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From the author of National Book Award finalist Crossing comes an unlikely love story in Kosovo with unpredictable consequences that reverberates throughout a young man's life—a dazzling tale full of fury, tenderness, longing, and lust.

“Devastating in the most beautiful ways. From the first pages you realize that you are in the hands of an absolute artist.” —Torrey Peters, author of Detransition, Baby

April 1995. Arsim is a twenty-four-year-old, recently married student at the University of Pristina, in Kosovo, keeping his head down to gain a university degree in a time and place deeply hostile to Albanians. In a café he meets a young man named Miloš, a Serb. Before the day is out, everything has changed for both of them, and within a week two milestones erupt in Arsim’s married life: his wife announces her first pregnancy and he begins a life in secret.
 
After these fevered beginnings, Arsim and Miloš’s unlikely affair is derailed by the outbreak of war, which sends Arsim’s fledgling family abroad and timid Miloš spiraling down a dark path, as depicted through chaotic journal entries. Years later, deported back to Pristina after a spell in prison and now alone and hopeless, Arsim finds himself in a broken reality that makes him completely question his past. What happened to him, to them, exactly? How much can you endure, and forgive?
 
Entwined with their story is a re-created legend of a demonic serpent, Bolla; it’s an unearthly tale that gives Arsim and Miloš a language through which to reflect on what they once had. With luminous prose and a delicate eye, Pajtim Statovci delivers a relentless novel of desire, destruction, intimacy, and the different fronts of war.
The Girl and It

For almost a year it hasn’t felt sunlight on its skin, only the cold walls of its cave, which it scratches and gnaws incessantly, nervous and restless, its claws and teeth ground and blunt; it cannot distinguish night from day, sleep from wake, its wings from the pitch darkness, or its calloused body from the stones and boulders with which from force of habit it exchanges pleasantries.

They tell its story in grim tales that frighten little children. Finish your dinner, it loves leftovers, they say, it will think you are its friend, and while you are asleep it will steal in like a breeze through the window or rise up like steam through the floorboards, so slowly that you won’t even notice, it will climb into your bed and quietly lie down next to you, then it will press its forked tongue in through your nostrils, your mouth, and your ears and out through your eyes, and with that you will die and won’t live to see the following morning. Don’t talk back to your parents, don’t be selfish, vain, lazy, greedy, envious, don’t lie, because it will appear and eat you alive, swallow you like a marshmallow.

It lives in the judgments that the enraged hand down to one another, the words used to describe the stubborn and the agitated, the resentful and bitter, and it lurks on the paths we tread alone, where the rivers meet and the current is at its most treacherous, in abandoned houses, uninhabited forests and dales, on lonely mountains whose tall, icy summits pierce the clouds like balloons.

For one day a year it is allowed out of its cave, always in the springtime, at sunrise, when the trees stand straight and the fields have begun to grow new hide. On that day it has a set of borrowed wings, and it is called a kulshedra, but on all other days it has a different name. It is said that while it is free it destroys everything it sees, that it strikes the woods ablaze, emptying the towns, razing everything the people have created in the preceding year. After this, it begins looking for somewhere suitable to nap; it visits the sea, the land, and the heavens, and after finding an agreeable place it sometimes forgets where it has come from, where it resided only a day earlier, how many people it has just killed, the guilty and the guiltless, and even sings in a voice hoarse with allure.

#

One year, as it rocked carefree on a branch, it felt a pebble strike its side. It boomed like thunder and disappeared from sight in the blink of an eye.

“Who is there?” came a bright voice from the mouth of a girl wrapped in a bearskin standing at the foot of the tree.

In a flash, it darted down from the sky and grabbed the girl, wrapped itself around her body, and held her face close to its own, ran its tongue across her eye sockets, which were as empty as the pockets of the dead.

“Do you know what I am, you silly little girl?” it asked.

“No,” the girl replied and began to giggle. “I am blind.”

“That tickled me, by the way,” she said and continued chuckling. “You are very strong,” she said as it tightened its grip. “I wish I was too.”

“Aren’t you afraid of me?” it asked.

“Afraid?”

“Yes.”

“Of course I’m not afraid of you,” the girl replied, playfully tapped its hide, unable to appreciate its immensity, and laughed again. “And it’s not very polite to call me silly when we don’t yet know each other. I might be blind, but I’m very clever.”

“Really?”

“Yesss!”

All it could do was join her chuckling; it lowered the girl to the ground, and when it was about to leave, the girl reached out her left hand and grabbed it by the end of the tail.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Away,” it replied, wriggled free of the girl’s grip, and twisted into an attacking position, its hide covered in gleaming scales and crinkles, its mouth like a loaded weapon, ready to bite the girl’s arm off as punishment for her impudence.

“Very well,” she said. “But don’t go just yet. Do you want to play with me first?”

“Play?”

“Yesss!”

After giving this a moment’s thought, it agreed to the girl’s suggestion, and the two of them chased each other across the fields and meadows, taking turns hiding in the thickets and the boughs of trees, and as evening fell they were both exhausted and had told each other everything— the girl about her family, who had thrown her out of their home, because what could they do with a blind child, and it had told her about the cave where it had lived its life and all the different names it had been given.

The girl’s name was Drita, which meant light, and it thought the name was amusing because the girl had never seen the light.

Before saying goodbye, they agreed to meet again in a year’s time, and from that moment on they met every year, always in the bloom of spring, in the same forest where they first encountered each other, on the same path where the girl almost lost her arm.

#

Over the years, it taught the girl to hunt, to stake out prey, and to throw a spear. It bit off one of the girl’s breasts too, the better for her to shoot a bow and arrow, and proudly followed her development into an adult, a woman every bit as strong as a man.

One spring, it plucked up the courage to ask, timid and bashful, if Drita would become its wife, if she could imagine them living together, spending time together every day of the year.

Drita began to weep, and for a moment she was unable to answer, so overcome she was with emotion.

And does it matter that I was once . . . a girl, too?” it asked.

“No,” Drita answered, catching her breath and raising her hands to its cheeks. “It doesn’t matter at all,” she continued and pressed her lips against its mouth, which was as rough as bark. “I will be your wife, of course I will. I have seen it now.”

“What have you seen?” it asked.

“The light.”

And it is said that there they remain to this day, just the two of them, curtsied statuesque in front of each other, in a cave on the side of the mountain where night never retreats.
  • AWARD
    Kirkus Prize for Fiction
  • SHORTLIST | 2023
    James Tait Black Memorial Prize
  • FINALIST | 2021
    Kirkus Prize for Fiction
© Anna Kurki
PAJTIM STATOVCI was born in Kosovo to Albanian parents in 1990. His family fled the Yugoslav wars and moved to Finland when he was two years old. He holds an MA in comparative literature and is a PhD candidate at the University of Helsinki. His first book, My Cat Yugoslavia, won the Helsingin Sanomat Literature Prize for best debut novel; his second novel, Crossing, was a finalist for the National Book Award; and Bolla was awarded Finland’s highest literary honor, The Finlandia Prize. In 2018, he received the Helsinki Writer of the Year Award.

His newest novel, Bolla, will be published in July 2021 by Pantheon Books. View titles by Pajtim Statovci

About

From the author of National Book Award finalist Crossing comes an unlikely love story in Kosovo with unpredictable consequences that reverberates throughout a young man's life—a dazzling tale full of fury, tenderness, longing, and lust.

“Devastating in the most beautiful ways. From the first pages you realize that you are in the hands of an absolute artist.” —Torrey Peters, author of Detransition, Baby

April 1995. Arsim is a twenty-four-year-old, recently married student at the University of Pristina, in Kosovo, keeping his head down to gain a university degree in a time and place deeply hostile to Albanians. In a café he meets a young man named Miloš, a Serb. Before the day is out, everything has changed for both of them, and within a week two milestones erupt in Arsim’s married life: his wife announces her first pregnancy and he begins a life in secret.
 
After these fevered beginnings, Arsim and Miloš’s unlikely affair is derailed by the outbreak of war, which sends Arsim’s fledgling family abroad and timid Miloš spiraling down a dark path, as depicted through chaotic journal entries. Years later, deported back to Pristina after a spell in prison and now alone and hopeless, Arsim finds himself in a broken reality that makes him completely question his past. What happened to him, to them, exactly? How much can you endure, and forgive?
 
Entwined with their story is a re-created legend of a demonic serpent, Bolla; it’s an unearthly tale that gives Arsim and Miloš a language through which to reflect on what they once had. With luminous prose and a delicate eye, Pajtim Statovci delivers a relentless novel of desire, destruction, intimacy, and the different fronts of war.

Excerpt

The Girl and It

For almost a year it hasn’t felt sunlight on its skin, only the cold walls of its cave, which it scratches and gnaws incessantly, nervous and restless, its claws and teeth ground and blunt; it cannot distinguish night from day, sleep from wake, its wings from the pitch darkness, or its calloused body from the stones and boulders with which from force of habit it exchanges pleasantries.

They tell its story in grim tales that frighten little children. Finish your dinner, it loves leftovers, they say, it will think you are its friend, and while you are asleep it will steal in like a breeze through the window or rise up like steam through the floorboards, so slowly that you won’t even notice, it will climb into your bed and quietly lie down next to you, then it will press its forked tongue in through your nostrils, your mouth, and your ears and out through your eyes, and with that you will die and won’t live to see the following morning. Don’t talk back to your parents, don’t be selfish, vain, lazy, greedy, envious, don’t lie, because it will appear and eat you alive, swallow you like a marshmallow.

It lives in the judgments that the enraged hand down to one another, the words used to describe the stubborn and the agitated, the resentful and bitter, and it lurks on the paths we tread alone, where the rivers meet and the current is at its most treacherous, in abandoned houses, uninhabited forests and dales, on lonely mountains whose tall, icy summits pierce the clouds like balloons.

For one day a year it is allowed out of its cave, always in the springtime, at sunrise, when the trees stand straight and the fields have begun to grow new hide. On that day it has a set of borrowed wings, and it is called a kulshedra, but on all other days it has a different name. It is said that while it is free it destroys everything it sees, that it strikes the woods ablaze, emptying the towns, razing everything the people have created in the preceding year. After this, it begins looking for somewhere suitable to nap; it visits the sea, the land, and the heavens, and after finding an agreeable place it sometimes forgets where it has come from, where it resided only a day earlier, how many people it has just killed, the guilty and the guiltless, and even sings in a voice hoarse with allure.

#

One year, as it rocked carefree on a branch, it felt a pebble strike its side. It boomed like thunder and disappeared from sight in the blink of an eye.

“Who is there?” came a bright voice from the mouth of a girl wrapped in a bearskin standing at the foot of the tree.

In a flash, it darted down from the sky and grabbed the girl, wrapped itself around her body, and held her face close to its own, ran its tongue across her eye sockets, which were as empty as the pockets of the dead.

“Do you know what I am, you silly little girl?” it asked.

“No,” the girl replied and began to giggle. “I am blind.”

“That tickled me, by the way,” she said and continued chuckling. “You are very strong,” she said as it tightened its grip. “I wish I was too.”

“Aren’t you afraid of me?” it asked.

“Afraid?”

“Yes.”

“Of course I’m not afraid of you,” the girl replied, playfully tapped its hide, unable to appreciate its immensity, and laughed again. “And it’s not very polite to call me silly when we don’t yet know each other. I might be blind, but I’m very clever.”

“Really?”

“Yesss!”

All it could do was join her chuckling; it lowered the girl to the ground, and when it was about to leave, the girl reached out her left hand and grabbed it by the end of the tail.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Away,” it replied, wriggled free of the girl’s grip, and twisted into an attacking position, its hide covered in gleaming scales and crinkles, its mouth like a loaded weapon, ready to bite the girl’s arm off as punishment for her impudence.

“Very well,” she said. “But don’t go just yet. Do you want to play with me first?”

“Play?”

“Yesss!”

After giving this a moment’s thought, it agreed to the girl’s suggestion, and the two of them chased each other across the fields and meadows, taking turns hiding in the thickets and the boughs of trees, and as evening fell they were both exhausted and had told each other everything— the girl about her family, who had thrown her out of their home, because what could they do with a blind child, and it had told her about the cave where it had lived its life and all the different names it had been given.

The girl’s name was Drita, which meant light, and it thought the name was amusing because the girl had never seen the light.

Before saying goodbye, they agreed to meet again in a year’s time, and from that moment on they met every year, always in the bloom of spring, in the same forest where they first encountered each other, on the same path where the girl almost lost her arm.

#

Over the years, it taught the girl to hunt, to stake out prey, and to throw a spear. It bit off one of the girl’s breasts too, the better for her to shoot a bow and arrow, and proudly followed her development into an adult, a woman every bit as strong as a man.

One spring, it plucked up the courage to ask, timid and bashful, if Drita would become its wife, if she could imagine them living together, spending time together every day of the year.

Drita began to weep, and for a moment she was unable to answer, so overcome she was with emotion.

And does it matter that I was once . . . a girl, too?” it asked.

“No,” Drita answered, catching her breath and raising her hands to its cheeks. “It doesn’t matter at all,” she continued and pressed her lips against its mouth, which was as rough as bark. “I will be your wife, of course I will. I have seen it now.”

“What have you seen?” it asked.

“The light.”

And it is said that there they remain to this day, just the two of them, curtsied statuesque in front of each other, in a cave on the side of the mountain where night never retreats.

Awards

  • AWARD
    Kirkus Prize for Fiction
  • SHORTLIST | 2023
    James Tait Black Memorial Prize
  • FINALIST | 2021
    Kirkus Prize for Fiction

Author

© Anna Kurki
PAJTIM STATOVCI was born in Kosovo to Albanian parents in 1990. His family fled the Yugoslav wars and moved to Finland when he was two years old. He holds an MA in comparative literature and is a PhD candidate at the University of Helsinki. His first book, My Cat Yugoslavia, won the Helsingin Sanomat Literature Prize for best debut novel; his second novel, Crossing, was a finalist for the National Book Award; and Bolla was awarded Finland’s highest literary honor, The Finlandia Prize. In 2018, he received the Helsinki Writer of the Year Award.

His newest novel, Bolla, will be published in July 2021 by Pantheon Books. View titles by Pajtim Statovci

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