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'My Cat Yugoslavia' Needs A Good Brushing

About 50 pages into Pajtim Statovci's debut novel, the protagonist Bekim meets a cat in a Finnish gay bar. The cat is wearing human clothes and singing along to Cher's "Believe," and Bekim, for reasons that are not quite adequately explained, is immediately attracted to him. "The cat was such a wonderful, beautiful, gifted interpreter that I took him in my arms without waiting for any indication to do so, and straightaway I noticed that his silky smooth fur smelled good and that his body was muscular from top to tail," Bekim gushes. "The mere sensation of touching it was so magical that, goodness me, I needn't have touched anything ever again."

You might be able to suspend your disbelief so far, but, goodness me, Statovci has more twists up his sleeve. Bekim is still enamored with the cat even after he learns that it doesn't care for immigrants or gay men. (Bekim belongs to both groups.) It's not clear on at the very least two levels why a homophobic cat would be in a gay bar in the first place, but My Cat Yugoslavia is such a stubbornly nonsensical book that you learn early on to stop asking questions.

Statovci's novel is essentially two stories intertwined. The first follows Bekim, who moved to Finland from Kosovo as a child. He's a resentful young man, wounded by attacks from Finns on his Muslim heritage and homosexuality. A college student who works odd jobs, he's unable to mask his hatred of his fellow students: "I treated them with disdain, contempt, I despised their lifestyles, their choices and problems. ... For what did they know about real life and real suffering? Absolutely nothing."

Lonely, Bekim buys a boa constrictor as a companion before he meets the cat, who may or may not be the titular feline. (Later in the book, he meets an actual cat when he travels to Kosovo, but it cannot talk, much less sing, and Bekim does not develop a crush on it.) His relationship with the singing cat is stormy; the cat is a selfish and hateful freeloader, which, at least for a while, doesn't seem to bother Bekim.

The book reads like two novels shoehorned into one, and neither one is fully realized.

The other story — a much more conventional one — follows Bekim's mother, from her childhood in Kosovo to the time her children are adults. Emine is married off to a man who she soon finds out is verbally and physically abusive: "[N]othing pleased him, and he flew into a rage with increasing regularity. ... He lived out his days in his own mind and became frustrated when reality didn't match the life he had imagined."

Bekim and his siblings (who are only mentioned in passing) learn to be afraid of their father, although Bekim's fear quickly turns to hate. "I wanted him to suffer for as long and as painfully as possible," he seethes. "I wanted him to choke underwater, suffocate in an airless wooden box, thrashing like a fish on dry land." Eventually, Bekim's father, embittered by his lack of success, goes to Kosovo. Bekim does too, but doesn't stay for long.

My Cat Yugoslavia was published in its original Finnish in 2014, when Statovci was in his early twenties, and his age shows here. It's a brash and ambitious novel, but too often Statovci lets his ideas get the better of him — he definitely has something to say about abuse, prejudice and family dynamics, but it's lost in the sheer absurdity of the story. The book reads like two novels shoehorned into one, and neither one is fully realized.

It doesn't help that the characters in the novel feel underdeveloped. Bekim is a bit of a cipher; at the end of the book, we don't know much about him besides his loneliness and resentment. Emine isn't given much to do except play the silent victim, reacting to her husband's brutality. And then there's the cat (the talking one), who's uniquely mean and unpleasant. Characters needn't be likable, of course, but whatever charm Bekim sees in the sociopathic feline is left to the reader's imagination.

That's not to say that Statovci is an untalented writer. He's clearly capable of constructing strong sentences, and it's undeniable that his imagination is boundless. It wouldn't be surprising if his next book succeeds where this one fails. But My Cat Yugoslavia, though clever in parts, is, unfortunately, too unpolished and immature to be considered anything more than a valiant attempt.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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