Fighting ghosts

In Ibsen’s Ghosts, the characters most of the time refrain themselves from confronting the ghosts in their life and going against it. Even Mrs. Alving, the most “free-thinking” character of the play, only acknowledges the impact of those ghosts on her life decisions, without taking much action to remove herself from their grip.

If we look at today’s world, we seem to have more and more courage to break away from the ghosts of the past, or of public opinions. From issues like feminism to homosexuality, we are expressing more rejection of the “old defunct theories” and actively changing them to fit today’s world.

This shift in how people respond to “ghosts” reminds me of the debut novel written by Pajtim Statovci, My Cat Yugoslavia. I read this book more than a year ago for my writing seminar. The way that the book conveys the idea of confronting and breaking away from prejudices is very interesting, in quite a weird way.

The novel main protagonists are Bekim, a young homosexual immigrant in Finland, and his mother Emine. Emine’s relationship with her husband is somewhat similar to Mrs. Alving’s. When she was young, Emine was always taught to be a good wife when she grew up. One day, a stranger pass by Emine, was charmed by her and soon after went to her house to propose to her. Because he was very wealthy, Emine’s family agreed to marry her off. Yet the husband was nothing like she imagined. He physically abused her and even the children, but they still stayed and persisted, because Emine was always taught to be a good wife to her husband. But when all of their children have moved out and have their own life, she eventually left her husband, and never came back.

In the other line of the book, Bekim, Emine’s son, is an immigrant and gay. He is so afraid of people judging him for his being an immigrant that “he starts to use false names, like Michael and John, simply to “avoid the next question, which is, ‘Where are you from?’ “It’s one thing to tell someone you are Swedish, German, or English,” Bekim says, “and quite another thing to say you are Turkish or Iranian. It’s only very rarely that someone’s home country is of no significance at all.” (A Life Altered by War and Transmuted Into Fiction – Gabrielle Bellot)

However, one day in a bar, Bekim was charmed by a talking cat, who is anti-immigrant, anti-homosexuality, he hates everything that Bekim is. And then he brought the cat home and satisfied all its needs, despite all of its caustic remarks towards him everyday. According to the review on the New Yorker I linked to above, “This unusual relationship, … , may represent, for Bekim, “a different kind of love” from the others he has known, “stronger and more powerful, because it has crossed borders and walls. Maybe he thinks that if he can get someone like that to give him love and acceptance, he will be O.K.,” Statovci added. “Maybe he needs to feel that it is possible for people who think in a similar way the cat thinks to see him as more than a refugee or as a gay guy—to fall in love with him.”

Interestingly, in one particular passage in the same review, the author also employs language and metaphors related to ghosts to talk about how Emine and Bekim face their own past.

My Cat Yugoslavia” is spry and warm at first, but it hardens, becoming emotionally icier, until Bekim and his mother reach parallel breaking points: Bekim returns to Kosovo to confront the phantoms of his past, and Emine leaves Bajram. This chilliness put me off at first; the novel’s coldness made me feel cold to it. But, as I kept reading, its mood and style began to make sense. The novel is a slowly shattering and re-forming reflection of the protagonists’ corresponding descents into wintry numbness, until, near the end, they begin to revive, and to love. When Emine receives a letter from the husband she has fled, she realizes it is addressed to someone “who no longer existed.” But the past does not disappear: even as Bekim walks, near the novel’s end, with the male lover his father would never have accepted, he cannot stop thinking of Bajram, cannot stop hearing the sharp words from his former life.

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