This debut novel has been praised worldwide for its brilliance, originality, and charm. The author, Pajtim Statovci, won the Helsingen Sanomat Literature competition for Best Debut in 2014, when he was 24. My Cat Yugoslavia has so far been translated from the original Finnish into eleven languages, and continues to make a major global splash.
In the wake of it, book reviewers in general seem to have been reduced to two common ideas: they are overwhelmed by the author’s skill (and simply in love with the book), and they prefer not to quibble over minor flaws. I find myself in a similar place, so it seems like an easy review. But I think the purpose of a review should be to give the reader some sense about the wisdom of footing the cost, and spending the time, and thus should reveal something about the nature of the experience of reading the book.
So let me start with a warning: If you open this book, you’ll be enchanted and seduced, just like the Helsingen Sanomat jurors and the book reviewers. You’ll be transported, used, abused, discarded, and left on the rubbish heap, not knowing exactly what happened but definitely, somehow, feeling disappointed and empty inside. Furthermore, this is all according to the author’s plan. So buckle up, dear reader, because you’re in for a bumpy ride.
“If you open this book, you’ll be enchanted and seduced, transported, used, abused discarded, and left on the rubbish heap.”
The sheer complexity of this story – its creative chaos, its audacious playfulness – is an invitation to unravel its many threads — but there are too many, with tangles too stubborn, for this to go easily. Take the book’s controlling symbol, for instance – the (pussy)cat. This fantastical creature, usually paired in some way with a fantastical snake, seems to suggest the narrator’s own ambivalent sexuality. But the cat’s name, if we can trust the title, is Yugoslavia — and what does this slapsticky cartoon creature have to do with the narrator’s tragic, disappeared ancestral homeland?
There are other cats in the book — maybe some other cat is meant to be Yugoslavia, and the most outlandish, attention-getting cat — the cat on the cover — is not the cat of the title, but instead a decoy cat, designed to distract. I find this idea appealing and consistent with the fun of the creature, but I’m not at all sure it’s what the author had in mind. Whatever the author’s intent, the former country Yugoslavia soon emerges as a symbol in itself — perhaps for a dream deferred — or dead, or imaginary — and things become very complicated indeed.
The two principal “parts” of this book – randomly broken up into those chapters narrated by the son, Bekim, and his mother, Emine – seem initially to be the clearest boundary between the reality and illusion that the author toys with. These two distinct, totally credible voices are a triumph. The aesthetic empathy needed to create them both can’t be underestimated. Yet, despite the distinct voices, we sometimes begin a chapter unsure of which narrator is speaking, until the author allows us to find a footing. Soon, though, Bekim passes over into Emine’s world when he visits Prishtina, Kosovo, and all bets are off when it comes to unraveling the threads.
For me, the novel is both a puzzle and a palette. The puzzle, rich and intricate, holds little emotional pay-off, the suspicion always high that it ultimately leads to a heart of nothingness. Check out the vivid opening scene, in which a brutal coldness descends upon an initially transcendent one-night stand – and decide for yourself if the author means for this to happen.
The palette, though, contains rich splashes of color and meaning. On any given page, the novel seems to work in that place, and is often filled with material that touches the wellspring. I think this explains why some reviewers find certain brief passages so memorable that they turn to them to give a sense of the novel’s power. For Tea Obreht – a novelist and the New York Times reviewer of this book – the passage where Emine realizes that her ordinary, childish girl-dreams will likely never come true is key – “once I had gone through this list of hopes in my mind, I ran into the kitchen, grabbed the mixing bowl, and vomited.”
“For me, the novel is both a puzzle and a palette.”
For me, though – a straight female who also responds to the fully realized character of Emine – a passage describing the deepest agonies of what it’s like to be gay will probably never leave me:
He would tell me about the life he dreamed of, a life he wanted to share with me, about his little house by the sea. There would be a garden at the back with trees and enough room for a couple of dogs, and the sun would always be shining. . . . And I would tell him . . . I’m almost in love with you already, do you hear? In love with you. And I would think of everything we could become together, the two of us, and how happy we would be. . . . But it wouldn’t be him at the statue but someone else, a crowd of people. They would have baseball bats and everything. They would grab me violently and force me into the trunk of their car. They would drive out to the middle of nowhere, throw me to the ground, stub out their cigarettes on my skin, spit on me, urinate and defecate on me, then they would grab their bats and shove them inside me, then into my mouth, and they would force me to say, Yes, what I do is wrong and disgusting and I deserve to die . . .
I am overwhelmed by this remarkable book and prefer not to quibble over its minor flaws. I recommend that you foot the cost, and spend the time, to experience this unforgettable read.