Task: Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration theme.
I attended a Montessori school through first grade. One of the most hotly contested activity stations involved tracing and coloring enormous maps, and I have strong sense memories of sitting on the brown carpet, laboriously outlining Paraguay. Unfortunately, my sense of world geography remained strongly rooted in those memories, which were made in the mid-1980s before the U.S.S.R. and Yugoslavia dissolved.
I recently started trying to be a less terrible American and one who generally knows where things are in the world (Seterra is the site I used – it’s fun, if humbling), and I was shocked to find myself in better shape with the Middle East and Africa than I was with Eastern Europe. I remember reading Zlata’s Diary in fifth or sixth grade and being profoundly shaken by the thought that a fellow child diarist of the waning twentieth century could be in a war zone. That horrifying realization that universe could randomly drop someone into a violent conflict like that stayed with me, but unfortunately the details of the Bosnian War or the larger sociopolitical landscape of the Balkans did not.
I’m an adult and I’m embarrassed by how much googling I had to do to piece together the context of this Finnish novel, though I am glad to have been prodded into nailing down very, very broad strokes. My Cat Yugoslavia consists of two narrative strands. One is told from the perspective of Emine, a young Albanian woman in Kosovo, and follows her from the abrupt end of her childhood through her marriage to a difficult, borderline abusive husband to her family’s emigration to Finland, where they find a less than warm welcome as Balkan refugees.
The second story line belongs to her son Bekim, a gay man struggling with his identity as a Muslim immigrant. Bekim is hideously lonely, alienated from his family, and suffering from intense intimacy issues. This is where his story gets deliciously weird. First of all, he buys a pet boa constrictor and develops a relationship with the snake that’s awfully emotional. Then he meets a beautiful cat singing karaoke (Cher’s “Believe”) in a gay bar and brings him home. The cat is simultaneously a human-sized lover and a cat-sized house pet, and it’s all kinds of magical-realism-weird and fun.
However, Emine’s story is much more straight forward, and the juxtaposition of her stylistically uncomplicated plot and the completely wackadoodle situation in Bekim’s apartment was jarring for me (and that may have been an intentional effect). It’s clear that the cat and the snake are symbolic (the title is an oh-so-subtle clue, and we eventually learn that as a child Bekim had night terrors involving cats and snakes). Eventually the snake nearly kills Bekim, who has to literally cut his way out of the snake’s stranglehold. The cat is a nasty customer too, spewing all kinds of racist, xenophobic garbage. I think that Statovci is using the two animals to make Bekim’s struggles with his religious, ethnic, and family identities physical, and I appreciate how difficult it is to thoroughly pin down the cat and the snake – it makes sense that nothing is as clearcut as you’d expect it to be.
That said, I found myself enjoying the Emine chapters quite a bit more than the Bekim chapters. The two stories were lighting up different regions of my brain. I had much more of a connection to Emine as a character than I did to anyone in the Bekim plot, even though I was more intellectually engaged with his surrealist shenanigans. Overall, it was a really interesting read, even if my experience with it was a little uneven.