Book Review: My Cat Yugoslavia

My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci (translated by David Hackston), is a somewhat fragmented story involving metaphors that often slip into the surreal. It tells of a family of Albanians living in Kosovo who move to Finland when the increasing conflict threatens their safety. As refugees they are caught between their old culture and that of the country that has taken them in. What is regarded as respect by the older generation is clearly abuse by the Western European standards in which the children are now raised.

The story opens with an on line hookup between two men, both described as superficially handsome. One wishes to see the other again but is rejected. Thus we discover the problem Bekim has with trust, his fear of settling into a loving relationship and then being hurt. Instead of men he decides to share his life with a snake, the boa constrictor he purchases allowed to roam free in his apartment rather than being confined to its terrarium. His next relationship, which starts in a gay bar, is with a talking cat that wears clothes and has hateful views on homosexuals and immigrants. The snake and cat metaphors are used in subsequent encounters with Bekim’s wider family.

Born in Kosovo, Bekim moved to Finland with his parents and siblings when just a few years old. He was viciously bullied at school for being poor and a refugee. He learned to dread the question, “Where do you come from?” and the judgement that followed. As soon as he was old enough he cut off contact with his parents, ostensibly to further his education. He hated how they treated him, their desire that he behave as would have been expected in their homeland.

Although Bekim’s personal demons are represented by creatures, the second plot line unfolds more clearly. This takes the reader back to 1980 when Bekim’s mother, Emine, first meets the young man she is to marry. Although still at school she has been raised to be a good, Kosovan wife and is happy with the prospect of living with the handsome Bajram. Unlike her parents, he is from a wealthy family. He promises to treat her well.

Preparations for the wedding are described in detail, involving days of prescribed, public ritual where true feelings must be hidden. When Bajram and Emine are finally allowed to be alone together she discovers that he is brutal and demanding. Kosovan men are raised to believe that within their homes they are as gods. The women must acquiesce and serve them quietly, never complaining however disdainfully they are treated.

When the family flee to Finland they live first in a refugee centre and then in a cramped apartment. Although Bajram eventually finds work this does not last as he refuses to accept the concepts of equality and multiculturalism. He mixes with other immigrants and refugees, expecting his family to continue to treat him as the most important member of their household.

“He blindly believed in his own world.”

“People’s attitudes and values seemed to have remained unchanged from the time when they left the country, and they were preserved in tight-knit communities in overcrowded European apartment buildings in disreputable parts of town”

When Kosovo enters a fragile peace, the family become immigrants rather than refugees. The Finnish people’s resentments at their continued presence perpetuates divisions. Bajram feels no gratitude for the home he has been given. He feels justified in taking what he can by whatever means.

Emine does her best to put up with Bajram’s behaviour but understands better than he how their children are torn between the culture of Kosovo and that of Finland.

“How could he possibly have thought that his children would work, pay taxes, then return to him and help make his dreams come true instead of their own?”

Emine, Bajram and Bekim each struggle to find ways to exist having been displaced from everything they were raised to be. They are not the people they once were, but neither do they fit easily into the expectations of their adopted country.

It is always interesting to learn of different cultures, however shocking their accepted behaviours appear to a Western European reader. I was surprised by the attitudes of the refugees and immigrants portrayed as, like the Finnish people, I expected more gratitude. Perhaps I would understand better had I experienced the openly hostile reception they suffered. From that point of view this was a thought-provoking read. As a story though I found the more surreal scenes unclear.

This tale evokes less rapport than I am comfortable with for the characters portrayed due to their reluctant assimilation and demands made of their children. An unusual but not entirely satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press. 

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Book Review: Secret Passages In A Hillside Town

Secret Passages In A Hillside Town, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (translated by Lola M. Rogers), is a quirky tale of a middle aged man whose past comes back to haunt him. Its protagonist is Olli Suominen, a husband, father, parish counciller and head of a small book publishing business based in Jyväskylä, Finland. Olli considers his home town to be a monument to dull ordinariness. His marriage has grown stale and he barely knows his young son.

Olli has recently joined a film club and Facebook. A girlfriend from his teenage years, Greta, connects with him on the social network. Greta has written a bestselling book – A Guide to the Cinematic Life – which Olli’s wife buys him for his birthday. It prescribes a new way of living.

“The deep cinematic self is an artist that sees life above all as an aesthetic construct. It is like the voice of the conscience but instead of moralizing it leads us to make cinematic choices and interpret our roles as well as we possibly can. It also silences the stage fright of slow continuum attachment so that stories can be set in motion and cinematicness can be achieved.”

Olli’s publishing house needs to find a new title that will sell well. When Greta mentions online that her current publisher is unhappy with her ideas for her next book – the first in a series of magical travel guides starting with Jyväskylä – Olli suggests that she could publish with him. This business arrangement soon starts to affect his personal life.

The reader is taken back to the childhood summers Olli spent with his grandparents in Tourula, where he first met Greta. Olli was part of a group who called themselves the Tourula Five; they even had a dog named Timi. The children would spend their days going on adventures, seeking out underground passageways, eating picnics, messing about on the river. It was a thrilling time until it all went horribly wrong.

Olli has disturbing erotic dreams which are described in detail. His real life sexual encounters are also recounted leaving little to the reader’s imagination. The sex scenes were too numerous and graphic for my tastes, but the same could be said of many popular films, and this story is cinematic in style. As happens on screen, sex is regularly conflated with love.

Much of the story seems preposterous but this appears to be the point. A cinematic lifestyle does not require that the script be realistic, only that it be aesthetically memorable, and the writing reflects this.

Greta’s ideas, which include the existence of mood particles in certain places that affect behaviour, are granted potency. The power of suggestion and the adoption of fads is mocked throughout. When characters become inconvenient they are written away without consequence.

Two denouements are offered for the reader to choose from allowing film preferences to be catered for. The big reveal adds a little depth to the somewhat fantastical plot.

This is a story that encapsulates adventure, mystery, romance, fantasy and comedy with references to the numerous films it parodies. As a whole it is kooky, which at times I found irritating, but despite this it somehow works.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: The Iron Age

The Iron Age, by Arja Kajermo (illustrated by Susanna Kajermo Törner), is a story of a childhood. It begins in 1950s Finland when the narrator is four years old. She lives on a small farm with her war damaged father, stoic mother, angry grandmother and two older brothers. Neighbouring farms are owned by wider family, some more well off than others but all reliant on the land. Properties are connected by dirt tracks and a lake. The log cabins lack running water and electricity. The people raise, grow or make the bulk of what they need. Life is hard, made moreso for the unnamed child by her father’s volatility.

Of course, the child knows of no other way. She observes the behaviour of those around her, the anger and resentments the adults feel. Her language is simple yet conveys the tradition and attitudes under which they all live. Told with a dry, dark humour, day to day life passes and the seasons turn.

Money is tight so Father travels to distant towns after harvest has been gathered to find work. He returns with gifts and dreams for a future which he berates his country for failing to provide. This future he talks of appears a myth to the child, much like his stories from the past which he shares repeatedly with local visitors. She listens avidly but with a lack of understanding, shown to effect by her literal interpretations.

Eventually there is a row so bitter the family must move away. Father takes them to a distant town and then onwards to Sweden where everything changes. They do not speak the language, the child must attend school. Books become a solace, her voice a hindrance.

Mother strikes out for a degree of independence of which Father disapproves. His traditional attitudes are now as anachronistic as the clothes he chose to impress, viewed askance by the Swedish.

The child has little control over the detail of her existence yet she harbours her secrets, survives by living inside her head. The denouement felt sudden, perhaps because I didn’t want the story to end.

Told in sparse, droll language this is a beautifully painted portrayal of the transience of time and place when young. The illustrations work perfectly with the text, adding an extra dimension. A fable like depiction of unbelonging that I recommend you read.

The Iron Age is published by Tramp Press.

Book Review: The Mine

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The Mine, by Antti Tuomainen (translated by David Hackston), introduces the reader to journalist Janne Vuori who works for a small newspaper in Helsinki. He receives an anonymous email suggesting he should investigate a nickel mine in Suomalahti, a small town in the weather challenged north of the country. The mine has received funding from the government and provides much needed employment in an area where work is scarce. The cost to the environment is not so well understood.

Janne is a diligent and determined investigative reporter who believes his job is of vital importance. He derides the work his wife does for a consultancy firm with clients in the weapons and tobacco industries. She is equally scathing of his attitude, especially when he chooses to neglect her and their toddler daughter. She accuses him of chasing personal glory.

Despite his boss’s reluctance to pursue the tip-off, Janne travels north. He is denied access to the mine but sees enough to convince him that something untoward is going on. He makes contact with a former board member, and discovers that a predessessor at his newspaper had also started an investigation. This reporter is now dead, his notes mysteriously removed from storage.

Alongside Janne’s investigations the reader is taken inside the mind of a killer, an experienced hitman who is chillingly good at his job. As the body count rises these two men will find their lives colliding.

The writing is utterly compelling – I read this book in a sitting. I shivered at the bleakness and cold of a wintery Finland evoked. The layers of Janne’s character – his need to write, his desire not to let his family down, his demand for validation and support despite offering little in return –  made for thought provoking reading. It was hard not to sympathise with all concerned.

The denouement tied up each plot thread whilst skillfully maintaining the bones of all that had gone before. Questionable decisions were made but they fit perfectly the characters and story. In many ways this is a straightforward crime thriller but the execution achieves so much more. It provides a dark and altogether satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This post is a stop on The Finnish Invasion Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

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The Mine is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

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Book Review: The Defenceless

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The Defenceless, by Kati Hiekkapelto (translated by David Hackston) was perfect reading for a weekend when the media was overrun by privileged Europeans wringing their hands over what to do about an influx of desperate refugees seeking sanctuary, yet wary of upsetting their own comfortable lives. This is the second in a series of crime thrillers featuring investigator Anna Fekete, who herself fled a warzone as a child. Set in Finland the tale is as dark and challenging as the Scandinavian weather.

The reader is introduced to Sammy, a Pakistani Christian who was smuggled into Finland alongside the heroin grown to “feed the hungry veins of Western Europeans”. We learn that he too is an addict, hiding from the authorities since his application for asylum was rejected. We meet Macke, the small time dealer from whom Sammy buys his regular fix, and witness the death of the first of the story’s victims. Vilho, an old man and a neighbour, enters Macke’s apartment to complain of loud music, and suffers a violent end.

The author makes no attempt to present the growing number of refugees in this cold, Finnish town as upstanding members of the community; they include criminals and addicts. There are also those who are highly educated and wish to work but cannot make use of their superior skills until granted asylum, a process which can take many years spent eking out a living with whatever menial jobs they can find, the constant threat of deportation hanging over them.

Senior Constable Anna Fekete and her work partner, Esko Niemi, have their own problems with addiction, to alcohol and nicotine. When Vilho’s body is found, hit by a car driven by the economic migrant, Gabriella, the first thing to rule out is if she was drunk or high whilst driving. I pondered how the reader would feel towards this pale skinned, young women had she been found to be temporarily impaired; how this would contrast with the dismissal of the dark haired and dark skinned asylum seekers whom Esko wishes to send home, even if to their deaths, rather than have them feeding their habits on ‘his’ streets.

Such comparisons run through the various threads of the story adding depth and challenging reader perceptions. The futility of such nationalistic attitudes is highlighted in Anna’s musings on her beloved grandmother:

“Grandma, that dear, wonderful, wise, warm-hearted lady who had never once moved house, but who had still lived in five different states. The borders moved, rulers came and went, names changed and maps were redrawn”

Anna and Esko have more than just the death of an old man and a few illegal immigrants to deal with. As their investigations progress a blood stained knife is found in woodland and an elderly woman, living in the same apartment complex as Vilho and Macke, is reported missing. Their boss at the Violent Crimes Unit, Chief Inspector Pertti Virkkunen, is also concerned with wider issues. Intelligence reports suggest that a powerful crime syndicate, calling themselves the Black Cobra’s, are trying to establish themselves in Finland and could ignite a turf war with the resident Hell’s Angels. He believes that the drug dealers in Anna’s case may be linked to this bigger problem.

There are numerous plot lines to follow: the treatment of legal and illegal immigrants; the impact of small and big time criminal gangs; Anna’s disquiet about Gabriella; the relationships that adult children have with their relatives. The author throws in such asides as how distasteful some find the idea of geriatric sex, and how fearful a consumerist society is of oil supplies running out despite the fact that man lived without it for centuries.

Alongside all of this Anna must deal with the casual racism and misogyny of her colleagues. She is lonely with her family far away but eschews a relationship as the men she meets wish to turn her into their idea of what a woman should be. There is darkness but also humour. I shivered in the raw landscape, felt wary of the brooding woods. Esko may not have been likeable but I empathised with his pain.

The best crime fiction offers so much more than the solving of crimes. This book offers a twisting and turning plot presented within a raw and tightly written narrative. It also takes the reader inside the heads of every character, enabling them to see their world anew.

A powerful and captivating read that I did not wish to put down so finished in a day. I will be absorbing the thoughts elicited for much longer.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.