“Everywhere in the world, events flow noisily on the surface, while their deep currents pull silently, but nowhere is this contrast so striking as in the Balkans. Gales sweep the mountains, lashing the tall firs and mighty oaks, and the whole peninsula appears demented.” - The Accident, Ismail Kadare, 2010
Podgorica, the capital city of Montenegro, is a dour, uninspiring place. It more resembles a large council estate than a major city, and the land around it is acrid and sparse, plants clinging to life amongst mounds of grey stones. The scenery improves towards Budva, a coastal town 44 miles south-west: bearing down on it from the mountains one is treated to glorious Mediterranean postcard imagery. And from there it’s a short coach journey to Kotor, a genuinely beautiful seaside fortress village, a living castle of bakeries and bars. Getting on towards evening, the sun licks the tips of those cliffs providing a welcome shade on the marina.
But I’m not in the Balkans for the landscape, which is frequently a cross between a Wyeth and a nightmare, and I’m already looking forward to leaving Montenegro. Back in the capital, silhouettes of tired girls smoke cigarettes in upstairs windows and prostitutes lead clients to bushes while taxis idle. Sitting outside in the evening breeze, wishing I was still in Kotor, I drank homemade elderberry cordial with our host’s mother, who spoke no English. I make arrangements to leave.
The following day, cramped in the back car seat with two American travellers, I hear the driver badmouth Albanians. The only thing he likes about Albania, he says, are the roads, which are indeed testament to an impressive modern infrastructure – they put the pitiful dirt tracks of his own country to shame. Our own first impressions of the country, though, are less than auspicious: Albania hasn’t been a dictatorship since the early 90s, but it’s still worth bearing in mind the arbitrary whims of Balkan border guards, who might decide you haven’t paid enough “tax” or that they just don’t like the look of you. Later, I would be detained a good 45 minutes at the Macedonian-Bulgarian border whilst a fellow writer, trying to get to Romania, was scrutinised for carrying “sensitive literature”.
Albania is a country that knows from sensitive literature. The earliest uncontroversial mention of the Albanian people is in Michael Attaleiates’s late 11th century history of the Byzantine Empire, where he refers to the Albanoi revolting against Constantinople and theArvanitai as subjects of the duke of Dyrrachium (modern Durrës, Albania’s main port on the Adriatic). The language probably goes back about that far, though we must wait for the 1308 Anonymi Descriptio Europae Orientalis, ‘Anonymous description of Eastern Europe’, for an attestation, in which the author writes Habent enim Albani prefati linguam distinctam a Latinis, Grecis et Sclavis ita quod in nullo se inteligunt cum aliis nationibus: ‘The aformentioned Albanians have a language which is entirely distinct from that of the Latins, Greeks and Slavs such that in no way can they communicate with other peoples’. And the literature is of a similar age, though again we must be patient for a surviving document: the oldest piece of uncontested, unambiguous Albanian writing is a single line of an otherwise Latin document from 1462. It is in a letter from Pal Engëlli, a bishop and associate of Skanderbeg, and is a translation of a baptismal formula into Geg Albanian:
“I baptise you in the name of the father, the son and the holy spirit.”
Since that anointed start, Albanian literature has enjoyed a wide poetic scope, from the nationalistic exultations of Asdreni to the despairing ruminations of Zef Serembe. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that it produced a great novelist.
Tirana, like Podgorica, is ex-Ottoman and inhabited at least since Illyrian times. But Tirana escaped the Dresden- or Coventry-esque WWII bombing and rebirth Podgorica suffered, and retains much of its Ottoman architectural heritage. Tirana has, however, survived, and bears the mark of, both fascist and communist dictatorships in its modern history. Modern Orthodox churches, skyscrapers, old mosques and municipal buildings Mussolini would have approved of stand side by side. Once avowedly atheist, religion has crept back in to Tirana, alongside Albania’s switch to a roughly neoliberal model since the early 90s. There’s a Mother Teresa Square and a George W. Bush Street now, instead of Stalin Boulevard or the Hoxha Pyramid.
I regret I spent most of my time scouring the centre and climbing old office blocks looking for passage to Skopje. (Despite being the main connecting point for a European capital city, Tirana’s train station was closed.) Because Tirana is an impressive city, and Albanians bear the company of foreigners with magnanimity and kindness. I dined at the Sky Bar, enjoying silver service atop one of Tirana’s skyscrapers, and drank and smoked at Hemingway’s in a tiny sidestreet until 2am. Named for and dedicated to the author, Hemingway’s is a fitting tribute, adorned with old typewriters and rare rum bottles.
But Hemingway is as different from Albania’s supreme novelist as Tirana is from Gjirokaster. A World Heritage Site, Gjirokaster is, architecturally, relatively untouched by its continual exchange of ownerships in the 20th century and is described by UNESCO as a “rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town.” Before its Ottoman possession in 1418, it was Byzantine, under its Greek name Argyrokastro, meaning “silver castle”. Though not silver in material, Gjirokaster today retains an argent tone, with white stone buildings and grey slate roofs.
It became Greek again in 1912, and independent Albanian a year later. During World War II, it was captured by the Italians, who ceded it back to the Greeks, who in turn gave it up to the Germans.
Ismail Kadare was born in 1936 in Gjirokaster, then part of the Albanian kingdom, He studied literature in Tirana, then spent three years at the Gorky Institute, Moscow. When Hoxha broke with the USSR in 1961, Kadare returned and published his first novel in 1962. He left Albania in 1990 with his wife and daughter and sought political asylum in Paris, where he still lives and works. A veteran of 14 novels, he describes some of the capture and recapture of his home town in his 1971 novel Chronicle in Stone:
“At ten in the morning on Thursday the Italians came back, marching in under freezing rain. They stayed only thirty hours. Six hours later the Greeks were back. The same thing happened again in the second week of November…”
This passage is typical of Kadare’s skill to reduce the machineries of war and totalitarianism to parochial irony, which does nothing to dull his power to present those same forces in all their portent:
“At dusk the city, which through the centuries had appeared on maps as a possession of the Romans, the Normans, the Byzantines, the Turks, the Greeks and the Italians, now watched darkness fall as part of the German empire. Utterly exhausted, dazed by the battle, it showed no signs of life.”
His variety of register when it comes to describing his chosen subject betrays the same quantum talent as Joyce, who also fled to Paris but continued to write of his home, to see the universal in the local, as well as a eye for history honed by having lived it. A traveller cannot really understand Gjirokaster without having read Chronicle of Stone, just as the reader of Chronicle of Stone feels he’ll never reach its heart without having visited Gjirokaster. To leave it there would be to diminish Kadare’s scope: his great subject, the experience of the Balkan people beneath dictatorships of either politics or violence, strikes a deeper chord in the human heart alongside his great theme, the ability or limit of those people to endure.
And once one reads Kadare’s poem on Princess Argjiro, or Doruntine, or The Three Arched Bridge, one realises Kadare is no mere accurate transcriber of the psychological real, but a periscope through which one might perceive a very deep and Balkan mythology and folklore. Sometimes employed as an obscuring device to hide Kadare’s art from the autocratic authorities of his country, this connection with legend and epic weaves another enviable thread into the writer’s overcoat. It’s difficult to think of an American or British equivalent – Salman Rushdie, perhaps, if Rushdie were at all preoccupied with British myths rather than Indian or Arabic ones.
Ismail Kadare is 78, now. He is frequently mentioned as a potential Nobel laureate, but one feels his thematic strength has left him. Gjirokaster, with its stone streets and steep hillsides, was also the birthplace of Enver Hoxha, the deceased dictator with whom Kadare’s work seemed to dance a cold conflict, and Kadare’s last major novel, The Pyramid, was written in 1992, the same year Albania transitioned to a neoliberal democracy. But back in Tirana, smoking a cheap Montenegran cigarette and watching the mountains from which a breeze has picked up and swept down into the city, the whole of the Balkans seems to murmur his indictments.
“The whole peninsula appears demented…”
With his ability to combine surreal situations with dramatic political relevance, Kadare has been compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez; yet the Balkans are no South America, and Kadare is no magical realist. Perhaps he is closer to Marquez’ old enemy, Mario Vargas Llosa, who also wrote on totalitarianism in The Feast of the Goat – but Llosa never lived under Trujillo as Kadare did under Hoxha. Comparisons have been made with Orwell, but 1984 has none of Kadare’s ironism or humour. Milan Kundera is considered a ironist and humourist (and has suffered the same accusations of being a collaborationist), but Kadare’s intelligence and heart puts to shame the contrived egoism of The Joke and the arrogant sexism of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The benefit of the doubt would be to attribute the making of these rough approximations to the relative obscurity of Albanian (Chronicle in Stone wasn’t translated until 1987), as if to ease the reader into the inferno of Balkan pre-modern surreality with a familiar Marquez playing Virgil, though it could as easily be an attempt by Western European and American critics to claim Kadare as the Byzantines, Ottomans, Greeks, Italians and Germans claimed Gjirokaster. But Kadare is not Marquez or Llosa or Kundera, and as Shusha Guppy notes:
“He has been compared to Gogol, Kafka and Orwell, but his is an original voice, universal but rooted in his own soil.”
Traversing that soil, from Tirana to Skopje, I am reminded that this is not my land. Nor is it Kadare’s, the man, any more, though to his fiction and poetry it will always belong, and survive, and endure. Just as it has always endured, perhaps a little more battered or twisted from conflict than before, but never totally destroyed. Right now, 15 years since the Kosovan War, it is breathing slowly, taking stock, perhaps daring to dream that the cycle of bloodshed and conquest is over for good as its greatest writer sips coffee in a Parisian café. My coach begins to shudder again over rough roads as we leave Albania, and I drift off to sleep with the rattles and vibrations, into nightmares I never lived.
Laurence Thompson is in fact an infectious writer/drinker program injected into the noosphere by sadistic memegineers.