New Novels Follow Refugees on Difficult Journeys

Statovci is himself a former refugee, brought to Finland as a child by his Kosovan parents. The protagonist of his superb third novel, “Bolla,” is an aspiring writer and young husband who, shortly before the outbreak of war in Kosovo, starts an affair with a man, a Serbian medical student named Milos. Since Kosovo is deeply conservative and Arsim “an Albanian in a world run by Serbs,” this is a doubly forbidden love.

Statovci, in Hackston’s eloquent translation, evokes the affair with delicacy and precision. In one scene, Milos, studying, asks Arsim to lie on the floor so he can explore his chest with “chilly, metallic fingers at the exact point where he would make an incision in a coronary bypass operation.” Likewise, Statovci nails Arsim’s marriage to the tenacious, ultimately indomitable Ajshe, who practices a sort of conjugal aikido, calmly absorbing and assimilating transgressions that ought to estrange her, and are meant to.

Forced to flee Kosovo, Arsim and his young family find refuge in an unnamed “city of millions” where they live in a high-rise among “identical-looking buildings” and Arsim works in a nondescript factory. The unspecific, spectral nature of this existence is apt; in his heart, Arsim still inhabits Kosovo and mourns Milos.

Italicized passages punctuating the main story indicate Milos has not forgotten Arsim either. But these are the febrile ruminations of a man destroyed by atrocities both committed and sustained: “How quickly the mind can crack, how suddenly evil can take the place of good, and how easy killing is then.”

When Arsim is arrested after an online hookup gone wrong, then declines to defend himself, we sense he’s hoping for deportation, both to escape his marriage and to find Milos. In the chapters that follow, surprise follows surprise; none feels willed or fanciful but rather received, as if Statovci is no longer the story’s author but its amanuensis. An occasional surfeit of similes is the prose’s one minor flaw. “Bolla” is a splendid achievement and Statovci a major talent.

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