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Robert Elsie

Albanian Literature | Classical


Mitrush KUTELI, 1952

Mitrush KUTELI, 1952


Mitrush KUTELI


Mitrush Kuteli (1907-1967), pseudonym of Dhimitër Pasko, known in Romanian as Dimitrie Pascu, was born in Pogradec on the banks of Lake Ohrid on 13 September 1907 and attended a foreign-language school in Greece (a Romanian commercial college in Thessalonika) and later moved to Bucharest, where he studied economics and graduated in 1934 with a dissertation on the banking systems of the Balkans. He collaborated for a time as a journalist at the Albanian weekly newspaper Shqipëri' e re (New Albania), edited in Constanza from 1919 to 1936. For his journalistic activities, he employed the pseudonym Janus, after the two-headed Roman god able to see into the past and into the future at the same time. It was also in Bucharest that Kuteli began publishing the collections of short stories for which he is best known. His first book, Nete shqipëtare, Bucharest 1938 (Albanian nights), was a compilation of eight tales on village life in and around his native Pogradec. Of the 1,200 copies of the first edition, about 1,000 were destroyed in a fire in Constanza before they could be sold, and the book only became widely known after the second edition of 1944. It was in Bucharest, too, that Kuteli arranged for the publication of Lasgush Poradeci's breathtaking verse collection Ylli i zemrës (The Star of the heart) in 1937. Romanian culture, still under the spell of national poet Mihai Eminescu, had left its impact on Mitrush Kuteli, as it had on Asdreni, Lasgush Poradeci and the many Albanian writers and intellectuals living there in the early decades of the twentieth century.

In the autumn of 1942, as the destruction and horror caused by the Second World War was gradually approaching its peak in the Balkans and the Soviet Union, Kuteli returned to Albania, which was itself on the verge of disintegrating into open civil war. It was during these war years that Kuteli, at his own expense, was able to publish most of his major works: Ago Jakupi e të tjera rrëfime, Tirana 1943 (Ago Jakupi and other tales), a collection of seven tales of peasant life; Kapllan Aga i Shaban Shpatës. Rrëfime - Rrëfenja, Tirana 1944 (Kapllan Aga of Shaban Shpata. Tales - Stories), five short stories written between 1938 and 1944; Këngë e brithma nga qyteti i djegur, Tirana 1944 (Songs and cries from a charred city), a collection of folk songs; Shënime letrare, Tirana 1944 (Literary notes); and Sulm e lotë, Tirana 1944 (Assault and tears), a collection of modest nationalist verse written by Kuteli and a fictitious friend named Izedin Jashar Kutrulija whom Kuteli claimed to have met in Prizren in May 1943. Also in this period, he edited a collection of the verse of Fan Noli (1882-1965) entitled Mall e brengë, Tirana 1943 (Longing and grief), and published a number of works on the finance and monetary system.

Mitrush Kuteli set the pace for the short story in southern Albania and managed to attain a higher level of literary sophistication than most other sentimental prose writers of the period: Milto Sotir Gurra (1884-1972), Foqion Postoli (1889-1927), Haki Stërmilli (1895-1953) or Kolë Mirdita (1900-1936). He derived many elements for his tales from the Tosk oral literature he had heard as a child, using them to create crystalline motifs of village life and a lively narrative style. Kuteli's syntax and lexicon are elaborate and his diction is often compelling. The peasant themes and the mixture of folksy humour and old-fashioned adventure made his tales popular with broad sections of the reading public during the war and thereafter. In some of his short stories one senses the atmosphere of nineteenth-century Russian prose, of Nikolay Gogol and Ivan Turgenev, whom the author had read and particularly enjoyed in his earlier years, and of Romanian prose writer Mihail Sadoveanu (1880-1961).

At the end of the Second World War Mitrush Kuteli, now an executive at the Albanian State Bank, was a leading figure of Albanian letters. On 15 February 1944, together with Vedat Kokona (1913-1998), Nexhat Hakiu (1917-1978) and Sterjo Spasse (1914-1989), he founded the fortnightly literary periodical Revista letrare (Literary review), which had a significant impact on Albanian culture during its short life. He was also a founding member of the Albanian Writers' Union, which was set up under the direction of Sejfulla Malëshova (1901-1971) on 7 October 1945, and a member of the editorial board of Albania's first post-war literary journal Bota e re (New world).

Kuteli managed to survive the transition of political power in Albania until the real terror began in 1947. During a purge which ensued after the Albanian Communist Party had come under Yugoslav domination, he unwisely disapproved of the proposed customs and monetary union between Albania and Yugoslavia. As a member of an official delegation to Yugoslavia, received among others by writer Ivo Andri? (1892-1975), he is also said to have expressed a critical attitude to the Serb re-occupation of Kosova, a stance reflected earlier in his Poem kosovar (Kosovar poem), published in 1944. Upon his return to Albania, he was arrested and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

For Kuteli, as for most writers of the late forties, life had become a nightmare. He survived the first two years of his prison sentence (April 1947 to April 1949) in a labour camp near Korça where inmates were put to work draining the infamous mosquito-infested swamp of Maliq. Working and living conditions for the prisoners were unimaginably harsh, and Kuteli, amidst such horror, attempted suicide. But with the elimination of Yugoslav influence in Albanian party politics, the open persecution of Kuteli subsided and he was released. He returned to Tirana and was allowed, like Lasgush Poradeci and a number of other suspicious intellectuals, to work as a literary translator for the state-owned Naim Frashëri publishing company.

Zhdanovism, which had penetrated and taken thorough control of what was left of Albanian literature in the fifties, made it expedient at the time to translate Russian literature to serve as a model for the introduction of socialist realism in Albania. Kuteli willingly acquiesced by producing noted translations of recognized Soviet authors such as Maksim Gorky, Aleksey Tolstoy, Konstantin Paustovsky, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Fadeyev and Nikolay Ostrovsky. Aside from these writers recommended by Soviet cultural and political advisors, Kuteli also managed to publish some translations of his favourite Russian authors of the nineteenth century: Nikolay Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Ivan Krylov, and Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin.

In addition to these many translations from Russian, and others from Romanian (Mihai Eminescu, Mihail Sadoveanu), Spanish (Pablo Neruda), and French (André Maurois, Paul Eluard), etc., Kuteli is remembered in particular for his prose adaptation of a collection of Albanian oral verse, including the heroic cycle of Mujo and Halili, in Tregime të moçme shqiptare, Tirana 1965 (Early Albanian tales). He was also able to publish some verse and tales for children, the safest pastime for Eastern European writers in the Stalinist period. A novel on an Illyrian theme remained unfinished. Mitrush Kuteli died of a heart attack in Tirana on 4 May 1967, bereft of the honour and recognition due to the man who had made the short story a popular genre in Albania and who, had politics not interfered, might otherwise have been the leading prose writer of the fifties.