Few authors today write about fear as vividly as Kosovan-born Pajtim Statovci. For Arsim, the Albanian protagonist in Statovci’s latest novel Bolla (translated by David Hackston), fear is not a passing impulse in his nervous system but its very substance. There are two types of people, Arsim suggests: “People who don’t need to fear anything and people who ought to fear everything.” He is one of the latter. “That’s how fear works,” he adds, “it arrives all at once, and it is indivisible.”
Arsim’s fear could be attributed to environmental factors. It is 1995, and war is on the verge of breaking out in Pristina, Kosovo, where he lives with his devoted wife Ajshe, whom he doesn’t love. To make matters worse, he is a father-to-be, a future that fills him with dread. He embarks on a love affair with Miloš, which is doubly illicit, not only because he’s a man, but also because he’s a Serb. “We always exit the apartment at different times: once we’ve made sure, one ear against the door, that there’s nobody in the corridor.”
Forced by society behind closed doors, their love finds space to breathe in Statovci’s sensitive prose. He writes beautifully about the ecstasy of early passion through surreal, painterly detail. Miloš’s irises “look like a sky preparing for a storm”; his torso is “long, like a horse’s”. In these images, the picture of Miloš may remain amorphous and vague, but we feel the load of Arsim’s longing – we see Arsim seeing. When war inevitably comes to Pristina, their union is cut short, sending Arsim to an unnamed country abroad and Miloš to the front line.
Cultural alienation, enforced separation, the persistence of trauma; these are the abiding themes of Statovic’s writing. Bolla’s narrative alternates between Arsim’s account and more intimate, impressionistic chapters from Miloš. This technique, which recalls Statovci’s award-winning earlier novels My Cat Yugoslavia and Crossing, creates a psychological proximity that stands in opposition to their physical and temporal distance.
There is a subtle gesture to ideas of return and reunion in the book’s title, too. In Albanian mythology, a bolla is a snake-like figure that, each year, opens its eyes and devours anyone in its sight. Arsim writes a short story based on this myth, in which a blind girl befriends a bolla; they agree to meet every year, in the bloom of spring, in the same forest, on the same path. He shares the story with Miloš, the bolla becoming a symbol of hope for the two men that their relationship will follow the same arc. This, however, feels more like wishful thinking. After all, bolla can also mean “alien”, as Statovci tells us in his epigraph.
Bolla’s strongest moments come when describing the totalising effects of fear related to Arsim’s situation as a refugee in exile. “One raised with fear never learns to live without it,” says Arsim. “It is the neighbour with a better parking space because this is his country, not yours; it is a dog walker nodding in your direction as you pass each other and squinting, not to say hello but because you are a foreigner.” Statovci, whose family fled to Finland from Kosovo when he was two, describes a refugee’s identity not as an outfit that can be modified with ease, but a skin that can only be shed with great difficulty.
When a hook-up with a guy he meets online gets him in trouble with the authorities, Arsim faces incarceration, deportation and, worst of all, the prospect of the truth getting back to his wife and extended family. Catastrophe after catastrophe threaten to erode Arsim’s humanity, but his acute perception prevents him from sinking into glassy-eyed indifference: “I can see her sorrow,” says Arsim about a woman he visits. “I see how it travels with her everywhere she goes, it is there when she takes the house keys from her pocket, when she prepares a meal for her family, when she shakes the rugs.” Statovci keenly observes how the after-effects of war pervade every corner of its victims’ world.
When Arsim finally decides to seek out Miloš after the war, we suspect there won’t be a storybook ending; Bolla shifts from being a dream-filled anticipation of the future to a taut negotiation of the past. Only in escaping the deadening circuitry of fantasy, suggests Statovci, can we begin to bear reality.
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