I had seen this book on a list of anticipated debut novels for 2017, and remembered it because of the cat in the title and the cover drawing. I’ve talked so much about book covers recently, that I’m pretty sure this is a banner year for them, at least among the books I’ve read. That cat has more style than me! When I picked up a hold at the library the other day, I went to the shelves of new books conveniently situated near the exit, where this book was displayed with the front cover facing out, so of course I had to go back and check it out. After reading the second chapter, where Bekim purchases a boa constrictor and all of its accoutrement, I didn’t know if I wanted to continue with the book. I have an intense loathing of snakes, and don’t even like saying the word. But I persisted (I need an emoji for irony) because I hadn’t yet met the other protagonist who had been introduced in the blurb. I was immediately rewarded and drawn completely in to the story as I read on.
When Bekim meets the titular cat in a gay bar, the cat is singing along to Cher’s “Believe” playing in the background. The cat is so comfortable and self-possessed that Bekim can’t take his eyes off him. They leave together and head for Bekim’s home where the cat spends the night and beyond, perhaps overstaying his welcome. The cat is rude, selfish, obnoxious, and airs his prejudices proudly. I can only guess that Bekim was so charmed by this talking creature that he put up with the abuse. I am happy to report, however, that the boa constrictor behaved himself, making it possible for me to continue reading, as he played a minor role early on. The other story is of a young Muslim girl in Yugoslavia, whose arranged marriage flourishes with five children. Emine and Bajram’s marriage takes a turn after their initial infatuation- or were they both just playing roles, only revealing themselves to each other after the marriage rituals were concluded?
There is much history about the Balkans, of which I know very little, although I have heard of all the places mentioned, sometimes in their actual historical context. This story is primarily about the chaos in Yugoslavia after president Tito died in 1980. Serbs grew more powerful, and tides turned against Albanians, making it dangerous for them to continue to live there, prompting Emine to muse, “I wondered what was happening to this planet. At what point had humans turned into beasts that mauled one another, that held their neighbors’ heads beneath the water?” Finally, Bajram decides that he must take his family to Finland (he didn’t have enough money to get to either Australia or the US) to insure their safety. When that happened, the story became an immigrant’s story, with all of the attendant rejection of the newcomers whose culture is different from the host country, creating an underclass. In all of my immigrant/outsider reading this year, the word that consistently comes up is “nationalism.”
I was fascinated by the wedding traditions of Albanian Muslims as presented in the book. The marriages were arranged, so the couple did not know each other before the wedding. The wedding festivities lasted several days and included the whole community. One of the traditions that seemed kind of lovely was on the wedding night, the sisters and aunts of the couple sing outside the door of the marriage bedroom: if the bride is pretty give us some sweets, to which Bajram responded by opening the door and handing out a bag of sweet confections. Alone with his bride, he throws a bowl of raw white beans in the air and they scatter all over the room. The bride’s job is to collect them all by crawling around on the floor to retrieve every last bean, giving her groom the opportunity to “observe her movements,” thus getting to know her body.
Finnish people apparently love cats, and keep them as pets, where the Albanians from Kosovo find them dirty and disdain them. Albanians eat their pite (spinach pie) with their fingers, which Finnish people consider crude, at least according to the book. I’m sure the list goes on and on, but it underscores why the two groups disrespect one another. Finnish people expect the Albanians to blend, and then won’t hire them because their Finnish language pronunciation isn’t good enough, and on and on in a circular pattern of not fitting in for one reason or another.
I’m still trying to sort out the metaphor of the cat. The title indicates perhaps that the cat was named Yugoslavia, although the name is never mentioned in the book. And if that were the case, wouldn’t there be a comma after the word cat in the title? The fact that Bekim met him in a gay bar and that the cat says he hates gays must have some significance. Maybe he represents those members of society that do not accept LGBTQ people, or are disdainful of the group, but more tolerant of individuals. Or, maybe the cat represents the old Yugoslavia that died with Tito: one that was more accepting of different ethnicities and protecting of human rights in general.
The cat is such a character, I can say that’s the reason I like him in spite of his xenophobia and homophobia. Once, when Bekim left the apartment hurriedly, he was relieved when he returned, to hear the cat, still in the shower, still singing Bruno Mars’ “Grenade,” not quite mastering the English lyrics, despite his self-proclaimed “citizen of the world” status. I love, love Bruno Mars. When I dance to “Uptown Funk” in the kitchen, my dog, does not like it. Not only does he bark, he does this bow-y thing where he goes into downward facing dog, and then barks on the uptake as he stands back up on all fours. And because George doesn’t like my singing either, I’m pretty sure his vocal editorial comments are about me and not Bruno Mars.
There’s a lot of talk about unnamed sweets in the story, so I decided to include a recipe for Turkish Delight, as that could have been the sweet provided to the female relatives by the bridegroom on his wedding night.
Microwave Turkish Delight
¼ C powdered gelatine
2 cups sugar (put in food processor in two batches to make granules more fine)
¾ C corn flour
1⅓ C confectioner’s sugar
¼ tsp cream of tartar
1 to 2 drops red food colouring
3 oz chocolate
Lightly grease an 8 x 8 inch pan. Line base and sides with parchment paper, allowing a 1 inch overhang on 2 sides to aid removal from pan.
Place 2½ cups hot water in a large heatproof, microwave-safe bowl. Sprinkle gelatine over water. Using a fork, whisk until the gelatine dissolves. Stir in 2 cups of sugar. Microwave, uncovered, on high for 5 minutes. Stir well. Microwave, uncovered, on high for another 4 to 5 minutes until mixture is thick and syrupy.
Whisk corn flour, icing sugar and cream of tartar together and whisk into gelatine mixture. Microwave on high for 3 minutes. Stir in rosewater and food coloring. Pour into prepared pan. Refrigerate until firm.
Remove Turkish Delight from pan. Using a hot knife (place knife blade in a glass of very hot water for i minute), cut into squares. Remove squares to a new sheet of parchment.
Place chocolate in a heatproof, microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring with a metal spoon every 30 seconds, until melted and smooth. Spoon chocolate into a ziplock bag. Snip off 1 corner. Pipe chocolate over squares. Stand at room temperature until set. Serve.
As you can see from the photo, there is no drizzled chocolate. That’s because what I thought was an opened package of Nestle’s Semi-sweet morsels turned out to be an opened package of Dark Rye Flour! I need a light in the pantry. (Or get my eyes examined.)