Albania 6: Gjirokastra

IMG_1837Enver Hoxha, Albania’s dictator from just after World War II until his death in 1985, was born in Gjirokastra. So was Ismail Kadare, Albania’s most famous writer—but to call him that is to undershoot by miles. To the rest of the world, Kadare is Albania’s only famous writer, although that doesn’t make him beyond compare. Think of someone like Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s only well-known literary export.

Think of Vargas Llosa too because he and Kadare have some similarities. They were both born in 1936, are both still alive, by and large expatriates (Vargas Llosa in Madrid, Kadare in Paris), and both have made their careers by speaking truth to political power. (It was Vargas Llosa who, on a prominent stage, made the indelible comment about Mexico that it was “the perfect dictatorship” because it was camouflaged not to look like one.) Kadare’s early books, written in the 1950s and 1960s under Albania’s nominally communist boot (in fact a fascist regime), were banned in his home country. But as Kadare’s international reputation grew, Hoxha was shrewd enough to recognize the cultural and thus exchangeable capital Kadare embodied, and didn’t entirely censor him. Kadare even became an occasional writer for the state, traveling to China on diplomatic missions and going to Vietnam during the American war, where he reported from the side of the Vietcong, via Albania’s alliance with Mao’s China.

Kadare’s writing continued to run him afoul of the government, and at least one of his manuscripts had to be smuggled out of the country for publication, but he didn’t claim asylum in Paris until 1990, just before the dismantling of the political regime in Albania. Hoxha himself had been dead five years by then, and there’s something almost poignant about Kadare staying in Albania all through the dictator’s life, as though he couldn’t bring himself to leave his country and seek asylum elsewhere until its ruler had left it, too. Later, Kadare was offered the Albanian presidency (he declined, twice). They’ll be forever intertwined, these two famous Gjirokastrans: a symbol of oppression and a symbol of freedom.

In Gjirokastra today, the childhood houses of both men are now museums—except that the houses aren’t their actual houses. Both of them burned down and had to be rebuilt. There’s so much obvious metaphorical stuffing spilling out of that coincidence that as a self-respecting writer I ought to slap myself for even mentioning it; and again for observing that Gjirokastra’s underground tunnel shelter, an emergency refuge for high-ranking government officials built at the behest of the paranoid Hoxha during the Cold War in case of a nuclear attack, and now also a museum (albeit without much curating or cleaning—the moldering furniture is still down there—and whose 80-meter exit tunnel to the river our rookie guide was too terrified to walk us down), comprises mostly concrete office cells, concrete bedrooms, and hole-in-the-ground concrete toilet stalls with porcelain footrests, all with heavy radiation-proof doors, and these cells almost exactly resemble the prison cellblock in the Site of Witness and Memory in Shkodër, except that the tunnel shelter doesn’t even have windows, of course.


If, as my baseball-playing friend put it in our long interview, a lot of playing sports is trying not to get hurt while making it look like you’re not just trying not to get hurt (knowing you’re probably going to get hurt anyway), then a lot of writing is trying not land on clichés while making it look like you’re not just trying not to land on clichés. Then you land on them anyway. All you can really do is play as hard as you can but try to be smart about it. I remember a game, not long after that interview, in which my baseball-playing friend went charging after a fly ball in the outfield that was tailing into foul territory and was obviously going to land out of play. Nonetheless, he ran at full speed until he crashed into the low wall separating the field from the stands. He was okay, but when I went down into the locker room for postgame interviews, he had a nasty gash on his shin. I gave him an inquisitive look, and he gave me this one in return: I know, what was I thinking? And that look was because, eighteen months earlier, he dove after another uncatchable ball and suffered such a terrible injury that it cost him nearly half a year on the disabled list and, as it turned out, prematurely ended his chances at a major-league career, although no one knew it at the time, especially him. You’d think he’d have learned about trying to play the unplayable. But of course playing the unplayable is playing, too—it might even be the purest kind of playing.

So you keep writing, knowing you’re a failure before you even start. There’s no need for me to say anything about Albania or to have come here at all. It’s no Paris, but it has plenty of tourists, plenty of associated writing, and Ismail Kadare’s is probably enough. Even Albania knows this. It’s not only that he’s famous around the world (Kadare won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize, and his name has been whispered for the Nobel, but Vargas Llosa himself may have already snapped up his best chance); it’s that his fame in Albania itself is of an almost pathological magnitude. The house where he was born, after it burned to the ground in 1999, was completely rebuilt so that it could house a Kadare museum, and I read a recent report that the apartment where Kadare lived and worked in Tirana, the capital, will also be converted into a museum. There is Ismail Kadare Street in Gjirokastra, Ismail Kadare Street in Ksamil, down on the coast (and probably other Ismail Kadare Streets in other Albanian cities). A bas relief of famous Gjirokastrans on a main piaca includes Kadare’s face. He is immensely famous in Albania, more memorialized than still alive, it seems, even though he continues to return to the country periodically.


Another similarity between the Hoxha and Kadare museums: neither one is a museum of the man in question, each one off-topic in its own way. The rebuilt Hoxha house is actually one of Gjirokastra’s ethnographic museums. I had already been to a couple of those, including one in Gjirokastra, and that was enough for me, so I didn’t go to Hoxha’s house. And although the Kadare house is in theory a dedicated museum, it’s in practice virtually empty of Kadariana. There is no timeline of Kadare’s life, no biographical detail to speak of anywhere in the house. Mostly what you see are the (reimagined, because reconstructed) rooms where the family lived, including the (reconstruction of the) deep windowsill where the young Kadare sat looking out over the city and wrote his first poems. It’s a beautiful house, partly because it’s virtually brand new, built just a few years ago on the site of the old one. But it’s easy to feel like you’re visiting a model home in a new residential development that happens to have a few pictures of a famous writer on the walls, and a handful of his books on a table. Entire rooms are empty of everything except furniture, and there’s one that doesn’t even have that: only a row of display cases—which were also empty.

Therefore my purpose at the museum turned out to be practical as well as symbolic. Kadare’s bibliography is quite long. There are more than three-dozen novels, plus volumes of essays, short stories, poems, and plenty more. It’s hard to know where to start, so I figured any books translated into English were probably considered the biggies, or any case big enough; and that if you write as much as Kadare has written, driven by so singleminded a purpose (which I’ll come to), then a reader will encounter your main themes, obsessions, and so on, passim in the oeuvre. So I read the three Kadare books I could get from my local library, plus two that Sokol loaned me: four novels and an essay collection altogether. In these, you see the pains of oppression and tyranny and the perils of power; a deep knowledge of Albanian history and tradition; a deep love of Albania, as well, which at times borders on chauvinistic, and tears over its misfortunes; a marvelous way with myth and fantasy; fraught intimate relationships; the complex, edgy workings of political maneuvering; and—this seems to be one of Kadare’s main stylistic predilections—many people alone with their tangled, doubtful thoughts, trying mightily to puzzle out the meaning, cues, and expectations embedded in the inscrutable actions of others. To go by the four novels I read, Kadare is fundamentally, notwithstanding his historical and political concerns, a psychological novelist.

I was not able to finish The Concert (the original Albanian title is Concert at the End of Winter), by far the longest and most complex of the quintet of Kadares I read, before I left for my trip, so I took it with me to Albania. This was stupid. I’m essentially a backpacker here. Adding a hefty 450-page novel to my stuff: clueless! But I don’t like E-readers, and I’m known to be indifferent to the inefficiency of carrying unwieldy literature overseas. Two years ago, I took with me to France Jean-Yves Tadié’s 900-page Proust biography—in hardcover. I also brought it home. I did not have the same plans for The Concert.

I like Kadare best when he’s involved with Albanian myth and history. His essay on Aeschylus makes a compelling case for Albania as the place where ancient Greece continued to breathe long after the rest of Western modernity had left the ways of its founding civilization behind. His short novel Doruntine uses a folk myth to explore the besa, Albania’s peculiarly strong fixation on the concept of the word of honor. The Traitors Niche, a historical novel about the nineteenth-century ruler Ali Pasha Tepelena, is absorbing, evocative, and a caution to Hoxha about the consequences of overstepping the limits of authority. (I read somewhere that Hoxha, an egomaniac like most of his ilk, so enjoyed one of Kadare’s veiled portrayals of him that he allowed the novelist greater freedom than he otherwise might have.)

As for Hoxha himself, I sometimes think that he succeeded in seizing and holding power for so long only because Albanians, beset for centuries by foreign invaders and controllers, their sovereignty and territory taken away and their very language disallowed, were so desperate for independence that they’d take it any way they could get it—even from a ruthless, demented miscreant who subjected them to more and worse oppression. But at least it was oppression that flew its own flag.

I confess that I found Kadare’s The Concert, a historical novel (the 1970s are now historical!) about Albania’s diplomatic break with China, a bit of a slog despite its being “considered his masterpiece” according to one commentator. The Concert evidently took Kadare ten years to write, and you can perceive slackness in it, perhaps resulting from its long period of composition. There are too many characters too little developed and integrated; a bourgeois comedy of manners uncomfortably interlarded (for a while) with something like magical realism (which is then abandoned); and many pages of only half-related, half-finished short stories, or ideas for short stories, that Kadare may very well have intended for stand-alone publication (or further expansion) but then decided, for whatever reason, to forcibly insert into the narrative, whose many loose ends don’t tie up at the novel’s end—not in my reading, in any case.

On the face of it, then, The Concert was the worst choice of the five Kadares to bring with me to Albania, leaden in two senses; but long, slow-going books can be good for traveling. For one thing, you need only one or two of them to keep you occupied for a while, lightening your load. For another, when you’re traveling you often find yourself reading less for its own sake than to fill corners of time: waiting for transport, in between sightseeing outings, and so on. A book that isn’t too absorbing reads well in abbreviated sessions, especially a book that is somewhat choppy and compartmentalized in its structure. In The Concert, I could read one of those interpolated short stories, or a little episode about that hapless clerk, and then put the book back down without regret until the next session, whenever that should come.

Because of my keep-moving-never-change restlessness, I’ve had (that is, made) less time to read in Albania than I expected. Somewhere around Përmet I perceived that I had a fairly good shot at engineering my progress so that I’d finish The Concert while I was in the city of Kadare’s birth. This seemed symbolically appropriate, and I made sure to do it. I reached the last page on the morning after I visited the Kadare House, and went right back there that afternoon with the book in my daypack. The only employee, Bruno—indeed the only other person in the building—was surprised to see me again. I told him the purpose of my return, and he was delighted. Those empty display cases were meant to be filled with editions of Kadare’s books, he said, and he pointed to the modest collection of them on a table near me. My copy of The Concert—so far the only English translation of the bunchwould join them in the display.

Bruno asked me to inscribe it. It’s a total no-no to put your signature in someone else’s book, but this seemed like one of the rare instances where it might be okay to do it anyway. I wrote a short but impassioned encomium to Kadare, because I suddenly and powerfully understood that, although his work didn’t plumb the depths of my soul or awaken my innermost revolutionary spirit, this was a man who had taken on the burden of his country and spent his life trying to save it, mostly from itself. His was a staunch voice of humanity—here come the clichés again—under one of the world’s most inhumane governments: one which managed to last nearly half a century, from Kadare’s childhood to his graying years. He’s earned every street name, engraving of his face in the walls, and museum in his honor.

I also understood, imagining the dozens books that will eventually be in those display cases, that the true achievement of Kadare is that all he’s done is write, write, write—thousands of hours, millions of words—and send his messages out into the world as soon as he could make them intelligible. “The natural state of the great writer is to travel alone in the land of the dead” Kadare writes in an essay on Dante. Every one of his books is an effort to keep Albania alive, for itself and for the world, to animate the minds of a people whose rulers coerced them toward mindlessness in a country that for years virtually no one could get into or out of, to send up a sign of life from an entombed nation. Kadare also writes of intimate love, the stresses and pleasures of daily life, and the imagined world—the entire scope of what it means to be a human being, from the kitchen to The Concert, from antiquity to today. He has worked without rest and with an unstoppable determination to do it and to do it and to do it, during Hoxha and after. Kadare is a man who has kept moving and never changed. And he outlived the evil that tried to stop him and change him. All of that, to me, is besa. And it’s why, quite apart from his writing, he is a hero to me.

So is Nell Zink. She, like me, reached her late forties as an unknown writer, largely because she hadn’t worked very hard to be known. She wrote prolifically but rarely tried to publish anything, and a lot of what she wrote she showed to only one person (for whom it was specifically intended) or simply deleted from her computer, until one of the flares she sent out into the world caught the attention of the right eyes and ears and turned her into a twenty-year-overnight-success. But it wasn’t merely that she spent half her life deprived of a lucky break; she hadn’t sought one. Her ex-husband observed of her later: “The thought that she might write something that wasn’t good was terrifying. So it’s safer to not write or not show anybody what you write.” Kathryn Schulz, who wrote the New Yorker profile of Zink, adds: “There are a lot of ways to stay safe as a writer: by not writing, by writing to no one, by writing to a single admirer, by challenging the judgment of those with the power to judge, by not putting much effort into your work.”

At the end of The Wallcreeper, the protagonist is jolted out of these resistances, avoidances, and complacencies by an older figure she has come to trust:

Stop following orders. Do what you want. Work selfishly. Without the experience of control, you will never have the experience of creativity. Stop giving yourself away, and you will have more to offer than your body and soul. Keep them and cultivate them. Learn, learn, and once again learn!

I don’t think it’s any secret that this is what most struggling writers face most of the time. And I acknowledge that, like Zink did for a long time, I’m intentionally writing for only a few people here, although that doesn’t bother me and I don’t consider this travelogue less valuable because it isn’t written “for publication.” Quite the opposite: I know everyone who reads it, and you’re all very important to me, which makes what I’m writing more important to me, because it’s for people I love.

Still, much of the work of being a writer is answering the question, with persistent regularity, of what a writer is and does, and why one does it and how: one probably needs more than family and friends for audience, in the final accounting. The writer’s elemental assets, Joyce famously wrote, are “silence, exile, cunning.” Orwell identified the same three, transposed and slightly translated: “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy,” (Scott Miller again: “I fill my days with work because I’m lazy.”) Orwell continues: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle.” I’ve experienced that struggle, and it’s likely that the purpose of this blog—the selfish one, apart from interacting with you, which motivates me to sit down at the computer—is to prepare me for another one. So I’m grateful to you.

About that book I left at Kadare House: it wasn’t mine. Sokol loaned it to me, so I’ll have to give him a replacement copy when I get back to the US. It’ll be part of a larger parcel I’ll be delivering to him from Albania, a care package from his father for which I’m the courier. I’ll tell you how I came to possess it in my next post from Albania, which, for better or worse, will probably be the last. I’m staying in Berat for a few days. After that, I get my sweetheart back, and we’re off together. Who knows what we’ll have to say from points east?

Gjirokastra Castle


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