Bolla by Pajtim Statovci, translated by David Hackston

This is the third of four books that I am reading for the FutureLearn course ‘How to read a Novel’ run by Edinburgh University alongside their James Tait Black Prize. It is not a book I would have picked up and read left to my own devices.

In 1995, Arsim a 22 year old Albanian, recently married, meets Miloš, a student doctor and a Serb, in a cafe and as the book says, their lives are never the same. Their love must be hidden, homosexuality is not tolerated, and so they repair to Miloš’s small apartment where it becomes a passionate and all-consuming affair. But timing is everything and Arsim’s wife Ajshe becomes pregnant and war breaks out. The affair is cut short with Arsim and family leaving the country and Miloš joining up and fighting. The book then tells of the after effects of this desire and war and the long tail of trauma left in its wake. There is no going to therapy and moving on in this story. It must be lived through and this means that Arsim makes poor judgements about his activities and is imprisoned and returned to his home country and Miloš is interred in an institution like we used to see on TV where there is no stimulation for the children or adults who lie around on cots all day.

Wrapping around this story is Bolla, a mythical beast from Albania, who is the result of a union between a snake and God’s daughter as payment for the snake leaving paradise. One day a year Bolla is allowed out of its cave, into the light where it plays, causes destruction and enjoys the sun, and then it slinks back for the rest of the year into darkness.

I really hated Arsim and his behaviours. In exile, he beat his wife and children and had sex with a child. He berated his wife constantly, she who was loyal and dutiful, who cooked and cleaned and raised his children and he never once thought about her, only himself and his desires. In a way, Ajshe was like Bolla in that she rarely saw the sunlight of their relationship.

“Bolla,” said the Devil and allowed the sun to shine in through the mouth of the cave, to light his creation.

Then the girl felt sunlight for the first time, and it was beautiful.


This is probably how Ajshe felt once Arsim had signed the divorce papers.

Arsim also ‘rescues’ Miloš from the institution full of thoughts about recovering their relationship only to find that Miloš is beyond his help and so he abandons him in his room he has rented and moves on to other rented accomodation. The rescue, I think, is one of the most selfish decisions Arsim makes, having no consideration as to how Miloš might be and how much care he might need. All he wants is his lover back.

Time moves on and so do things for Arsim. He goes back to university and finishes his course and gets a story published but for Miloš there is no moving on. He stays as he is, sitting out on the road, begging.

Miloš’s story is told through a journal – it took me a while to realise it was Miloš’s journal – and at the end he sees Bolla not as the destructive beast but someone who has one day of freedom, free to enjoy the daylight and others before going back into hiding for the rest of the year. It made me cry.

This is a story of desire, trauma, the after effects of trauma and asks us whether someone can go too far to be forgiven. The timing of this book with the war between Russia and Ukraine makes this not just a book about Kosovo and its people but a book about war in general. I shudder to think of this story being repeated for all of those people.

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