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Bolla—forbidden love in more ways than one in this timely novel

Against a backdrop of war in the Balkans, Arsim, an Albanian, falls in love with a Serbian man. Bolla is a story full of both excitement and fear, says Julia Ryder
Issue 2084
The front cover of Bolla by Pajtim Statovci

Bolla by Patjic Statovci

“Fear arrives all at once, and it is indivisible,” says Arsim in Bolla, the latest novel by Kosovan-born writer Pajtim Statovci. He has plenty to fear.

Arsim lives a double life in Pristina, capital of Kosovo, as civil war tears apart Yugoslavia in the 1990s. As the Yugoslav economy faltered, rival sections of the ruling class in the multi-ethnic federation stoked nationalist division.

They were backed by imperial powers that sought to benefit from Yugoslavia splitting into several smaller states. Soon it descended into civil war, with Croat and Serb forces heading ethnic cleansing campaigns.

By 1999, this horror comes home to Arsim, an ethnic Albanian in Serbia’s province of Kosovo. Serb nationalist ruler Slobodan Milosevic was ­fighting a vicious ­“counter‑insurgency” against the Kosovo Liberation Army.

This isn’t all Arsim has to fear. He was married off to Ajshe—an “exceptional woman, demure and obedient”. But in the early days of the war, Arsim meets Milos in a cafe.

He’s the most beautiful man—and a Serb. And yet “as we touch, there is ­nothing strange or foreign to the other”. Statovci’s prose brings alive the fun of a new romance, the “all consuming desire” that Arsim has for Milos that first night.

But what makes Bolla interesting is that neither Arsim nor Milos are heroes we’re rooting for throughout. Arsim lashes out with anger, malice, and violence when he finds out Ajshe is pregnant—and after their children are born.

We only meet Milos through a series of disjointed diary entries, placed before each chapter that’s narrated by Arsim. They reveal the terror of war—a war he goes on to fight in—and the trauma that dominates the lives of people who lived through it.

The war became worse throughout 1999 and 2000. The US and Nato launched a bombing campaign on Serbia under the guise of a “humanitarian intervention”, while Milosevic attempted to drive out Albanians from Kosovo.

Thousands of people were turned into refugees—including Statovci who was two years-old when his parents went to Finland. Arsim’s family likewise flee to an unnamed European country, but here another cruel fate awaits.

Bolla is a moving story of a man trapped by tradition and the trauma of war.

  • Bolla, Pajtim Statovci, £14.99

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