I found this book while on vacation at the beach. Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach Delaware, is a wonderful independent bookstore and I highly recommend a visit if you find yourself in the area. Their “staff picks” section is large and always yields some interesting reads I might not otherwise have found, including this book. Naturally, I went in looking for books to help fill bingo squares and the winged serpent on the cover grabbed my attention. This is an incredible novel but I will warn you that it is full of triggers. Set in the city of Pristina, Kosovo, in the years just preceding and then following the Kosovo War (1998-99), it features some grim subject matter: genocide, rape, abuse. Author Pajtim Statovci was born in 1990 in Kosovo to Albanian parents. His family left Kosovo for Finland before war began. Statovci’s characters, however, are not so fortunate, and in Bolla we see the fates of two men, one Albanian (Arsim) and one Serbian (Milos), whose lives briefly intersect and then fall to pieces during the war.
The “bolla” from the title is a creature from Albanian folklore. It is a demonic serpent that only experiences freedom above ground for one day a year. Within the novel, the character Arsim writes a short story about the creation of the bolla which involves a terrible agreement between God and Satan in which Satan agrees to remove the serpent from God’s garden if God will hand over His child. God agrees and does something horrible to create a child for Satan. The deformed child and the serpent develop a surprising sort of companionship, leading to the creation of the bolla. This unholy alliance, born of desperation and despicable acts, parallels the story of Arsim and Milos and the story of Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo.
Bolla is told from the points of view of Arsim and Milos. Arsim, whose voice dominates most of the story, is in his 20s when the story begins in 1995. What we learn is that Arsim is an Albanian, and while Albanians are the majority in Kosovo, the government, dominated by Serbs, keeps them separate and unequal. Arsim attends the university, but the university for Albanians is poorly funded compared to the university for Serbs. The situation for Albanians is worsening, and more and more are leaving the country all together. Milos, a Serb, is unusual in that he is not from Kosovo but has moved there to go to medical school. Arsim happens to see Milos at a cafe one day and, attracted to him, makes an overture toward him, which is favorably received. Thus begins a brief relationship between the two men but it is clear that this cannot end well. Violence between Serbs and Albanians is on the rise. Being gay is absolutely unacceptable no matter what side you are on. Moreover, Arsim has a wife and small children. What we learn about Milos from his point of view comes after the war is over. It is only then that we learn about his past, and it is not always clear if Milos is telling the truth. Milos and Arsim are flawed, broken men even before war breaks out, and the war brings out the worst in both of them.
One of the things that made this story so compelling for me is that neither Arsim nor Milos is admirable or heroic. In fact, both men make awful choices and can be callous and selfish. Both of them separated from their families when young, so they have no parents or siblings to support them. Both end up in a kind of exile due to war and both make choices that harm others as well as themselves. They can both be monsters. When the war is over, the question is whether either of them can piece a normal sort of life together (do they deserve to?) and whether any kind of unification can happen. The ending to this novel stunned me a bit at first but upon reflection, it makes sense. I imagine it’s the kind of thing a book group would spend a lot of time talking about. I do think it helps to familiarize yourself with the war in Kosovo a bit in order to appreciate what the author is saying.