Another intriguing and often brilliant debut novel, Pajtim Statovci’s My Cat Yugoslavia is particularly timely and topical as it deals with the dislocations of immigration. The novel has two different narrators, which is a fascinating literary trope: one is (at first) a young, marriageable woman in a small Serbian town in the former Yugoslavia, and the other is her youngest son. We meet that woman when she is no more than fourteen, sitting on a rock overlooking the village where she lives, when a young man drives by in a car and, in three weeks, has asked her father for her hand in marriage. The various rites of passage that a young bride participates in are fascinating, sometimes horrifyingly so; the girl’s father chooses not to see any irregularities that the groom manifests mostly because the his family is relatively rich and he wants his daughter married. The rites and rituals involve both the men and the women of both families, though there is really no interaction between the genders leading up to the nuptials. Since her wedding day happens to coincide with the day that Tito dies, and Yugoslavia begins to fall apart, the groom himself comes to get the bride (rather than sending three male friends/relatives to get the bride). She, meanwhile, has to fake crying while saying good-bye to the women in her family and women friends of the family, as she will go to live with her husband’s family.
The groom hits her hard in the face on the way to her new house/life, as he’s overeager to have sex with her and she’s still in full wedding regalia in the car, but the precedent for his moodiness is set early on. And although she is welcomed into the groom’s family, her isolation is nearly complete, so she throws herself into housekeeping, unpleasant sex with her husband, and the bearing of children (sons, mainly count) which seems to be her role, other than taking care of house and husband for life. As Yugoslavia rapidly falls into warring factions/nation-states from hundreds of years ago (we remember this period in history as the war in Kosovo and Sarajevo, Serbs /Muslims versus Albanians, one of the more confusing historical periods as Bosnia/Serbia is where Muslim Ottoman Turks brought the Muslim religion, and everyone else there was/is Christian). The bride’s family are Albanian Serbs, who suffered terribly in this war in the early nineties. So the husband decides to move the family to Finland, having determined that Finland is affluent. It’s fascinating to watch the children being bullied in school because they are “foreigners” and the wife/mother withdraw almost completely from social interactions for similar reasons (the Finns come across very badly; we, in America, are used to Scandanavians being “good guys”). As the novel progresses, of course, the children become more and more integrated, and the father’s cultural assumptions from his birth/culture that his children will return to take care of him in his old age is completely ruined. And, of course, he becomes increasingly abusive to his wife, on whom he takes out all his frustrations. The couple debates returning to Kosovo, where they have family, but said city is wracked with war.
Their youngest son has years and years of nightmares; the mother’s very patient with him, the father not. This son is the second narrator, and the novel’s also told from his point of view as a young adult, adjusted, mostly , to Finland; he is gay–the novel begins with a kind of i-phone gay male hookup, in interesting way to start a novel–and, amongst his lovers is one cat , a foray into a highly amusing contemporary surrealism–I thought that the cat/lover represented the worst kind of bullying gay Finn–and our youngest son also has a boa constrictor snake as a pet (which he cares for in his isolated loneliness). Interestingly, when he does find a man to live with, he treats the man exactly as his mother treated his father: he cooks, lays out/cleans his clothes and the like. We watch this family fall apart almost completely, a result of a clash of cultures, first and second world. The mother and this son begin to adapt to their new homeland and culture while the father/husband gets consumed in his rage, which worsens as he realizes that he has no “home” to return to.
The surreal parts of the novel are persuasively written, and very fresh in contemporary literature. That the experience of the new immigrant seems surreal is without doubt, but Statovci’s immense creativity pulls the experience in numerous directions, including a very surprise ending that vindicates his mother before she was dumped into an early marriage to a man she didn’t even know. I liked the revenge fantasies a great deal. And the complexities of the immigrant experience are brilliantly rendered, which makes this novel so timely. My Cat Yugoslavia is a strong debut novel from a fascinating new (and very young )talent–whom, we note, lives in Finland now). Satatovci’s writing style is very understated, which makes the occasional outpourings of rage that much more effective, as they always surprise, even though we readers know they’re coming. Perhaps a little Kafka’s an influence; it’s difficult to tell, in some ways, but My Cat Yugoslavia’s definitely worth reading.