I met the cat in a bar. And he wasn’t just any cat, the kind of cat that likes toy mice or climbing trees or feather dusters, not at all, but entirely different from any cat I’d ever met.

I noticed the cat across the dance floor, somewhere between two bar counters and behind a couple of turned backs. He loped contentedly from one place to the other, chatting to acquaintances in order to maintain a smooth, balanced social life. I had never seen anything so enchanting, so alluring. He was a perfect cat with black-and-white stripes. His soft fur gleamed in the dim lights of the bar as though it had just been greased, and he was standing, firm and upright, on his two muscular back legs.

Then the cat noticed me; he started smiling at me and I started smiling at him, then he raised his front paw to the top button of his shirt, unbuttoned it, and began walking toward me.

It wasn’t long before he was standing in front of me in all his handsome glory. It was as if the cat had got my tongue and at first I was unable to speak at all. The famous hits of yesteryear were playing in the background, and the cat clearly felt an affinity with the lyrics, as he was singing along to songs by Tina Turner and Cher with such gusto that I thought he might burst with the force of his own memories.

Give me a lifetime of promises and a world of dreams
Speak the language of love like you know what it means

And then:

Do you believe in life after love?
I really don’t think you’re strong enough.

The cat leaned his head back and grinned so widely that his chin formed three different chins. The expression on his face was as dramatic and fateful as that of an opera singer arriving at a climax: his eyes had creased shut, his mouth was wide open as though he were about to sneeze, and his knees bobbed in time with the chorus from “Believe.” One paw was clenched to his heart and the other reached out as if to take a lost lover by the hand.

After praising his extraordinary rendition, I looked him in the eyes and smiled.

“I know,” he began. “Nothing short of astonishing, isn’t it?”

The cat was such a wonderful, beautiful, gifted interpreter that I took him in my arms without waiting for any indication to do so… his silky smooth fur smelled good and his body was muscular from top to tail.”

The cat’s white stripes shone in the dark, and the flashing of the strobe lighting sometimes made him disappear altogether, as though he weren’t there at all. 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. The mere sensation of touching it was so magical that, goodness me, I needn’t have touched anything ever again.

In a flash the cat bounded back onto the dance floor, leaving my arms momentarily embracing nothing but thin air.

I prowled round the bar a few times and started to get agitated. I realized I wanted the cat so much that I’d already decided I would have him. My upper lip tensed, my head was pounding, and my focus sharpened. And just then his magnificent, arched back appeared from round a corner, his long black tail wagged up and down, and he stepped forward as though he were stalking fresh prey.

The cat stopped a short way away. He peered discreetly – seductively – over his shoulder and looked me right in the eyes. With his front paw, he gestured for me to follow him, winked at me like the other men in the bar, and disappeared once again round the corner.

At his command I began following him, and before long I was standing right behind him, and I felt like saying what a beautiful cat he was, a truly wonderful kitty cat. After walking across the corridor, the cat found a free table. It was one thirty in the morning, music was blaring, and the dance floors were crammed with party animals. The cat leaped onto a sofa and settled himself by the table with a look of pride: his eyes were closed and his stately head slanted up toward the ceiling in a truly aristocratic pose. When I sat down on the sofa beside him, he made room for me but still didn’t look at me directly.

“Well, well,” he quipped, nonchalantly scratching his chin. Suddenly he was wearing glasses, of course. “And who have we here?”

I mumbled something indistinct, stumbled over my words and stammered. Eventually I managed to spit it out, told him we’d just met, over there, on the dance floor, you hugged me and I hugged you, do you remember?

“You look positively awful,” he exclaimed in grandiose fashion.

“I don’t know you and I certainly didn’t hug you, pthui,” he said as though spitting in the other direction. “A brute like you.”

I was so shocked by the cat’s judgmental manner that all I could do was sit quietly next to him.

I told him my name, and he said he’d never heard such an odd name, such a frightful name. Bekim. It’s such a dreadful name I’m sure I never want to hear it again!”

“Come on, ha ha – that was a joke, you idiot! We don’t know one another, so don’t talk as if we did,” the cat reprimanded me. “But we can get to know one another, ha ha; I’m open to suggestions. Do you want to get to know me or not?”

As soon as I said yes, the cat wanted to know things. Everyday things: my name, my date of birth. And I told him my name, and he said he’d never heard such an odd name, such a frightful name, he continued, utterly dreadful, ha ha, laughed the cat. Bekim. It’s such a dreadful name I’m sure I never want to hear it again!

Only now did the cat turn his head toward me, peer through his narrowed cat’s eyes, and find a face for the name he found so disagreeable, ears and eyes, a mouth and body. He crossed his legs, all the while brazenly gawping at me, and started guffawing, his mouth set in a grimace.

Nomen est omen,” he said. “Did you know that? The name is an omen, ha ha.”

Of course I’d heard that, I told him, it’s just a collection of letters and, by the way, my name means ‘blessing’. But before I could continue, the cat burst into a volley of such raucous laughter that I could no longer think anything at all, and he rolled and writhed on the spot without trying to control himself in the slightest.

“Well, in that case it’s the worst possible name you could have!” shouted the cat through the roar of his laughter.

“Well. It might well be quite a bad name, but isn’t that a little impolite?” I said, trying to affect a mature, adult tone of voice.

“Well, now!” the cat shouted and sat up straight. “Sourpuss. It wasn’t the least bit impolite,” he said, trying to imitate my tone of voice, and continued laughing as though he didn’t care how uncomfortable he’d made me feel.

“Oh, do forgive me, monsieur,” he began, raised both front paws into the air, and with a pout began straightening his whiskers on both sides. “Or should I say, mademoiselle, ha ha,” he continued. “I didn’t realize I wasn’t allowed to joke about your name. This is all deadly serious, meow!

I gulped. “Do you want a drink?”

“Of course I want a drink,” he replied. “And only now you ask me – how rude!”

I stood up and fetched us both a gin and cranberry juice, and when I placed the tall drink in front of him, the cat muttered something to the effect of how bloody long it had taken me to bring the fucking drinks.

“There was a bit of a line,” I said in my defense. “Sorry.”

“Ooh, what beautiful eyes you’ve got, what beautiful dark-brown hair,” said the cat once he had relented. He leaped onto my shoulder and began stroking my hair.

The tender, soft touch of his paws made my skin tighten into goose bumps, but after only a short moment the cat jumped back to the sofa again.

“So, what do you do for a living?” the cat asked, now serious, and pressed his fingers against his lower lip.

And so I began to tell him this and that, talked about my studies and my lowly job as a postman, my apartment and all the various classes I’d taken in all the various departments, my hobbies, my likes and dislikes, my free time.

The cat didn’t seem to think my story sufficiently interesting, as his attention drifted and he stared at other men in the bar, their bodies and their bottoms. His eyes were half shut and drool trickled from the corner of his mouth.

“Ugh,” he said as though he were about to vomit.

“What?”

“Gays. I don’t much like gays.”

I was astounded. People don’t normally come to a place like this if they don’t like gays. When I asked the cat why he didn’t like gays, he explained he had nothing against homosexuality per se, just gays. Before I could ask him another question and point out that people usually liked gays but not homosexuality, the cat clarified his answer.

‘How repulsive… men don’t wear such tight tops or wiggle their bottoms like that – like a prostitute, a whore!’ the cat snapped so loudly that the dancers turned to look at us.”

“Obviously, I like all kinds of toms, but I hate bitches!” he said abruptly and crossed his paws on the table. “You have to decide whether you’re a man or a woman,” he continued and leaped suddenly onto the table, raised his backside in the air, and stretched his front paws.

“Just look at that,” he said quickly, fixed his eyes on the men on the dance floor, and wagged his tail. “How repulsive. Men’s hands don’t move through the air like that, and men don’t talk the way women talk. And men don’t wear such tight tops or wiggle their bottoms like that – like a prostitute, a whore!” the cat snapped so loudly that the dancers turned to look at us.

The cat wound his way between the pints of cider and jumped back onto the sofa. Christ alive, and sex between men is even more disgusting! Unnatural through and through. Horrid, absolutely horrid! he declared. Wouldn’t it be easier just to leave people in peace, I asked, and let them be themselves?

“Hippie,” said the cat pointedly. “It so happens the world works rather differently. People have expectations and opinions, there’s no getting away from it.”

“Yes, I think you’re right,” I said.

“That would hardly be a surprise,” he said, wallowing in self- satisfaction; he smugly stretched out his paws and gave a brazen smile.

The cat assured me that his opinion of gays wasn’t based on mere hearsay but on bitter personal experience, for he had once met two gays. He had been backcombing his luxuriant fur in the bathroom of a local restaurant when two gay men had cornered him. According to the cat, the men marched up to him, stood on either side of him, and began pointing at his handsome flanks and shiny tail as they might a piece of meat, and the cat had felt so objectified that he’d been forced to stop his preening and cover up his sweet curvature.

A moment later the cat said I should tell him something that would make me special, someone worth getting to know, because otherwise he would go straight home. Apparently everything I’d told him was meaningless nonsense, as boring and predictable as the government’s budget proposals, pthui, again he almost spat. Good grief, you certainly know how to bore a person so completely and utterly!

“Now, tell me something you’ve never told anyone else!”

At this, as if by accident, I began telling the cat about my past, the country I had come from, about the situations in which people moving from one country to another find themselves, and about the small Finnish town where I had grown up. The cat sensed that I don’t normally talk about my past, because now he was listening more intently; he narrowed his eyes and cupped his paw at the edge of his chin the better to hear through the music.

I told the cat about people for whom my name was always something I had to explain, people who, when I answered their questions and told them where my name came from, were always disappointed. That’s why I’m so insecure about it; surely you appreciate that a name can cause more bad than good.

I told the cat that it always feels as though people are scrutinizing my behavior at school, at work, everywhere, watching how much food I take for lunch and checking whether I remember to thank the people working in the cafeteria, to see whether I write my essays in flawless Finnish and how often I change my clothes.

Whenever we talked about Islam, dictatorships, or foreign languages at school, I always lowered my head, as I could feel them all turning to look at me. And when they asked me to say something in my mother tongue, some of them even said out loud what a shame it was that speaking such a language was useless here. And whenever I was late, I often heard it was high time I learned this wasn’t a third-world country. Living and going to school in Finland is like winning the lottery. Remember that.

from My Cat Yugoslavia (Pushkin Press, £14.99)

 

Patjim_Statovci_290Pajtim Statovci was born in 1990 and moved from Kosovo to Finland with his family when he was two years old. Published in Finland in 2014, My Cat Yugoslavia won the Helsingin Sanomat Literature Prize for Best Debut. The novel has so far been translated into eleven languages. He is currently completing master’s degrees in comparative literature at the University of Helsinki and in screenwriting at Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture. My Cat Yugoslavia, translated by David Hackston, is published in hardback by Pushkin Press.
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Author portrait © Pekka Holmström

David Hackston is a British translator of Finnish and Swedish literature and drama. He graduated from University College London in 1999 with a degree in Scandinavian Studies and now lives in Helsinki. Notable recent publications include the Anna Fekete trilogy by Kati Hiekkapelto, Katja Kettu’s wartime epic The Midwife, Antti Tuomainen’s The Mine and The Man Who Died, and Maria Peura’s coming-of-age novel At the Edge of Light.
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