Winner of Finland’s highest literary honor for best debut novel, an elegant, allegorical portrait of lives lived at the margin, minorities within minorities in a new land.
Bekim is Muslim and gay, the son of a woman who left fragmenting Yugoslavia with her domineering, moody husband for a new life in Finland. Now, in Helsinki, where Bekim is not entirely at home though a productive citizen, he has come into the orbit of a talking cat who sucks down alcohol and has any number of dislikes and—well, pet peeves. “Gays. I don’t much like gays,” says the cat, before amending the remark to, “Obviously, I like all kinds of toms, but I hate bitches!” That explains the cat’s presence in a gay bar, perhaps, but it does nothing to relieve Bekim’s angst, especially when the cat hisses that no one will ever love him. His mother, Emine, meanwhile, has grown from an utterly ordinary person, “only pretty and good at housework, or so I’d been told,” as she says, to a self-aware woman who finally frees herself from a bad marriage and a life where “our entire existence hung on our children who had decided to have nothing to do with us.” Statovci’s characters might prefer to live quietly on the sidelines, but events in Kosovo overturn their lives, even from afar; witnessing one in a long series of atrocities on the news, Emine concludes, “God did nothing with that child because there was no God.” Strangers in an uncomprehending new home, Statovci’s actors make do, alert for possibilities of happiness, however unattainable. Statovci doesn’t quite make full use of his fantastic cat; though he invests his creation with plenty of personality, Statovci lacks Mikhail Bulgakov’s flair for satirical meaning-making through the use of animal characters. As it is, though, the creature turns out to be a complex character, tormented as well as a tormentor. And that’s not to speak of Bekim’s pet snake, who has dangerous ideas of his own.
Allegorical but matter-of-fact: a fine debut, layered with meaning and shades of sorrow.