwise he would go straight home. He thought everything I had told him was meaningless nonsense, as boring and predictable as the government’s budget proposals, ugh, again he almost spat. Good grief, you certainly know how to bore a person so completely and utterly!

‘Now tell me something you’ve never told anyone else!’

At this, as if by accident, I began telling the cat about my past, the country I had come from, about the situations in which people moving from one country to another find themselves, and about the small Finnish town in which I had grown up. The cat sensed that I don’t normally talk about my past, because now he was listening more intently, narrowed his eyes and cupped his paw at the edge of his chin the better to hear through the music.

I told the cat about people for whom my name was always something I had to explain, people who, when I answered their questions and told them where my name came from, were always disappointed. That’s why I’m so wary of it; surely you appreciate that a name can cause more bad than good.

I told the cat about how it always feels as though people are scrutinising my behaviour at school, at work, everywhere, watching how much food I take for lunch and checking to see whether I remember to thank the people working in the canteen, to see whether I write my essays in flawless Finnish and how often I change my clothes.

Whenever we talked about Islam, dictatorships or foreign languages at school, I always lowered my head, as I could feel the way they all turned to look at me. And when they asked me to say something in my mother tongue, some of them even said out loud what a shame it was that speaking such a language was useless here. And whenever I was late, I often heard that it was high time I learned this isn’t a third-world country. Living and going to school in Finland is like winning the lottery. Remember that.
[…]

The cat sent me a text message. He told me he was homeless and needed somewhere to sleep. I was writing him a response asking him to come and live at my place when my phone beeped again.

I’m moving in. That’s all it said.

By all means. Welcome! I answered.

I followed this immediately with another message explaining that I have a pet, a boa constrictor. You don’t mind, do you?

Not at all! the cat replied and moved his things in a week later.

Our shared life began promisingly enough, though until then I hadn’t lived with anything except the snake. We shared all our expenses, and gradually the cat got used to the presence of the snake, even dared to touch it, and I thought that perhaps our love could be just like in the cinema: strong and powerful love that needed no questions and wasted no time.

We walked through parks hand in hand, we read the morning paper together, we told one another the things you only tell your lover. The cat asked about my previous relationships, and I told him I had been with both men and women but that nothing had ever come of it and now I was more than content to be with a cat.

I told my cat about my hopes and fears, and the cat told me about his dreams and family. It’s a perfectly normal story. I’m a perfectly normal cat from a normal home and everything about me is normal, normal friends, normal job, yada yada. Not worth worrying about. I never asked the cat why he was homeless, because I sensed that he didn’t want to talk about his financial situation or social position. He would tell me everything when he was ready.

We took baths together and I would read him extracts from my favourite novels. We went rambling and visited spa hotels; we tried our hand at bowling and mountaineering and squash. And every evening we returned to our shared home, both of us convinced that this time it was different, this was fate, these two beings have finally appeared in one another’s lives to make them more worth living.
[…]

Then our life began to turn routine, and suddenly we knew one another so well that we had run out of questions to ask. The cat knew not to talk to me for half an hour after I walked in the door, he let me read in peace and kept the sound on the television turned down whenever I went to bed before him, while I knew to lay out the clothes he needed for the next morning, as the cat was terrible at mornings, whereas I was excellent.

One perfectly normal June day, the cat came to the decision that he wasn’t cut out for such a life. It’s the same every day, he said. I have to leave you. I want to leave you. I don’t want to do this any more. A cat, in a world like this, a relationship like this.

At that moment the old Kosovan proverb popped into my mind whereby too many good things can spoil a person. We can achieve good things and they can occur in a variety of ways. If someone has more possessions than he needs, if he is used to being treated too well or becomes too adept at something, he starts to believe that he deserves only the best. He refuses to associate with people other than those who are the same as him. He becomes accustomed to good food and drink, and wonders how it was once possible to drink lemonade with added sugar or smoke the cheapest tobacco. And all the while he thinks other people’s pity is nothing but envy.

Did you really think that we would be together forever, just the two of us? How can you believe something like that? Surely you realise that you are like that and I am like this, and that together we’re not like anything? People should be fined for such abject stupidity.
[…]

I got out of bed and walked into the living room. Sami was looking out of the window at the weighty snowflakes falling to the ground, at the light that never ended. He said he’d been thinking about things all night, turned his head and looked me in the eyes.

I wasn’t angry about my father’s death. I was relieved, relieved that he had finally found a way to turn to the only option still open to him. The only thing that made me angry was Sami’s tone when he had asked me, because my father hadn’t been a father to me, not the same way as his had been a father to him.

‘I think it’s high time you told me,’ he began and glanced at his clothes, neatly folded on the sofa.

When I didn’t answer immediately, he shot out a volley of questions, as if it would be easier for me to start from a single detail. What was he like? What did he look like? When was the last time you saw him? Tell me, please, say something, trust me.

I picked up the pile of clothes and said that my father had left this country long ago. As I walked into the bedroom, I told him it had taken months before I even heard he had left. I placed his clothes in the wardrobe, and once I returned to the living room I said it had taken even longer before I heard he had died.

I put a hand on my hip, shifted my weight from one leg to the other and hoped that Sami had more clothes than I did. Then I pressed my hands to my face, as I realised I had never told anyone about my father’s death; I had always said we weren’t on good terms or that he’d left us when I was young.

Sami gripped my shoulder and turned back to face the window, and the snowfall was lighter now, more drifting. He was silent, but his questions weren’t over; they were there in the way he moved his head, in the trajectory of his coffee cup as he drew it closer, in the grip with which he tried to hold me still, and they were in his mouth, in the delicate rhythm in which his lips tried to form words.

For a long time I hadn’t understood my father, because he didn’t view life the same way as others. Whereas other people asked one another what they wished for in life, my father asked people what the wished for in death. He couldn’t understand why people didn’t spend time wondering about the way in which their lives would one day come to an end. It would happen to every one of us; it was the only thing that united us. How on earth can they bring themselves not to think about it, not to discuss it? he would ask, roll his head and eventually burst into laughter.

Then he would start to list ways of dying: cancer, a car accident, suffocation, falling to the pavement, drowning, burning, being shot. Do me a favour, he said. Close your eyes and imagine what it would be like if you accidentally leant against a circular saw and your arm was sliced off and you’d never be able to get it back again. Instead of fingers, there would be nothingness. Or what would it be like to fall from the deck of a ship into the freezing water? The motors would swallow you up in a millisecond no matter how strongly you tried to swim away.

I wasn’t sure whether he really wanted to die or whether all he wanted from death was what it would mean for his nearest and dearest.

A heart attack, a plane crash, a stroke, tuberculosis, cirrhosis, being crushed, being starved, freezing to death. What would you choose? If you could?

Then he would start battering his fists against his head, go into the bathroom, fill the bath and lower himself to the bottom of the tub, as though he imagined he could end his life through the force of sheer will power, or he would tighten a belt around his neck, press a sharp knife against his throat and threaten to cut himself. Then he ran into the bedroom, fetched a pile of blankets from the cupboard and buried himself beneath them and said sorry, Daddy’s very scared now.

And I listened and watched, I listened to his stifled voice and I watched as the blankets shuddered to the rhythm of his flinches, I watched until he began to gasp for breath, and I went to him and stroked his damp back and said I was sorry, and when he vomited at the side of the bed I mopped everything away even before he stood up, and as I stroked him, as I cleaned up the mess he had made, I felt nothing for him but disgust, his viscid sweat oozing between my fingers like egg white.

‘That’s what my father did,’ I said.

I stepped behind Sami to see him more closely, to watch his reaction. Then he turned to look at me, took my arm and wrapped it around him.

‘Thank you,’ he said and slid his fingers between my own.

His hand was warm and strong and squeezed my hand, and I thought of the warmth that existed between our hands, the rustle that occurs as he pulls on an item of clothing I have washed for him, the soft hiss from his nostrils as he breathes against my forehead. Did my father ever experience anything like this?

All those years I wished for him to die, though I didn’t understand what death truly meant. And as I wished for his death, I didn’t realise that one day my wish would come true, nor did I realise that, when it finally happened, I would think of him so often: what clothes he had worn or what pieces of furniture he had acquired, who had cooked for him every day and what kind of crockery he ate from, who tidied his apartment, did he have anyone to change the sheets or simply to check that he didn’t lose too much weight?

And I wonder what my father thought about when he woke up in the morning and remembered he was alone, or on the morning he died. What was my father thinking about when he fetched his revolver from the glass cabinet on that cold, early morning when ice crystals had frozen in the air? Had he had enough of searching for answers or asking questions as he slipped the bullets into the cylinder and cocked the gun? Was he thinking of what he had left behind, I wonder as I picture him placing the barrel into his mouth, his dry lips closing around the barrel, as I catch the taste of metal when my tongue runs along my teeth, as I hear the faint sound of the trigger or imagine how hard he must have had to pull it, and the ice-cold metal stings my limbs, makes my bones ache, pinches them.

A light bursting from the window splits his head in two as I see him there, sitting at the table, and he looks at me, askew, over his shoulder and I wonder, was he thinking about me, was my father thinking about me at that moment as he finally refused to carry on living, in such violent fashion?

I never got an answer, but I’m sure that’s what my father was thinking.

And from time to time, when I hear his voice, I go for a long walk in the forest or down by the shore, and when I come back I take my man by the arm, he is a beautiful, decent man, and I embrace him and ask what he would like to eat, because I know how happy this makes him – and I go shopping with him and sit in the passenger seat of his car and he grips the upper half of the steering wheel with his bare hand, the skin taut with the cold, and he is wearing a pair of sunglasses and I look at his hand, his concave knuckles and his fingers, straight as bullets, and his white skin where the frosted light thickens like brilliant ice.

Translated by David Hackston

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