The beguiling My Cat Yugoslavia is out now, and to celebrate the publication of this unmissable debut, we caught up with author Pajtim Statovci to discuss the five books which inspired him to become a writer. Read on to find out Pajtim’s most influential novels, from Bulgakov to Allende, and beyond.
Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita
I believe I’ve read Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita five or six times. The first time was when I was 15 years old, and I remember reading the first chapter on a bus on my way to school. Covered in goosebumps, thrilled by the story’s first scenes, blown away by its exquisite language I immediately knew I was in for a lifelong reading experience. Every single time this book, this whimsical, absurd, suspenseful and ingenious novel with its insatiable imagery, punches me right where it hurts. This novel inspired me tremendously when I wrote My Cat Yugoslavia. Everyone should read this book, it is a classic for so many reasons, a piece of everlasting art.
Sofi Oksanen: Stalin’s Cows
Sofi Oksanen’s Stalin’s Cows is such a tender and delicate work of fiction that I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. It’s a story about a young Finnish-Estonian woman Anna – a smart, fearless literature student – who suffers from an eating disorder, bulimia. Growing up in anti-Soviet Finland, being of Estonian decent on her mother’s side causes an immeasurable amount of shame and guilt to the protagonist, who quickly learns that it’s best to keep her roots to herself. Her obsession with food and constant purging is a mind-blowingly genius allegory of guilt, a nation’s harrowing history, fear of being judged by a painful past. Oksanen guides her highly emotional protagonist with superb creativity through the turmoil that a traumatic and violent history causes, showing how the body never forgets the anguish that the mind tries to push aside. The title, Stalin’s Cows, is absolutely beautiful and refers to not only how an oppressive system treats its citizens but also to what fragile, sensitive individuals call themselves when looking in the mirror.
György Dragomán: The White King
Set in an unknown Communist country, György Dragomán’s The White King is a novel about the absence of structure, reason and law. The narrator is an 11-year-old boy named Djata whose father has been sent to a labour camp. The story evolves in a fairly Beckettian way, following Djata who throughout the story awaits his father’s return. Djata’s everyday life quickly becomes progressively darker, more absurd and ludicrous as he starts looking for his father in places that seem random and groundless. Through this heartbreaking and desperate search the reader is forced to question whether Djata really wants to find him. Does he really want his father to come back, or is he just infatuated by the idea that he’s forever gone? This novel’s inimitable, stunning, poetic language looks for its equal, and its alluring sentences go on for pages in the most elegantly exhausting way.
Isabel Allende: The House of Spirits
Simultaneously graceful and intense, The House of Spirits, Isabel Allende’s debut novel, is one of my favourite books. Set in an unnamed Latin American territory, The House of Spirits is a magical family chronicle, mixing age-old myths with fantasy as well as different narratives, fact and nonsense. While the novel’s complex architecture with its numerous characters and voluminous details demands vigilance from its reader, its story, spanning generations, is an unforgettable one, demonstrating how devastatingly history keeps repeating itself. The writing is bold, sublime and at times devilishly satirical.
Imre Kertész: Fateless
Imre Kertész’s Fateless is one of those books that mesmerize with a fresh and unexpected – yet highly authentic – point of view. The protagonist is a 14-year-old Hungarian boy who’s arrested on his way to work and sent to concentration camps in Auschwitz – Birkenau, Buchenwald and Zeitz. Instead of revolting against oppression, the lack of food and water and the tragic circumstances, the narrator, Gyuri, tramps along through his life in captivity with a sort of ease, admiring the order inside the camp, marveling at how everything has its time and place. I was so touched by this story because I believed all of it, even the senselessness of the narrator’s self-loathing thoughts. Sometimes it’s easier to adapt to violence than to fight for what is right.
Want more from Pajtim? Get a beautiful hardback copy of his debut My Cat Yugoslavia on the Pushkin shop now >