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Pajtim Statovci author
Pajtim StatovciCourtesy of Faber

Pajtim Statovci on Bolla, His Searing Novel About Love and Refugee Life

As his new novel Bolla is released, Statovci speaks about disrupting the rules of literary fiction, the problem with conventional narratives of trauma, and the influence of folklore on his work

Lead ImagePajtim StatovciCourtesy of Faber

“If everyone got what they wanted, would there even be a word to describe desire?” This is one of many questions posed by Pajtim Statovci in his searing, searching new novel Bolla both a haunting love story and a devastating portrayal of war and displacement, intertwined with a fable concerning the titular Bolla, a snake-like creature from Albanian mythology.

Statovci was born in Kosovo in 1990 to Albanian parents, before moving to Finland at the age of two when his family was made refugees by the Kosovo War. Themes of displacement and trauma echo throughout his three novels, My Cat Yugoslavia, Crossing, and Bolla; as do elements of folklore and mythology. He has been awarded numerous prizes for his work, including Finland’s most prestigious literary award, the Finlandia Prize, while Crossing was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Bolla begins in Kosovo in April 1995, when the country is on the brink of a terrible war. Arsim, a newly-married, 22-year-old Albanian with dreams of becoming a writer, meets Miloš, a Serbian medical student, and the two embark on an intense, clandestine love affair. “This is the most perfect day of my life,” reflects Arsim early in their relationship, “and the happiness we feel that evening, we both know it, the sensation as I kiss his neck, the person I am as I smell his hair, the gazes we cast upon each other, the taste of beer left on the balcony table, the way our lips touch right there in the flames of the fading evening, it will never end, even if there’s nothing left of it by morning.”

When Arsim and Miloš are torn apart by the war, the novel charts their courses in the years that follow; how they are haunted by the memories of both their earlier happiness and the terrible things they’ve done. Bolla is tightly-paced and gripping, concise yet grand in its narrative scope. It’s bleak in parts, and offers little in the way of easy consolations, instead confronting the bracing truth that some people’s lives really are irreparably destroyed by their experiences. The ending is one of the saddest things I have ever read and left me with a strange feeling that lingered for days. But I also found it invigorating in a way, simply because it’s so profound and so beautiful. And in the light of the war in Ukraine and the subsequent refugee crisis that we’re seeing unfold before our eyes, its depiction of displacement feels especially timely – even though, of course, people are being made refugees all the time.

Here, Statovci speaks about disrupting the rules of literary fiction, the problem with conventional narratives of trauma, the influence of folklore on his work, and more.

James Greig: Bolla is a powerful examination of what it means to have your life interrupted by events beyond your control, and the difficulty, or impossibility, of returning to normality once these events have ended. The scene where Arsim returns to Kosovo after the war and finds someone else living in his house, for instance, seems like an almost archetypal refugee experience. Do you see this book as being a universal narrative of displacement? Or as a specific story, which is specifically about Kosovo?

Pajtim Stavoci: Both. I was trying to tell a universal story about dislocation and displacement, and what happens when you are forced to live a life that you haven’t chosen and don’t want. But at the same time, it’s a single story about a single individual living in a single culture, filled with specific expectations and realities. And what happens to Arsim when he returns to Kosovo is actually what happened to many families there, because during the war lots of apartments were occupied by people who had found them empty. This really shattered a sense of home for so many people, including my family, and in a way for myself, too.

JG: The two main characters both do some terrible things. How did you navigate this sense of moral ambiguity as you were writing the book?

PS: It was a big challenge for me to write this book, and especially this character. But at the same time, what drew me to Arsim was the realness of him, and people like him. I’ve been surrounded by many similar strict environments, and witnessed the downfall of men exactly like him; they were not a rare sight in my childhood. I felt it was necessary for me to write about him in an attempt to see him more clearly; not to judge but to understand and even to forgive.

So while there are a lot of unforgivable things that happen in Bolla, writing it was an act of forgiveness. The book grew into a moral consideration of good and evil: how far can you go and still be forgiven? To what extent can your bad experiences explain your terrible actions? It took me eight years to write this book. One of the biggest challenges I had was figuring out the tone of the narrator and in the end, I just had to disregard a lot of unwritten rules of fiction writing, such as the necessity of having a protagonist you want to root for. I gave myself permission to go straight to the core of this person and then write from inside his darkness. I don’t see Arsim as this demonic evil creature who is naturally violent and lacking in depth. Many of the things he does, he does because he doesn’t know better because he’s a victim of certain circumstances himself.

“I didn’t want to write about trauma with the idea that it necessarily goes away at some point. Because I don’t think trauma operates in this way very often. Sometimes, things happen that are so terrible and bad that they will become ingrained into you, and you might never get an escape from them” – Pajtim Statovci

JG: How did you conceive the character of Miloš? And why did you decide to write his perspective in the format of a journal?

PS: I wanted to write about the moment when you experience trauma that is so severe that it breaks your reality. The best way for me to emphasise this was by telling the story through a journal, because journal entries are very personal, and you can be honest in a different way than you are with other people. There’s a certain section where he says something like, “sometimes the evil you see, becomes the evil you do.” And I think that’s the case here. But when something traumatic happens, we often expect people to go to therapy for a number of years, get over it and then move on with their life. I didn’t want to write about trauma with the idea that it necessarily goes away at some point. Because I don’t think trauma operates in this way very often. Sometimes, things happen that are so terrible and bad that they will become ingrained into you, and you might never get an escape from them.

JG: Among other things, Bolla is about the nature of happiness. What role does happiness play in a world as unjust and brutal as Arsim’s? At one point, he disavows his relationship with Miloš, and the happiness they shared, on the basis that neither of them are the same person. But I don’t quite believe him ...

PS: I don’t really believe him either. I think he says this because he has carried the memory of their one summer for his entire life and in the darkest moments, reminiscing about this brief period they had together has brought him a lot of joy. And the story of the bolla, as it’s interpreted here, is about this small beacon of happiness, and whether one such moment is enough to carry someone throughout their life. So I think that Arsim says this because what he had with Miloš meant so much to him, and he wants to keep his memories of this time, of this utmost happiness, untarnished. When this history is brought back in the same room with him, and in such a different way, I don’t think he can look it in the eye anymore.

JG: If Bolla is about happiness then it is also about unhappiness. It partly seems like a rejection of the idea that adverse experiences lead to self-improvement or wisdom. Do you think that suffering can have any redemptive quality whatsoever?

PS: It can, of course, but perhaps not so much in this book. People handle trauma in different ways. But from what I have seen, for example with my own personal family history, people are still very broken and shattered over what happened in Kosovo. And sometimes what you go through just makes you weaker, sadder, and more pathetic. It doesn’t always provide you with the fortitude and strength to tackle your next battle.

JG: The situation that Miloš finds himself in at the end struck me as so brutal, as I was reading it, but then I considered that all the time, all over the world, people end up in a similar fate. The idea there would be no redemption for him seemed so harsh, but as you write in the book, “For most people, the world is a forest raging with fire; there is more destruction than reconstruction.” Why did you want to represent this idea?

PS: I think fiction should, more than anything, reflect the real stories of the world. For example, in many parts of the world, there is little access to mental health treatment for those who are societal outcasts. And there are millions of people who are still carrying a lot of trauma about the Kosovo war who would really benefit from talking about their experiences with someone. But in my family no one has done that; the society and culture just aren’t built around it. Being homeless and not having any money is very common in Kosovo. When I published the book, I was really surprised by the reaction to the story itself, because people saw it as violent, dark, hopeless, and having absolutely no light whatsoever. But I was just writing about the world the way I had seen and experienced it. 

So I was a bit taken back by the response. Let’s put it this way: in commercial fiction, crime fiction, and television entertainment, you’re allowed to be very vicious and brutal. People watch true-crime series more than ever; we are fascinated by serial killers and violent imagery and are exposed to it all the time. And with that, there’s no issue. But when you package violence in a book like this, which is supposed to be a reflection of real life, it’s suddenly not seen as appropriate anymore. I think there’s something a little hypocritical about consuming the former kind of entertainment, then reading a book of literary fiction and saying, ‘well, this is just too much.”

“Despite it being emotionally straining to write, in the end, this book really made me feel good. The story itself still pains me in a way, but I needed to get it out of my system” – Pajtim Statovci

JG: Throughout your work, from My Cat Yugoslavia onwards, you often use mythology, fables, folklore, and aspects of magical realism. What purpose do these elements serve for you as a writer

PS: This partly comes from my academic interests. I’m now doing my PhD at the University of Helsinki, where I’m exploring the relationship between humans and non-humans in different literary texts. I just think that the world of the supernatural and the animal world is such a vast pool of metaphors. When I was growing up, I was told a lot of fables, and this creature, the Bolla, was very present in these stories. On the last page of the novel, there’s a sketch of it, taken from an actual drawing. When I was told these stories about the Bolla, it plagued me throughout my life, and I was terrified of this creature when I was a child. I grew up near a forest and at one point I was too scared to go there because I was afraid that the Bolla would be there and chop me up. So I kept drawing it on paper, and I would show it to my parents. I just remember it being this symbol of ultimate evil. So because I wanted to explore the theme of evil in this book, I decided to take this creature and reinterpret it.

JG: Because ultimately the Bolla ends up becoming a symbol of happiness, right?

PS: In this novel, the Bolla has a symbolic meaning, as it’s about people who spend their entire lives being afraid and hiding from everyone, including themselves. In the story of the Bolla, there are two women who go inside the mountain and stay there forever, encapsulated in the darkness, and I think that this is what happens to Arsim and Miloš, too. They get each other for a moment, but what they had is still left hidden. And Ajshe, Arsim’s wife, is also much like this Bolla because she rarely gets out into the sunlight. She has swallowed the same fate as her husband and Miloš. So it’s a symbol of every theme in this book: battle and war and getting thrown out of paradise; being shamed and never being able to be free. It was a personal quest for me because I needed to be able to see goodness in the Bolla, or in the things that this creature represented to me until I wrote this book. Now I can better understand some of the things that have happened to me and why they have been so difficult. Despite it being emotionally straining to write, in the end, this book really made me feel good. The story itself still pains me in a way, but I needed to get it out of my system.

Bolla by Pajtim Statovci is published by Faber, and is out now.