My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci

Possibly the strangest book you have read for a while, but very enlightening and thought-provoking about some serious issues

In 1980s Yugoslavia, a young girl named Emine is married off to a man she hardly knows in order to uphold her family name. Her new husband, Bajram, may seem friendly and smiley, but he soon transforms into a cruel and controlling man. As if things weren’t difficult enough, war approaches and tears Emine’s country apart, forcing her and her family to flee. Decades later, Emine’s son, Bekim, has grown up as a social outcast in Finland where suspicion of foreigners is rife. Apart from occasional one-night stands, his only companion is his pet boa constrictor. One night in a gay bar, Bekim meets a black cat that talks.  It is this witty but calculating creature that ignites Bekim’s journey back to Kosovo to discover the history of his family. But will he find happiness when he arrives?

This is certainly the strangest book that I have read for a while, but that does not diminish its power to enlighten you about certain issues that are relevant today. One of these subjects is immigration and what it means to be a foreigner in the West. Since the novel is told from the point of view of migrants escaping war, you gain valuable insight into how it would feel to have to flee not only your home, but also your home country. You are drawn into a perspective where you are an outsider in your adoptive country and met with suspicion, fear and xenophobia. You are given a snapshot of losing your roots and growing up in a place where you do not understand the native language. All these aspects of immigration hit you like a tidal wave and its resulting impact is very thought-provoking and deep; you begin to consider where our own country lies in such a relevant and up-to-date topic because Statovci’s narration is so poignant and eye-opening.

The alternating chapters between Emine in 1980s Yugoslavia and present-day Bekim are great; they show you different perspectives of the same family that complement your overall understanding of the plot and events that take place. Statovci’s narrative is structured in such a way that you feel like there are two protagonists; you learn about Emine’s upbringing and her life which subsequently ties in with Bekim’s entrance into the world and his childhood. You feel such sympathy for both of these characters but for different reasons. With Emine, you commiserate over her marriage about which she has almost no voice at all and the viciousness of her husband that she endures. Equally, Bekim garners pity because of his inability to fit in, find a friend or companion, and locate a sense of physical belonging.

The black cat that Bekim meets in the bar is so obnoxious and nasty to Bekim that I detested it. I admired Bekim for his ability to tolerate the cat because I don’t think I could have that much patience. Statovci’s narration of the creature is very vivid and, at times, quite frightening because the cat ceases to feel like an animal and more like a human being. However, when Bekim meets another cat on his trip to Kosovo, you begin to see a connection between each cat and their impact upon Bekim.

Overall, My Cat Yugoslavia is a peculiar novel with elements that are really quite bizarre. Yet, there are some deeper issues at the heart of Statovci’s text which incite you to think about them even after you have closed the book.

Rating: 4/5

My Cat Yugoslavia is available to purchase now online in hardcover and Kindle editions.  Paperback edition will be available to purchase in stores and online from 19th April.

@ Amazon


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