Enver 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.
First, I don’t know anything about religious icons, or the schools that painted them. I went to another icon gallery yesterday, in Berat (to get a little ahead of myself), and there were those same long noses and bulging foreheads. What struck me as unique in Ohrid may not have been at all. Clueless! I shouldn’t have been so sure of what I was seeing, and remembered Stasiuk’s observation that unfamiliar objects can be perceived as no more than what they are in fact. (But I do think the Ohrid pieces, which were older than those housed in the Onufri Museum in Berat, were technically superior and more full of feeling. And none of the other saints look as sad as poor St. Clement, except perhaps for Onufri’s rendering of St. John the Baptist, into which it seems he poured most of his tears.)
Second, returning to Nell Zink’s line in The Wallcreeper about Albania, “Single mothers there dress and live as men”: I called Zink inclined to glibness, and she sometimes is, but this line is not an example! After reading the post, my sister sent me a link to pictures of Albanian women who really do dress and live as men. According to the artist Jill Peters’ statement:
“Sworn Virgin” is the term given to a biological female in the Balkans who has chosen, usually at an early age, to take on the social identity of a man for life. As a tradition dating back hundreds of years, this was sometimes necessary in a society that lived within tribal clans, followed the Kanun, an archaic code of law, and maintained an oppressive rule over the female gender. The Kanun states that women are the property of their husbands. The freedom to vote, drive, conduct business, earn money, drink, smoke, swear, own a gun or wear pants was traditionally the exclusive province of men. Young girls were commonly forced into arranged marriages, often with much older men in distant villages. A family suddenly without a patriarch or male heir would find themselves in jeopardy of losing everything. As an alternative, becoming a Sworn Virgin, or ‘burnesha,” elevated a woman to the status of a man and granted her all the rights and privileges of the male population. In order to manifest the transition such a woman cut her hair, donned male clothing and sometimes even changed her name. Male gestures and swaggers were practiced until they became second nature. Most importantly of all, she took a vow of celibacy to remain chaste for life. She became a “he”.
It poured down rain overnight, timpani on the metal roof right above us. When I woke up, I thought about staying in bed all the next day in that chilly guesthouse, reading, but this plan suddenly seemed intolerable. I thought about walking back down into Theth and finding another guesthouse for the night, but that would only accomplish improving the conditions of waiting around. I had to keep moving. I checked the weather again. My phone couldn’t locate Theth, so I asked my hostess to check hers. Cloudy, slight chance of rain. Not a nice day for hiking.
Does every day have to be a nice day, whether you’re hiking or not? Isn’t there some corollary of this-is-just-one-place-and-I’m-just-one-person that posits that weather is just weather and any day for walking is as good as any other, as long as it isn’t pouring down rain? In any case, I had a rain jacket, and Lee had already set an example for me: he had decided to visit a waterfall partway up the Theth-Valbona trail and then come back and spend another night at our guesthouse. While I was deliberating on what to do, he did what should be done: he didn’t think about it; he just got up and left, shortly after our hostess cooked us frittatas she made with nettles harvested from her property—delicious.
There was only one thing to do. I shoved all my stuff back into my bag and announced that I was setting off for Valbona. The hostess’s mother, let’s call her bubbie, objected in Albanian. Snow! she warned. All that rain in the valley the night before wasn’t rain 1000 meters up, where the trail went. But her daughter wasn’t quite so worried. Possibly a light dusting, she said; perhaps mere rain. I asked how much I owed her for the room and the food. It was somewhere under twenty dollars, but I had forgotten exactly how much, and without WiFi—did I mention her guesthouse had no WiFi?—I couldn’t check the booking site; plus she’d fed me twice and given me a beer, so I owed her for board as well as room.
She was sheepish, and wouldn’t name a price. Her face betrayed awareness that her place was lacking, her son a problem. As if deleting amenities by the hour, after breakfast the power went out. Enough. I gave her a 2,000 lekë note (about $20), fairly close to the actual listed price of the place on booking-dot-com, plus a little extra for the food (she looked a bit surprised that I gave her anything at all); and I marched off.
Shkodër, or Shkodra—the rendering of Albanian nouns can evidently change with usage in ways I haven’t figured out. In fact, I find the language hard to get a grip on, and so far I’m still pretty proud of just being able to count to ten. Albanian is a language isolate, like Basque and Korean. Its grammar, rules, and even pronunciation are resistant to quick study. There seems to be a different way to say a pronoun in every kind of sentence in which it’s used.
Shkodër is a pleasant city in northwestern Albania and has clearly been on a development kick over the last few years. There’s a handsome central piazza and newly pedestrianized main avenue, lots of young restaurants, and a new museum (about which more soon). I spent two nights there, and on the last of them I chatted briefly with a couple of Americans, one of whom lives in Shkodër and the other, his friend, visiting him for the first time in four years. He told me that Shkodër’s growth and general act-cleaning-up was very apparent since his last visit. “People have more disposable income,” he said.
Hello from Albania, by which I mean Macedonia: this morning I checked out of my hotel in Peshkopi, Albania, where I stayed overnight, and took a taxi over the border and then two buses to Ohrid—boom boom, one after another, in lucky timing sequence. Ohrid sits on a large, deep lake of the same name. Somewhere I read that it was “the jewel of Macedonia,” and it’s just across the Albanian border. So here I am. My big agenda when I got here was to find a place to do laundry. It turns out the affordable places are closed for the weekend; the hotels will gladly charge daftly inflated prices, i.e. as much to wash three shirts as I spend on food in a day of travel here. I think I’ve got enough clean clothes to last me a couple more days, by which time I’ll be back in Albania. In the meantime, let me write about it a little.
A writer’s writer — awful term. It’s damning, like putting a bird in a cage or a princess in a castle. There’s even “a writer’s writer’s writer,” applied to Elizabeth Bishop by John Ashbery, and by Terry Southern to Henry Green. I’m sure there are others. It is a high compliment and a virtual death sentence. It has not only to do with low sales but also high style: somewhat austere, perhaps, basically inimitable, with a certain difficulty or density or obscurity. Salter seems (at his best) to do more than his language suggests. Actually, it’s that his language is so often almost entirely suggestive, creating space around things, enlarging them. A Sport and a Pastime, his best book, is barely 200 pages long.
Maybe it’s risky or repugnant to say it’s his best novel. A Sport and a Pastime (1967) is an objectionable book, a secret book, a precious book, a notorious book. Continue reading On James Salter→
1) Any book that quotes from Four Quartets, my favorite long poem, wins my prizes.
2) I like that every now and then she reminds you that many conversations rendered in English are actually taking place in German. It gives the whole book this great occasional (but very strong) sense of alienation and misunderstanding and exile, even loneliness (which is much of what Tiffany suffers from, I think). And it makes you see that Tiffany and Stephen don’t really understand one another any better, even though they’re both speaking their native English.
3) My objection to most younger writers’ books (that I read) these days is that they’re trying so hard to sound older than they are. Nell Zink is trying to sound a good deal younger than she is, which is harder. To some degree I’m sure this is just her voice (as demonstrated The Paris Review interview, which is almost as fun as The Wallcreeper), and I wish more people were talking about the voice. When I used to teach high school writers, a lot of them were obsessed with this. I always told them voice is the last thing any writer should worry about. But if I was going to tell them what “voice” was, I’d tell them to read this book. Continue reading 10 thoughts on Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper→