Saturday, 19 December 2009

Leaving Albania

And so I am leaving Albania...a country I was always curious about in my youth, given the secretive Communist government that persisted during the 80s and 90s, giving rise to the perception (in the UK) that this was a closed-off totalitarian state which even planes had to fly around for fear of being shot down ...

I have to say that I was a little perplexed by the Albanian book on my journey: "Spring Flowers, Spring Frost" by Ismail Kadare. On the face of it, this work ticked all of the boxes for my travel purposes - a contemporary work (exploring the social upheavals of Albanian society since the demise of communism there), a native - and well respected - author (compared in the blurb to Orwell, Kafka and Gogol, no less) and an interesting premise: the return of Albania's notorious Kanun 'blood laws'.

These laws were developed pre-communism and have indeed seen a resurgence of such since communism's fall. Whilst these are actually a complicated set of feudal laws relating to social relationships and land ownership; this novel focuses on the blood law element that states: "someone is allowed to kill another person to avenge an earlier murder or moral humiliation."

This is interesting as it also colours my next stopping off point: Kosovo (inextricably linked with both Albania and Serbia through the recent Balkan conflict). However, in the context of this novel, it is used more as a device to explore the inner torment and anxieties of the work's (largely unsympathetic) protagonist - the artist Mark Gurabardhi.

And there, for me, is the problem. Whilst reading this work I did gain a glimpse of life in contemporary Albania - the coffee shops, the occasional black-outs of small village life, the left-over paranoia from the communist era - yet I never felt engaged with the plot. For a start Mark is a particularly unlikeable character who - through his own unwillingness to engage with events around him - impedes our own attempts to immerse ourselves in the plot. He is also particularly misogenistic towards his (possibly pregnant) girlfriend which - coupled with his rather unsettling fantasies about her possible incestuous infidelity with her brother - serve only to alienate the reader even further.

The main narrative is interspersed with several "Counter-chapters" which exposit upon topics as diverse as Tantalus, Oedipus Rex and the sinking of the Titanic. Again, I failed to see the connection with the main narrative, although - as with the previous Macedonian work on my journey - it may well be that I am failing to pick up on socially-specific allegorical references here...

Still, despite my literary gripes I have come away from this book with a sense of life in a small snowbound town in northern Albania - particularly fitting as whilst writing this blog, I am sitting in a small snowbound UK town called St Albans!

For the sake of fairness however; as I have not really critiqued this book in my travel entry and it seems that Kadare has a legion of fans who do appreciate his writings; here is the official Amazon review of the work:

Working at the intersection of allegory and reality, Kadare (The Three-Arched Bridge, etc.) balances the forces of expression and repression in his latest novel, about an Albanian artist who struggles to keep his sense of equilibrium when the post-Communist government threatens to bring back the so-called "blood laws," which dictated behavior in the country's medieval past. Mark Gurabardhi is the protagonist, a sensitive soul who finds himself disturbed by political events in his strife-torn country, as well as by a bizarre bank robbery and a strange, lurid report that an attractive young woman has married a snake. Closer to home, Gurabardhi's relationship with his girlfriend who also models for him is an up-and-down affair, but what changes the artist's situation is the sudden death of his boss, the director of the art center, who is killed in murky circumstances. His death prompts Gurabardhi to investigate the rumor that the repressive government is about to reintroduce the ancient, family-oriented blood laws to help tighten their control of artistic expression. To learn more, Gurabardhi finds a way to eavesdrop on a conference of prominent leaders. The political turns personal when the artist's girlfriend reveals that her brother is being hunted by the state, and the book closes with the artist making a formal inquiry to the police chief to see if the old laws will be reinstated. Kadare's plotting is sometimes spotty and disjunctive, but despite the lack of continuity, each scene is as tight as the writer's razor-sharp prose. The juxtaposition of ideas and bizarre images is alternately beautiful, peculiar and provocative, as Kadare once again provides an excellent glimpse at the difficult nature of life in a politically unstable land.

Well, it is time to leave Albania and travel further into the Balkans. Eschewing local advice I am taking a (very!) expensive taxi down the mountain routes into the northern reaches of Tirana, Albania's main city, arriving in the early hours.

Making my way on foot to the Tirana International Hotel at the bottom end of Bulevard Zogu i Pare, I approach a tout shouting shout "Prishtina, Prishtina!" and hand over my 20 EURO. The basic looking, but comfortable, bus arrives at about 8.00am and I set out on my 6-hour journey to Prishtina, in the still-disputed Republic of Kosovo...

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Macedonian snapshots: a fractured view of a disparate country

Well, I have now explored the Republic of Macedonia, courtesy of the short story anthology: "Change of the System".

I have to say, as expected, that this was a mixed bag of literature - coming from contemporary native writers writing both before and after the 1991 declaration of independence.

Co-translator Richard Gaughran states, quite correctly, in his introduction that "It is certainly true that if you want to know something about a place, you should read its fiction" - that could actually be the mission statement of this blog/website!

However, I could not help but feel a certain sense of exclusion whilst reading many of these stories... and I believe that is because a number of them are highly allegorical, no doubt due to the political climate of pre/early 90s Yugoslavia. The result of this is that whilst I enjoyed many of these stories, I felt that I was only appreciating them on the surface, and not understanding the deeper allegorical references. Examples of this would be "The Mole" by Petre M. Andreevski (a humorous tale of the battle between a man and a mole plaguing his garden, with strong oral folktale traditions in its telling), and "Sunday Dinner" by Vase Mancev; a very disturbing account of the battle between a rooster fleeing for its life and a determined farmer. Both stories were enjoyable to read but, for me, tempered by the feeling that I was not - as a foreigner - able to appreciate the deeper meanings of the tales, on a social, political or cultural level.

Elsewhere, to be honest, some stories were allegorical to the point of inpenetrability (such as Kim Mehmeti's "The Moonflower"), although works such as Ermis Lafazanovski's "The Half Rainbow" and Jadranka Vladova's "A Face to Lend" are satisfying in being well-written and giving a degree of cultural/social insight into Macedonian society.

Where this anthology really comes into its own for me, however, is in the final author's two works: "Nothing Especially Happens" and "The Death of a Fox" by Igor Isakovski. These are by a young and developing author and are notable in their focus on realism and personal experience rather than allegory and fable, and represent both a useful insight into modern Macedonian life and an exciting taster of a new, representative Macedonian literature. Isakvoski is writer to watch out for in future European literature!

I should point out here that, in finding a printed work of Macedonian literature translated into English, I struggled... and even having identified this book, I found it very difficult to track down (it is not on Amazon, and even the co-translator Richard Gaughran was unable - although not unwilling! - to help find a copy).

I finally got lucky through a secondhand book store, but if you wish to explore modern Macedonian literature further I cannot recommend highly enough the Macedonian literature website:

This is managed and produced by the aforementioned Igor Isakovski as a forum for literature in the area, and features an online English translation of his short story collection: Sandglass

(I would have used this to represent Macedonia if I did not have my stipulation of printed books for my travels).

So, to sum up, this work is a curate's egg:- i.e. good in parts - and I sincerely thank the book's producers: Richard Gaughran and Zoran Ancevski, without whom there would be no published representation of Macedonia on my travels!

And so on to Albania. I shall be travelling from Struga to Tirana at around 11-11.30am. The bus ride should be around 6-8 hours, through beautiful countryside, getting dark by the time I reach Tirana through Durres on the Adriatic, with a wait of about an hour or two at the border crossing.

Once in Albania, I shall be travelling by taxi to the remote mountain town of B.... in a book called "Spring Flowers, Spring Frost" by Ismail Kadare, which explores the conflicts and contradictions left over from the old Albanian regime. "People are disappearing never to be heard from again. The secret police appears to remain in place and operating in the shadows. The blood feuds of the ancient rule book, the "Kanun", are rumoured to being revived. And the stories that the ominous secret state archives are hidden in vaults in the local area won't die..."

See you soon!