Pajtim Statovci: ‘I have drawn the fiction that makes the unimaginable possible”

Many of the early novels are really first published novels, the reactions to the angsty roman à keys and 700-page epic that preceded them (now, fortunately, forgotten in a drawer). But this was not the case of Pajtim Statovci. My Cat Yugoslavia – which has already won praise from the New York Times (“a wonder, a remarkable achievement”) and “New Yorker” (“strange and delicious”) – is not only the first novel, that he tried to write, but the first work of fiction, has ever written.

“I was working in a grocery store, while at the same time the study of comparative literature at the University of Helsinki,” he says. “One night, after a night shift, frustrated, and tired of my job, I asked myself: what am I waiting for?” Eighteen months later, at the age of 21, had finished the first draft of My Cat Yugoslavia. But while Statovci the author, multilingual, a bookishly beautiful and unlikely success for his age – he is now 27 – can make the writing seem easy, and it took a turbulent childhood, to bring it here.

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He was born in Kosovo in 1990, just a year before the first of many Yugoslav wars broke out, and had dreamed of being a writer since childhood: “As a child, I was very sensitive and fragile to the point where I actually pretended that I was in the stories that I have consumed, I have guided the lives of their protagonists, because the life in the fiction is so much more interesting than [a] was experiencing.”

Even if Statovci assures me that his novel “is a work of fiction, from the beginning to the end,” he admitted to include some autobiographical elements. As one of its protagonists, Emine, she left home to Finland with his family. His observations on the grounds of nationality, racism, and the migration of come up with your own experience, as well as the people around him. Bekim, his protagonist, speaks for a long time to grow as an Albanian migrants in Finland. “One day you’ll see that if you try to become equal to them, they despise you more,” recalls his father saying about the Finns.

My Cat Yugoslavia consists of two stories: one is a realistic magical story that follows a young, gay man – Bekim – and his relationship with a boorishly humanoid talking cat. The other, about Emine, is a realist-a portrait of an Albanian mother who fled to Finland with his family during the 1980’s. Bekim is Emine of the child, even if they are hard to notice from their interactions. “There is often a gap between the young … and the older generation in families that have migrated from one culture to another. And sometimes there is no solution, no dialogue, no understanding,” Statovci says. “And the gap only becomes larger and deeper, and the distance between the two worlds grows more, not closing.”

Oppression and discrimination are very much alive in our world. Only the victims of them continue to change

Pajtim Statovci

Magical realism, Statovci says, “you do not care of walls, and has no constraints, while the reality. It has rules, standards and codes of conduct.” After their first meeting in a gay club, Bekim cat companion is abrasive, homophobic, bigoted – but Bekim think that the love you get from the cat is more strong and more powerful because of the limits that he has gone through. Through the imagination, Statovci expresses the tormented inner life of Bekim – even if this isn’t to say that Emine sections are less lyrical; during the execution of tasks, she underlines that “a clean house, there were no secrets.” But in those passages, the lyricism lies in the way in which the events are presented. In Bekim’s surreal tale, what happens is simply fantastic as it is said.

Reality and fantasy are not completely separate, Statovci. “A lot of things in my childhood and in my life, such as the war in Kosovo, it makes no sense to me. Only that fenced outside my understanding,” he says. “I think this is the reason why I’ve always drawn to works of fiction that make the unimaginable possible, and the incredible comprehensible”.

Then, why a talking cat? During the writing of the novel, Statovci was interested in the relationship between animals and human beings, in particular on how the last project, with their feelings about their feline companions, anthropomorphising. “The reading of animals as symbols of the us, reduces them, [it] violates their right to represent themselves,” he says. Depending on the culture, the animals may symbolize completely different things, he says: “In Finland, the cats are domestic animals, while in Kosovo they are seen as dirty.”

In this sense, animals fall foul of the same cultural stereotypes, as well as humans. “We live in a world pierced with the cruelty to animals, racism, prejudice and stereotypes. The oppression and discrimination they have always been, and still are today, very much alive in our world. Only the victims of their continue to change.”

Statovci is not too concerned about its own national identity. “I’m not going to sleep at night thinking about my relationship with the country where I was born,” he says. “I speak Albanian as my mother tongue, but I don’t use it when I think, write or dream.” In his novel, however, Bekim of the Albanian grandfather held, precisely those concerns, the concerns, that “one day [Bekim] will not be an Albanian at all, but something different all together.” There is also a wonderful flat line where the cat decides that “she never wanted to be a cat; he wanted to be a director. Statovci these species and of employment, as one and the same: both are roles that have to perform.

While second generation immigrants are often robbed of a national “home”, considered as foreigners in their adopted country, and their family members at home, Statovci considers the home “a state of mind”. “When I write, that is at home with me,” he says. “This is the great thing about fiction – its ability to resonate within each of us.” That is what appealed to Statovci the guy. It is also what gives me back My Cat Yugoslavia.

My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci is published by Pushkin Press, priced £14.99. It is available from the Guardian Bookshop for £ 12.74 including free UK p&p.