Pajtim Statovci talks to Octavia Bright about tricky protagonists, Albanian mythology and multilingualism.
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OCTAVIA BRIGHT: Pajtim – your latest novel, Bolla, is told in two voices and styles: the conventional narrative voice of Arsim, who is Albanian, and the more impressionistic voice of Miloš, his Serbian lover, whose sections read like they might be diary entries. You used this two-voice structure in your previous novels My Cat Yugoslavia and Crossing as well – what do you find it opens up, in terms of storytelling?
PAJTIM STATOVCI: I do enjoy combining different styles and modes in my work. I feel like can “let go” easier when I am not restricted by one narrator, or the rules of a single reality. Writing in a diary is very different from writing a letter, a news article, a research paper, a novel – anything, really, because one never writes in a diary thinking that others will get to read what one writes. It’s a place of complete intimacy and solitude, a place where you can reveal your deepest and darkest secrets without having to be afraid of someone knowing them. One even reconstructs traumatic memories in a diary, which is exactly what happens in the novel, too. Many of the things that Miloš says he’s done turn out to be false.
In all my books, there’s also an entirely fantastical setting. The fable-like “interludes” or intervening episodes work as metaphors for what happens in the actual story. In the case of Bolla, the story is a metaphor of the novel’s internal struggle, war, lost happiness, living in secret and fear.
OB: Arsim is a complex character, a person traumatised by circumstance and unable to live openly as queer, who himself goes on to do some terrible things, including beating his wife and children. The main character in your second novel Crossing is also a tricky protagonist, a pathological liar (the author Garth Greenwell compared him to Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley). What draws you to looking at the world from the perspective of these troubled characters?
PS: I am a writer because my will to understand people is greater than my need to judge them. When it comes to human relationships, things are rarely black and white. This is a novel about people who have to live in extreme situations, about people who have experienced almost unimaginable trauma. I’m drawn to the complexity of the feeling of “being stuck”: what happens when you’re forced to live a life that doesn’t feel as though it’s yours? Where do you go if you don’t feel at home anywhere? Can certain situations and circumstances ever explain the evil that may take over a human being?
OB: How did the voices of Arsim and Miloš come to you, and why did you want to tell their stories?
PS: What brought me to Arsim’s character was his realness, and the realness of his life. In my past, I have lived in rather strict environments where I’ve witnessed the downfalls of people like Arsim. And I needed to explore this person’s mind in an attempt to see more clearly, to try and understand his actions – and, in some way, to be able to forgive, too. I needed to explore what has driven this man here: to become so lost, so flawed. Is it the circumstances – the war and the fact that it’s impossible for him to be his authentic self – that have caused him to hurt the people closest to him?
The character of Milos is a sort of approach to trauma. I wanted to write about that moment in which trauma breaks the reality and mental stability of its victims. And to emphasise this, Milos is mostly present in journal entries that are chosen and read by Arsim, a man who is equally broken. The notebook can be seen to represent an element of lost ownership that can occur when struggling with mental health. People who suffer from depression and PTSD can feel like they’re ripped away from their own consciousness and persona, and trapped in a consciousness that isn’t their own. This other self can take control sometimes, insidiously. The reader doesn’t know if there’s more writing in the journal because Arsim steals the diary and decides what he reads from it. In this sense, he ends up stealing a voice. Does he read only specific parts that allow him to feel better about himself and his actions at the end of the book, when he, once again, just leaves after he’s made a huge mess?
I have to say that it was rather liberating to write about trauma in this way – without a need for the trauma not to exist anymore, without the need to “get rid of it”, or be “healed” from it. We’re often told that we are responsible for our own wellbeing, that we’re required to push ourselves, to go to therapy and “get over it”, to be better and achieve, and whatnot. But it’s not that simple. There are experiences and traumas you can’t get over, and perhaps that’s alright, too.
OB: How do you relate to your characters once they exist in the world? Do they feel like friends, like parts of yourself, or more like case studies, or something else entirely?
PS: They feel like all of the above, really, at different stages of writing. I get really attached to my characters, and I care about them deeply. I’m always a bit mournful when I finish a book and have to let them go. Because once a book is published, it’s no longer your secret, and you can no longer be in charge of the fates of your characters. Writing brings me a tremendous amount of comfort, and in some sense, this place of comfort needs to be rebuilt after every finished book. And creating it is everything but easy.
OB: When they first meet, Arsim and Miloš speak in English, which frees them up to enjoy their forbidden connection. The role of language and how it relates to identity is a theme that you come back to in all your books. Why is it something you want to keep exploring?
PS: 20 or 25 years ago, the world was very different. In many parts of it, queer people didn’t necessarily have the words, or the spaces, to describe what it feels like to be queer. This is partly the case in Bolla: Arsim and Miloš aren’t able to have a conversation about their relationship, because they feel that there’s no sufficient language for it, or because they don’t know how to talk about it. I guess they just don’t have anyone to look up to. There’s just lust and desire, and these motivate their actions. Their respective languages, in a way, fail them, and so it feels more natural for them to communicate in a language that is foreign to both of them. It is an act of escape. It allows and encourages them to bend the rules, and to be a part of a different world. I feel this applies to many multilingual people. Sometimes, it’s as if I become a different person when I switch languages.
OB: Being multilingual, what is the process of being translated like for you, and how closely did you work with your English translator, David Hackston?
PS: David is an incredible translator – I have so much respect for him and his work. The soul and essence of the original is always there in his translations. It has been wonderful working with David, and we do collaborate quite extensively. When the editing process starts, we meet (I’m lucky we live so close to each other!), and this allows us to think through some of the more unusual expressions and metaphors. David brings my work to life in the English language, and while translating it, he keeps finding new meanings and interpretations, and asking me about them. In this sense, my perspective of the book also expands.
OB: The bolla of the title is a figure from Albanian mythology – an ambiguous, snake-like creature, whose myth is told in short sections at the start of each of the novel’s three parts. Arsim also writes a short story about the bolla, which he reads to Miloš during the summer that they are lovers. What interests you about the bolla, and why did you want to use it as an organising principle when telling this particular story?
PS: For a really long time I was afraid of snakes – and this particular creature because I was told all these scary stories about it as a child. The stories always came with a warning – you should never look a bolla in the eyes because you will become permanently blind, or you will become a statue, etc. I remember always being fascinated by this creature, and the drawing on the last page of the book is actually a replica of a childhood drawing of mine. In a way, these stories were the starting point of the novel.
I wanted to recreate and reinterpret some of the stories I heard about the bolla as a child. In the novel, the bolla has a deep symbolic, metaphorical meaning; the story is about people who spend their entire being afraid, and hiding from everyone, including themselves. All of them are sort of images of this creature. Perhaps they’re all afraid for the wrong reasons.
Pajtim Statovci was born in Kosovo to Albanian parents in 1990. His family fled the Yugoslav wars and moved to Finland when he was two years old. He holds an MA in comparative literature and is a PhD candidate at the University of Helsinki. His first book, My Cat Yugoslavia, won the Helsingin Sanomat Literature Prize for best debut novel; his second novel, Crossing, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Bolla was awarded the Finland’s highest literary honor, The Finlandia Prize, and was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize in Fiction.
Dr Octavia Bright is a writer and broadcaster. She co-hosts the literary podcast Literary Friction, and presented the BBC R4 documentary American Pyscho at 30. She’s written for many publications including Somesuch Stories, Elephant, ELLE, The Sunday Times and The White Review. Her forthcoming memoir, This Ragged Grace: on recovery and renewal, will be published in 2023 by Canongate.