Book Review - Bolla

In his award-winning novels My Cat Yugoslavia and Crossing, Kosovan-born Pajtim Statovci explored love in a homophobic society, fractured identity and exile – his family fled to Finland when he was two. He covers similar ground in his third novel Bolla, deftly translated by David Hackston, although this book feels considerably darker.

In 1995 Pristina, Arsim, an Albanian who dreams of becoming a writer, meets and falls for Miloš, a Serbian medical student. Chapters alternate between their two narratives. Arsim is married to Ajshe and deeply resentful of the loveless marriage orchestrated by his father “because a man… is expected to reproduce and continue the family tree”. When Ajshe dutifully becomes pregnant he beats her.

By contrast, the two men cannot enjoy an open relationship. According to Arsim: “Our time together is mostly silent and the curtains are always closed. We never go anywhere, not even for a walk, we don’t harbour thoughts of any kind outside this apartment because such a life simply doesn’t exist.”

War eventually tears them apart. Arsim and his family are forced into exile, while Miloš enlists as a soldier. Arsim finds it hard to adapt to his new life. When he has sex with a male minor, he is charged with rape, imprisoned for 13 months and afterwards deported back to Pristina. Miloš’s experience is equally unhappy. His fragmented diary entries, dated from January 2000 to April 2002, recall an abusive childhood and war’s “wreckage”, as well as his meeting with Arsim and their brief happiness together.

Throughout, Statovci interweaves the story of the Bolla, a mythological beast born from the union between a snake and God’s daughter. The Albanian word also means “alien” and “invisible”. Hiding in its cave, Statovci suggests, the Bolla represents forbidden desire in the eyes of an unforgiving society. By the end, Miloš is so broken that he envies the beast its one day of freedom every year. Bolla is a stark, powerful portrayal of the dehumanising effects of trauma, shame and fear.

Originally published by The Observer