The lands inhabited by Albanians are among the few places in Europe that still have the distinction of being described as “mysterious,” “completely unknown,” and the proud owner of a “tortured past” by earnest travel writers on the Huffington Post. These descriptors aren’t new: you can find the same phrasing used by Europeans “discovering” the Balkans in the 18th and 19th century. British writer and Albanian advocate Edith Durham wrote High Albania in 1909, and described the customs she encountered amongst the Albanians of what is now northern Albania and Kosovo. The language she used to describe Albanians then calls to mind the trope of the noble savage today: men who kill for honour and women who spend their lives in childbirth or domestic servitude.
Durham had the advantage of knowing that next to none of her subjects could read or respond to her depictions of them. Pajtim Statovci’s debut novel My Cat Yugoslavia challenges the idea of the noble Albanian savage by presenting us with Bekim, a young Kosovar Albanian student raised and living in Finland. Bekim is gentle towards his lovers, protective of his mother and riddled with anxiety and loneliness. His storyline is accompanied by that of Emine, his mother. Her story begins in Kosovo, with her arranged marriage to Bajram, Bekim’s abusive father. The parallel storylines are written in parsing and clear prose, punctuated by vivid imagery and carefully chosen exchanges of dialogue. My Cat Yugoslavia steps into the surreal with the introduction of a speaking cat, who Bekim meets at a gay nightclub. Bekim and the cat enter into a romantic, live-in relationship, complicated by the presence of Bekim’s pet – a fully-grown boa constrictor.
Bekim’s queerness is a welcome addition to the literary coterie of Albanian protagonists. In his History of Albanian Literature, linguist Robert Elsie describes the Albanian literary canon as lacking in eroticism. I would argue that this has changed over the past two to three decades, as more Albanian women have begun writing about love and sex (and writing novels, period). My Cat Yugoslavia is the first time I’ve read sex scenes written by an Albanian man that haven’t given me dry heaves. Case in point: the best seller Lady Z by Kosovar Albanian writer Albatros Rexhaj offers such insights into the female psyche as: “It’s so easy to break the heart of a female. Take a bit of carelessness and mix it with a dose of forgetfulness.”
Statovci, on the other hand, is able to depict sex and relationships that are imbued with vulnerability and physicality, and I do hope My Cat Yugoslavia receives an Albanian translation soon. Kosovo is a society defined by its obsession with masculinity, expressed through the control of women’s sexuality and all the toxic elements of machismo culture. Year after year, Kosovo is ranked as one of the most homophobic countries in Europe, which is why we need more protagonists like Bekim to normalise queerness and forms of love divorced from domination. Bekim’s self loathing is a result of his distinctly Albanian upbringing, which defines happiness as marriage and procreation with a person of the “correct” ethnicity, upbringing and gender. Rebecca Solnit describes such narrow definitions of happiness as “prisons of the imagination”. Too many men and women in Kosovo live in such prisons. Bekim makes a similar observation after a rendezvous with a gay man in Kosovo who happens to be married to a woman and the father of a young child: “What if my life was like this, I wondered, hotel rooms, dark alleyways, an online world where you always had to remember to delete your browsing history.” It’s heartening to see Bekim be able to choose to live as a free man in Finland, despite the shame inculcated in him by his upbringing.
Bekim’s status as an immigrant in Finland also gave me pause. Statovci is not the first Albanian to write about the immigrant experience, but he is one of the few Albanian writers I’ve come across who doesn’t romanticise the homeland and has no dreams of return. Bekim’s state of in-betweenness is familiar to me, another diaspora kid who moved to North America at the age of five. Negotiating Albanian after a lifetime of being educated in the language of your adopted country is a source of anxiety for children who are taught that their Albanian-ness precludes them from being anything else. And then there’s the strained allegiance to our parents, who expect material success, an Albanian spouse and obedience well into adulthood, embodied in My Cat Yugoslavia by Bekim’s father:
My father had planned the course of our life before it had even properly begun. His three daughters would grow into good, obedient, honourable wives and his two sons would become strong, hardworking men who would return to Kosovo as soon as it was safe again, they would marry good Kosovan women and build grand houses next to each other. The plan flickered in his mind like stars, like small bonfires burning in the sky, because to his mind there was nothing about his plans that was remotely unrealistic.
Statovci navigates the conflicting ties between Bekim’s imagined homeland and his Finnish reality with ease, not as an insurmountable hardship or a walk in the park, but as an ongoing balancing act.
Year after year, Kosovo is ranked as one of the most homophobic countries in Europe, which is why we need more protagonists like Bekim to normalise queerness and forms of love divorced from domination
Statovci runs into trouble when describing Kosovo through the eyes of Emine, Bekim’s mother. In fact, most of the Kosovo scenes read like imagery pieced together from memory and secondary sources. Emine is described as the eldest of seven children in a rural part of Kosovo. Her family is impoverished, living on a farm where they grow most of their food, and is relieved when Emine becomes engaged at the age of 17. Her story begins in 1980, and it’s a foregone conclusion that her education comes to a halt after her engagement. Her story is not unusual for the Kosovo of the Yugoslavia years. While Kosovar Albanians living in urban centres were allowed to enter the “red bourgeoisie” (and with it access to higher education and white collar jobs), rural Kosovar Albanians were historically subject to forced deportations, confiscations of property, police surveillance and harassment by Serbian-Yugoslav authorities. How bizarre it is, then, that Emine has no clue what the conflict between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo is about: “When people on the television talked about the disputes between the Albanians and the Serbs, I didn’t bother listening; the news anchor might as well have been speaking in Chinese.”
This is akin to a black person in the United States not understanding what the Civil Rights Movement is about, or a Palestinian on the West Bank describing the conflict with Israel as akin to “speaking in Chinese.” Similarly, rural Kosovar Emine praises Tito and cites the rise of Slobodan Milošević as the beginning of Kosovo’s descent into chaos. Any Albanian born and raised in rural Kosovo will tell you that the Yugoslav dream of brotherhood and unity was never extended to them. Instead, they had Aleksandar Ranković, the Internal Affairs Minister who was permitted to brutalise Albanian communities suspected of irredentist views. To suggest Emine would be unaware of the roots of the Albanian-Serb conflict in Kosovo is laughable.
Similar improbable moments increase in frequency as the book continues. For example, Kosovar Albanian characters inexplicably use phrases that belong to the Toske dialect of Albanian, which is not spoken anywhere in Kosovo.
The greatest indictment against My Cat Yugoslavia, however, is its one-dimensional portrayal of Kosovar Albanians. It’s clear that Statovci means to depict the closed, conservative nature of Kosovar Albanian society when he describes Emine being sexually harassed in a marketplace and Bekim’s father beating his family. No Albanian man in My Cat Yugoslavia, apart from Bekim, is anything other than a rustic bigot, and no Albanian woman is anything other than a besieged housewife. The nuance and care afforded Bekim’s character doesn’t appear to be extended to his countrymen and women.
In fact, when Bekim visits Prishtina, Kosovo’s capital, his narration takes a sharp turn towards the exoticising language of a British lady on a grand tour of Ottoman Europe. Bekim decides to “sit down at a cafe where people were sitting outside talking about literature, education and equality.” This is a pleasant surprise, the reader learns, as Bekim “expected to see people licking their wounds and shutting themselves away in their homes…” Bekim doesn’t explain what those wounds might be, or why it would be surprising to hear fellow Kosovar Albanians discussing such elevated topics. This sense of polite disdain permeates the novel, and makes Bekim not all that different from the various expats who visit Kosovo and are disappointed by the country’s “brutishness.”
Lest I be misunderstood, there’s a joy in finding yourself represented, and well received, in the genre of world literature. We need authors with sensitivity and talent like Statovci to continue writing. But Kosovar Albanian readers are wary of being misrepresented, yet again, as folkloric brutes with no connection to the current century. These are the depictions that steal our stories from us, and rob us of the diversity of our lived experiences in Albanian skin. I invite Statovci to spend some time in Kosovo, where he might – surprisingly – discuss literature, education and equality with his compatriots.