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Robert Elsie

Albanian Literature | Classical

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MIGJENI (Millosh Gjergj Nikolla), 1937

MIGJENI (Millosh Gjergj Nikolla), 1937

Webdesign J. Groß

MIGJENI

 

TRAGEDY OR COMEDY?

    Man is a living guitar on which a fervent hand transforms the vibration of strings into melodies... tragic or comic?
     Man is a living guitar by which Good and Evil have revealed tragedies or comedies of their own.
     Man is a living guitar, by which God, in long, never-ending melodies, has expressed the majesty of His... tragedy or comedy? Who knows...?
     Ding, dang, dong... are the sounds of the guitar, or rather of the heart, which create melodies - perhaps sad, perhaps bitter, as acrid as our world (Earth) on the tip of the tongue of the Cosmos. Ding, dang, dong... ding, dang, dong. It is perhaps pleasure, perhaps a friendly smile, a wild rejoicing like the grinning of a madman at the crossroads. Perhaps. Who knows?... The ardent hand plucks the strings of the guitar, slowly at first, then faster and faster. Lustful fingernails wound the guitar, no, the breast, the heart... blood drips and flows... the string breaks... the melody dies - and so does man!
     An individual, of an unsavoury sort, revealed his pain at the corpse of what was once man, while in the corner of his eye a crocodile tear glistened, reflecting the tragedy of the corpse. Another individual, of a better sort, laughed, guffawed so much that the features of his face became distorted and turned ugly. It was the mirth of a man in the face of comic fatality. Through man, Good, Evil, and God emerged from the dark into the light, and through man, they will recede into the darkness once again. Behind them the vaguest of impressions will subsist, planted in the lap of life, and will plunge into complete oblivion. But for the moment, all man is a stage on which Good, Evil, and God perform dramas of hatred and love, of contempt and affection, of desire and apathy, of adoration and condemnation... And while they are playing out their martial dramas of artistic refinement and theatrical majesty, they jab the sharp knives and poison arrows and pour molten lead into man, emitting cries of victory. When the battle is won, the tragedy concludes with a majestic Te Deum, with a Te Deum Laudamus full of perfidious sincerity. The Te Deum is the key to a comic opera called Peace: tragedy, comedy, and so it goes on and on. Where tragedy is born, comedy is present as a guest of honour - a godfather - and conversely, where comedy is born, tragedy attends as the guest of honour and godfather. They call it a tragicomedy, or is it a comic tragedy or a tragic comedy? Do you understand? If not, remember: "Laugh, Pagliaccio, at your shattered love," and you shall understand.
     "Laugh, Pagliaccio, at your shattered love!" The figure of Pagliaccio was created by the Absurd to entertain the shadows of the night, the light of day, and the creatures of the other world. All of them are waiting for him to laugh, and this will give rise to a universal laugh, a burst of laughter, a roar which will cause the Cosmos with all its planets and spheres to shudder. And all the time, man's heart is breaking. His heart is breaking because his life depends on that laugh, depends on the mercy of the merciless planets, depends on the hearts of the heartless spheres, depends on the Absurd which created him. It is a difficult and far from comforting condition for the fragile reed which is man in the face of the Cosmos. The tragedy of man is to be found in his illusion of grandeur, and the comedy is in his sense of insignificance. Thus: "Laugh, Pagliaccio, at your shattered love!"
     It is a tragicomedy!... or, the tale of human feelings, whichever you prefer.

[Tragedi apo komedi?, first published in Illyria on 1 July 1934. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 115-117 Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 129-131.]

 

REFRAIN OF MY TOWN

    "Sir, sir, please sir, please give me something!" This is the refrain, the fair refrain of my town. When morning awakens in the streets, when the sun's rays begin to shine between the legs of passersby, and the shadows of cars and carriages begin to glide along the ground, the chorus starts up on the sidewalks, the fair refrain of my town: "Sir, sir, please sir, please give me something!" Who could put the beauty of this refrain to music? Mozart? Beethoven? Ha, ha, ha! Only the sidewalks of my town know how to sing this melody and only its inhabitants hear it. And they love it, for the people here are very fond of music. From morning to night they hear the same litany and are never bored with it. They've never chased away (or given a penny to) a singer yet. No! They are great fans of music. The refrain sounds especially beautiful in the twilight. The streets of the town then have a romantic allure (like the one you see in coloured photographs). Citizens, satisfied with their day's work, are out for a bit of nightlife. The sky smiles down on them like a virgin and the lips of each of them are ready to respond with a sensuous kiss... and in the midst of it all, the fair refrain of my town. Can you imagine such joy?

***

    I don't know if what I'm now going to tell you is a dream or a nightmare.
     "Sir, sir, please sir, please give me something!" A boy, some ten or twelve years old, like a pretty little puppy (white, black, or reddish-brown) leaping up and down to lick its master's hand, limps along behind a gentleman. He gives a gentle tug to the seam of his coat, a very gentle tug, for he is afraid of waking the wrath of the gentleman, of a god, of a devil, the wrath of this gentleman/human being, I mean. He thus gives an exceedingly subtle tug and implores, "Sir, sir, please sir, please give me something!" But the gentleman/human being is lost in thought: the new season has begun! The season! The season! Always the season and, as the season changes, so does his wife, his children and so does he himself - with whatever the season calls for. Preoccupied with such matters, he pays no attention to the little beggar who, wasting no thoughts on the season, reflects on how well the gentleman must have dined, how warm his coat must be, how fine his shoes are... Lost in such thoughts, he pulls more strongly at the gentleman and implores in a louder voice, "Sir, sir, please sir, please give me something!" Suddenly, the gentleman turns and slugs the little beggar in the face. "You good-for-nothing," he snarls and departs without giving him anything. Or rather, he did give the pallid face a slug. A groan from the child's breast attracts the attention of passersby. "Hey, look," someone cries out, "that little beggar is trying to steal something!" The people think that the boy has attempted to pick the gentleman's pocket. That's why he was struck. The blood from the little beggar's heart flushes in his face and, like a stalked bird, he gathers all his infant force to flee. He spurts off, relentlessly pursued by fear, and only comes to a halt when his face and back are bathed in sweat. A hole, a tiny hole that I could crawl into somewhere far away and die of hunger - that was his only thought. Another boy, a bit older, sees the urchin running and cries out in a fit of mocking, "Hey, you little twirp, where do you think you're you off to? Hang on! Don't you remember what we decided on the other day? I get to throw a handful of coins into your face and you get to keep them... Aren't you going to keep your promise?"
     "Alright, but don't throw them hard. I get to cover my eyes with my hands so you don't blind me."
     "OK, let's do it now. Hey, what are you trembling for? You're not chicken, are you?"
     "No... but I'm hungry."
     "So, you're not chicken, eh..." and suddenly hurls the money in the younger boy's face, the coins scattering with a jingle. The little beggar, poor lad, stands there unmoved, but then, almost robbed of his strength, gets down on his knees and, with a grin on his face, begins to pick up the pennies. A scarlet drop on his forehead sparkles in the sun. It is blood.
     No, no. It was no dream, but a nightmare, when a singer, inspired to this refrain by these fictitious events, sang by mistake:

    On the mercy of the merciless
     The little beggar survived.
     His life ran its course
     In dirty streets,
     In dark corners,
     In cold doorways,
     Among fallacious faiths.
     But one day, when the world’s pity dried up
     He felt in his breast the stab
     Of a new pain, which contempt
     Fosters in the hearts
     Of the poor.
     And - though yesterday a little beggar,
     He now became something new.
     An avenger of the past,
     He conceived an imprecation
     To pronounce to the world,
     His throat strained
     To bring out the word
     Which his rage had gripped
     And smothered on his lips.

    Speechless he sat
     At the crossroads,
     When the wheels of a passing car
     Quickly crushed
     And... silenced him.

[Një refren i qytetit t'em, first published in Illyria on 15 July 1934. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 122-126. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 132-135.]

 

FORBIDDEN FRUIT

    A man of thirty years. He stands in front of the movie theatre billboard, unemployed, on a work day. Pfff. He spits, turning away from the billboard. He has the impression that someone has called him, but no, no one has. No one needs a manual labourer. And so he continues his daily routine. He stares at the posters in front of the movie theatre. Pfff. They know how to live, he says, and approaches the posters to have a good look. It's the same film every day: an attractive girl standing beside a good-looking young man. The worker gazes at them in envy. He takes a dislike to the leading man and gives him a nasty stare. He spits and looks down at his own shoes. He does not really know what they are, his old, worn-out shoes, an incarnation of real shoes. He bends over to tie the laces, uttering a groan as he straightens up. He saunters off, along the sidewalk of course. You can even go barefoot on the sidewalk if you want. Why not?
     He paces slowly, taking it easy. Like a man without a job. Others come by, too, not at ease, but more in a hurry. How good it is to be able to take it slow, to stroll like a gentleman. But, what am I saying? Is it really a good thing to stroll and take it easy? Yes and no! No and yes! It depends. For a gentleman, it's a proper thing to saunter at one's leisure, it's good for the digestion. For a working man, it's not. Why? You know why. But our worker strolls and takes it easy. Like a gentleman. That's the way the times and the world are nowadays. If you want to be a gentleman, you can. Yet our worker doesn't want to be or imitate a gentleman, just the times... No interest. He doesn't like their pompous ways. Not that they bother him, it's just... well, you know.
     Bong, bong, bong, bong. Four o'clock in the afternoon! How cruelly the bells resound in a worker's guts. The bell tower of the church strikes four and resonates hollow in a worker's damn guts. Four! Four! Four! Four everywhere! And why four? Why? An argument, a revolt. Almost a revolution. A revolution in miniature. The roar of a cannon... No! the sound of starving, rumbling guts.
     Our worker continues to loiter in the streets of the town. He is looking for work. Like his fellow-workers in Berlin and London. Nowhere is there a laden truck for him to unload. Nowhere is there a traveller with suitcase in hand in need of a porter. Nowhere! Nowhere! No one wants the sweat of his brow. Nowhere are there a couple of leks to be made.
     The worker stops in front of some shops and stares into the window. He observes and savours our romantic era. He stands in front of the store display of a stationery shop. Behind the glass are postcards of movie stars. He grits his teeth. In anger he raises his fist to... But there are laws! And police! The consequences flash through his mind. He turns from the stars in disdain and spits. He continues on his way and spits again. He looks to the left and to the right. And spits again. Starving and in rags he saunters past shops full of "forbidden fruit" (a tale from the Bible).
     His instincts yearn to express themselves. Our worker gets control of himself once again! The law! Police! To play it safe, he folds his hands behind his back. His hands are strong, powerful. They could seize the devil by the throat and strangle him. But the law protects the devil, too.
     Bong, bong, bong, bong! How long will it last?

[Moll' e ndalueme, first published in Jeta dhe kultura on 20 July 1935. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 132-135. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 136-137.]

 

DO YOU NEED ANY COAL, SIR?

    Two sacks of coal loaded onto a packhorse. At its flank, a highland woman. The sidewalk with its line of shops to the left and right. The horse and the highland woman are passing by. Coal for sale. An artist would be alarmed at the disharmony of the scene. Appalling disharmony. The highland woman blows her nose using her fingers. The result falls onto the ground and she wipes her fingers on her jubleta. A simple gesture, but a select motif for a painter. The stick in the woman's hand drags along the road, leaving a kilometre-long trail behind it. It is the residue of the mountain dweller's thoughts.
     "Do you need any coal, sir?"
     "How much are you charging?"
     "Twelve leks - or better, you say your price. Hey, don't go away."
     "Twelve leks in this heat?" someone else asks her with a grin.
     "Well, how much will you give me?"
     "No, I don't need any coal."
     True, it is hot outside. Who needs coal? Alright, ten leks, thinks the highland woman to herself, walking down the shady side of the road. The horse paces onwards with its eyes closed. Perhaps it is dreaming. Now in old age, it is musing on its love for a long-forgotten mare. The woman leaves the horse alone to relish its memories. She is patient. Back in the sunlight now, a shadow follows them, or rather two shadows. Two shadows entwined and merged with one another - the shadow of the horse and the shadow of the highland woman. You cannot tell which is which, or separate them. One is nothing without the other; each is of no value. Only together do they form a whole. A living whole. Krk, krk, krk, the coal crunches on the horse's back. Krk, krk, krk, the monotonous clicking of the horseshoes over the cobblestones.
     The highland woman lifts her head to see where the sun is. It's time to head back, to return to the mountains. And the coal has not been sold. She resolves to sell it more cheaply.
     "Hey, young man, what time is it?"
     The lad is attracted by the good-looking mountain lass. He approaches politely and tells her the time. He asks how much she wants for the coal and starts to barter with her, although he has no intention of buying. She is young and attractive. Why shouldn't he talk to her? "Oh, she's filthy," the lad realizes. "The mountain peasants are so stupid. They don't understand anything. You have to tell them everything, even what cannot be said in words." This is what the young man is thinking to himself as he musters the young highlander, as would a nobleman his young servant. "What a fool she is. She doesn't understand a thing!" And the lad goes on his way. The highland woman has begun to worry about the homeward journey. She looks at the sun sinking in the west. How can she return to the mountains in the dark? She is not afraid of vampires and demons, and if she were an old woman, she would not be frightened at all, but, she cannot forget that people once or twice approached and at first she had not known what they wanted... She certainly has no fear of vampires in town, but she is wary of these people. Why? Because she is young and not bad-looking.
     Ardour penetrates her breast.
     "How much is the coal, my good woman?"
     The highlander turns around. She recognizes the fellow speaking to her. She had once sold coal to him. She replies:
     "Eight leks?"
     "No, that's too much. I was mad about you last time," says the man, looking left and right.
     The highland woman smiles, somewhat embarrassed. She covers her face, blushing, and looks away from him. Timidly she asks:
"Well, how much will you pay?"
     "Five."
     "Give me seven."
     "Alright, six and it's a deal."
     The mountain lass hesitates. She reflects for a moment, turning her gaze towards the sun. "May fortune be with me," she murmurs, and follows her customer. The fellow walking in front of her wallows heavily in the memory of the highland woman, who blushes - red with shame.

[A do qymyr, zotni?, first published in Illyria on 28 September 1935. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 136-140. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 138-140.]

 

THE SUICIDE OF THE SPARROW

    The sparrow was suffering from depression. It was born in a very barren land. Instead of grass, there were boar bristles, and instead of trees, there were the horns of prehistoric beasts. Who would not be depressed in such an environment, if one could call it nature? A sparrow does not need much to live on, but an environment devoid of nature, did not provide anything.
     Do not ask how the sparrow happened to be born in that land, or how man ended up in this part of the universe. We don't know much about it. There are hypotheses and there are dreams. Millions of years and then a word is uttered, for example: "Let there be light. And there was light." Do you see? It's all magic. Hocus pocus. Applause!
     I already explained that the sparrow was destined to live in a land where instead of grass there were boar bristles, and instead of trees, there were the horns of prehistoric beasts.
     Once, the sparrow was perched on a horn. It was demoralized at seeing nothing but boar bristles. It was glum at having to fly from horn to horn. It closed its eyes out of frustration and sorrow, and fell into a sombre mood. A person with a melancholic disposition is intelligent, and the sparrow with a melancholic disposition was intelligent, too. Intelligence, in the broadest sense of the term, has rarely been a blessing to anyone.
     The sparrow, perched on a horn and in the depths of depression decided to commit suicide. It looked about in philosophical irony and took the irrevocable decision which glimmered in its despairing eyes. It chirped once, it chirped twice, it chirped three times. Then there followed a long and poignant cry, its last will, the testament of its suffering. Without spreading its wings, it jumped off the horn and plunged into a boar bristle as long and sharp as a knife, and was impaled.
     A sparrow, impaled on a boar bristle. Its tail and wings fluttered, causing it to rotate around the bristle, as metal weather vanes turn on the top of our chimneys when the North Wind begins to blow.
     What is the logical connection here? Do I detect complaints?
     Indeed, my dear and far from superficial reader, are there not enough logical, moral, and dogmatic inconsistencies in the realities of this world? Why get angry and accuse me of a few logical inconsistencies which are doing harm to no one?

[Vetvrasja e trumcakut, first published in Illyria on 4 January 1936. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 147-150.Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 141-142.]

 

LITTLE LULI

    No one knows Luli. Even the friends playing with him don't know him. Or rather, they know him, but play among themselves, and Luli watches them. Everyone has his own problems and difficulties nowadays, even children. So does Luli. Oh Luli, how early you learned to stand on your own two feet.
     When Luli enters the schoolyard, with a slight grin on his face, he speaks to no one. He walks slowly, glancing to the left and to the right, advancing all the time until he reaches the school door. This is his favourite spot. There he stands in the golden rays of the sun in these autumn days. Luli leans against the wall, little fists clenched in his pockets, and his snubby nose, red from the morning frost, turned in the direction of the sun, and... looks around. What attracts his attention most are the boots which the other schoolboys are wearing. "How splendid they are! Look how they shine!" thinks Luli to himself and then stares down at his own beat-up shoes, with five bare toes protruding from each. Out of curiosity, he approaches one of the boys who is wearing brand-new boots. "Look how they're shining!" But the lad with the boots runs off, and Luli returns to his spot in the sun to warm his feet. What is poor Luli supposed to do when the sun is not shining? Perhaps the apostles of love and mercy will bear some of his suffering.
     Perhaps, perhaps...
     From time to time the teacher comes over to Luli. And when Luli's face is clean and he has no pimples, the teacher strokes his cheeks and the nape of his neck. Luli cuddles up and takes the teacher's hand, looking fondly at it and wishing he had something to give to the teacher as a present. But he doesn't have any violets. And what else could little Luli give to the teacher? Only his shoes with their mouths gaping wide open as if they would devour the teacher. Yes, yes, little Luli's shoes are going to devour the teacher.

[Luli i vocërr, first published in Illyria on 18 January 1936. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 151-152. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 143-144.]

 

IN THE FLY SEASON

    He is grown now and cannot chase flies through the house and squash them as he used to do because people would otherwise say he'd lost his mind. The neighbours, the gossiping neighbours, are only waiting for a chance to pounce on him. Hylli remembers as if it were yesterday how the teacher told the third grade pupils that if they swatted a fly in the springtime, it was like swatting the thousands of flies which would have been born of it in the summer. And when the oldest of the children asked whether they ought to swat the female or male flies, the teacher stammered and only with difficulty was able to reply "all of them have to be swatted." In accord with the teacher's suggestion, the tables, walls, wooden chests and chairs echoed that spring to the swatting of flies. Encouraged by their teacher, the children had declared war. The following day, each child at school would recount how many enemies he had exterminated, how the battle had taken place, and what weapons had been used. Hylli had not been any better or worse than the others as a warrior in the bloody battle. He had accomplished as much as any other boy. In fact, he had caught one fly, but had thereby broken a vase and been given a beating by his mother.
     Hylli is now sitting in an armchair with a book in his hand, staring at a fly making circles under the ceiling. He can hardly control his impulse to leap up and nab it. Soon though, surprised by his fratricidal instincts, he calms down. He now reflects on the fly in a more amicable fashion and sees it as a harbinger of summer - although not even one harbinger of spring had made its appearance yet. Such things do not interest him anymore. Swallows, who cares? But where did the fly come from? There must be a dunghill somewhere around. Then he remembers the dung piled in the yard of the beautiful lady next door. Hylli now observes the fly with admiration. He admires its loops under the ceiling. The fly, the dung, and the beautiful lady next door all combine to form a rhapsody on this spring afternoon, a rhapsody of urban life on an afternoon in May.

***

    But the fly did not remain at its usual altitude. It began its slow descent to the lower spheres of the room. Hylli was afraid it might drown in the coffee cup which he had just been handed. A shiver ran down his spine when he considered how he might swallow a dead fly when gulping down his coffee. His pessimistic nature found the thought revolting. In reality, when considered as part of the divine plan, this fly was quite superfluous, he reflected. Unemployed apprentice boys and students sitting around at home would have found something to do, if it were not for these flies.
     But as Schopenhauer once remarked, pleasure is nothing but a temporary interruption of ever-recurring pain. If it were not for driving nervous people crazy, there would be no need for flies at all. And there are certainly enough other flies in life. And what flies there are! Think of the horseflies which you cannot get rid of when they are drawing blood without giving them a swat, or rather, a big slap.
     It is the nature of flies to interfere in other people's business and to take things into their own hands. It flew over his cup of coffee like a reconnaissance aircraft. Where the hell are the people responsible for getting rid of them? The people being paid to do the job? What are the members of parliament doing about this? The flies are the only decorations we have in this town. Finally something for visitors to see here... he thought. Unwillingly, Hylli got nervous and, with a swift move of his arm, swiped at the fly. He opened the palm of his hand, but there was nothing in it. Almost got it. Suddenly, a former ally in the fly-war and now a fellow student stood in the doorway.
     "What are you doing, Hylli? Catching flies?"
     "Nothing... I was just thinking how futile life is," responded Hylli, as usual.

[Në sezonën e mizave, written in Puka in May 1936. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 192-194.Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 145-147.]

 

THE PLATFORM OF A MAGAZINE

    No politics!
     "No! We agree. Politics have no healthy basis, no law, no rules, no framework. Not even morals," added a moralizing editor, observing his colleagues from over the rim of his glasses. This same editor had bitten off a chunk of the book "Religious morality" for lunch instead of his sandwich and had spat the bite out again when he discovered he could not swallow it. But the gentleman had children at home, and children, according to the principles of modern education, are monkeys. This is why, when they saw their father spitting, they began to imitate him with a "Pff, pff, pff."
     Politics are like a chameleon which, as is known, takes on the colour of its environment. If a chameleon happens to be sitting on a cliff, it will take on the colour of the cliff. Even if someone points it out to you, you will have trouble distinguishing it from the cliff. If you rush headlong to catch it, the trophy you have on your return - when you get back from this Trojan War - will be found on your forehead. It will have swollen as thick as the cliff you bumped into. The moment you think you have caught a chameleon, it is gone.
     "That is the definition of politics, if there is one," said another editor.
     "Our magazine has nothing to do with politics!"
     "No! not at all," repeated all the editors, remembering the story about trying to catch a chameleon! Politics are dangerous!" they repeated to one another, nodding.
     "Let us not forget, gentlemen, our magazine must be idealistic."
     "Bravo! Idealistic!"
     "It will devote itself to the education and defence of those who have no defence! It will open the eyes of the blind!!
     "Yes..."
     "It will awaken pride in our nation."
     "Yes, bravo! National awareness is sleeping and needs to be awakened with a forty-two..."
     "Shshsh!" they turned on the uncouth speaker, who happened to be the one who sorted the mail.
     In the end, they drafted a platform for an idealistic magazine.
     Supernatural posters were put up throughout the town, many of which were glued onto the front windows of people's ground-floor homes, so that they now sat in the dark.
     In a little alley where, in one day, four cats, three people, and perhaps a rooster with its hens pass by, a cow stopped in front of the red poster and speared it with its horns. It must have been related to the Spanish toreros.
     "War! war!" cried the people as they gathered in front of the poster on the main street (the population was caught up in a war psychosis because of the Italian-Abyssinian conflict). Finally they found someone with a modicum of education who was able to read out loud: "Idealistic magazine!"
     "What nonsense!" muttered a lady with bobbed hair who set off down the road at a martial pace.
     The magazine remained unsold, for the population happened to be illiterate. There was no money left over for the second number. "What we need is a subsidy!" resolved the editors.

[Programi i një reviste, first published in Bota e re on 16 June 1936. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 156-158.Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 148-149.]

 

THE HEADLESS IDOLS

    A terrible tempest toppled the idols. Some crumbled to dust, others lost their heads. The heartless storm did not arise on the horizon or appear from out of the skies, but from the bowels of the earth. And whatever emerges from the interior of the earth is either tender, like the most intimate of pleasures, or is terrible, like the tempest which toppled the idols.
     The remains of the pulverized idols' heads blew away. Nothing was left behind them, and the headless gods stood there as awkward witnesses to an age gone by.
     Decapitated idols. Disfigured nature. And the people who lived among them wandered about aimlessly. Those who had been born before the destruction of the idols and who had seen them in all their ceremonial splendour, now grieved and longed for the age of the former glory. They still hoped that the deities would save them when they died. Those who were born in the age of headless idols did not know what to make of them. They wanted to worship them, but what was there to worship? Faceless forms? They wanted to believe in them, but what was there to believe in? Brainless bodies? How could such abominations be worshipped? Who could believe in a headless god? Anything without a head is a corpse, and corpses have no place among the living. Corpses are for burying. Any other contact with them could prove fatal. A catastrophe. The whole nation could be destroyed.
     (Our nation was not destroyed. But the only reason for this is that our direct neighbours suffered more or less the same fate as we did.)
     Headless deities! Victims of time which devours everything, victims of fatality. There they stand, mutilated, only because no one can be found to build new ones. But one day, someone will be found. And the new idols he builds will be worshipped by the masses. The material they are made of will be the morals of the age, and the form they are modelled after - modern man.
     Headless gods! At their burial, the tolling bells will crack, the minarets will bend over backwards, and chanting jaws will spring out of joint. Then there will be silence, for every cry begins and ends in silence. Only then will work begin.

[Idhujt pa krena, first published in Bota e re on 30 July 1936. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 164-165.Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 150-151.]

 

THE LEGEND OF CORN

    Corn! Corn!
     Gods are not glorified in the twentieth century. Corn is. Our mountain pastures, temples to the greater glory of god, have now become temples to the glory of corn.
     A grain of corn is a seed of suffering, in which there is much hunger and little corn.
     The word 'corn' is the stuff of legends born of the will to survive. The will to survive is as great and wondrous as our mountains which open their bosoms to bury the starving people. On our mighty peaks, the legend told is one of birth, of life, and of death. And this bitter legend, full of ago-old pain and agony, is so heartrending that it would move you to tears.
     Corn! Corn!
     A cry for help. Glorification of the twentieth century! It is not the names of gods which are heard in the mouths of babes when they begin to speak, but the word corn. Corn! It is the symbol of our age; it is synonymous with survival for the legendary inhabitants of these wild and savage mountains.
     The alpine valleys echo the words of starving highlanders who plod along in a line, one after the other, each bearing half a sack of corn. It is a long, endlessly long line, as long and endless as their suffering. Each of them bears half a sack of corn on his back, bears his life, bears his god. The true god - long-desired corn.
     Corn! Corn!
     The news that corn was to be distributed emerged from the bowels of the earth and flowed through deep veins into the stiff limbs of the land called the State. And it caused the breathing masses, who hardly have enough to keep themselves alive, to quiver with delight.
     Like ants gathering around grains of corn, the highlanders assemble around the depot in the district capital. Corn is to be distributed to the surrounding villages. The savage peaks with their fog and snow had tried to prevent the mountain dwellers from getting there, as did the skies which poured rain to drench them to the bone. But who can stop them when they set out in search of corn? Corn for their children, marked by misery, who when they stretch out their arms, resemble pale little ghosts. These tykes are the real testament of human tragedy. The tragic witnesses in this part of the globe which, for foreigners, calls to mind legends of the past. Legends of the past with legendary glory, for real glory is to be found nowhere near the aeries of the Mountain Eagles.
     The highlander makes his way down through the mountain valleys with nothing but the shirt on his back and his legendary trousers to so as to reach the district capital in search of corn. His breast is a slab of granite broken off from a cliff and stuck on two legs as strong and straight as tree trunks. This chunk of mountain advances without making a sound. In front of the corn depot his real nature comes to the fore and he turns chicken, becomes servile, frightened, because - in his thinking - that is the way the law and the authorities want him to be, otherwise he gets no corn. "As you wish, sir," he repeats from time to time in the most ridiculous fashion, with the voice of a madman and the gestures of a monkey, hoping desperately not to awaken the disfavour of the angels distributing corn.
     And when they secure the corn, they set off one by one along the narrow path through the mountains and through their lives. It happens on occasion that grains of corn fall onto the ground through a little hole in one man's sack. The fellow behind him takes no notice and treads on them. The third man curses him savagely: "Don't step on them, or the wicked fairies will get you!" For the twentieth century is ten decades for the glorification of corn in the aeries of the Mountain Eagles.

[Legjenda e misrit, first published in Bota e re on 15 October 1936. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 167-170.Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 152-154.]

 

LETHAL BEAUTY

    The moon stares down from the vaults of heaven with a face as pale as death. It stares at the mountain world powdered in sugary crystals. It stares at the sparkling, snow-covered huts of the village, with hardly a trace of life. All are covered in a white blanket of snow. And this wan beauty can kill you. It snuffs out the soul of the highlanders just as the cold, pallid figure of a naked woman snuffs out the soul of an artist.
     In a hut groaning under the weight of the snow, there are but two colours: red and black. Red is the glow of the hearth in the middle, and black is the colour all around it. Veiled in the black of night are the recesses of the hut, from which the faint bleating of a lamb or the bell of a cow can be heard. The steam rising from their mouths falls onto their fell in frosty flakes. Silence. Everything is crystallized. An arm stretches out and grasps a piece of wood, poking it in the fire. Sparks fly about and flames lick the darkness. Up to the beams and around the faces at the hearth soar the sparks. Bodies shiver. The cold air from the dark corners of the hut claws into their backs. Brrrr. The chill gapes behind them.
     "Go and make sure that Laro is not freezing."
     They rise and give their cow Laro a place by the fire. These family members need warmth, too, in the crystal-cold hut. Laro knows how to position herself next to the fireplace, but with her huge body, she almost squeezes two of the children to death, who are sleeping at the hearth.
     The animals become uneasy as the temperature drops to its lowest around midnight. Yes, there is a commotion. One after the other they approach the humans with pleading eyes: "Give us a place beside the fire so that we can warm ourselves, too. We are freezing..." Humans may show no pity on humans, but they do take pity on animals. Thus they make way and give the animals a place by the fire, receding themselves into the gaping darkness.
     Dawn breaks with its white and lethal beauty. The humans awaken with stiff, near-frozen limbs, stinging from the horrors of the night. They rise, but one little child does not move. Its mother stretches out to touch it and a terrible scream rends the hearts in the hut. The agony of the mother melts these hearts, but revives not the frozen heart of the little child.
     Yes, the mother's favourite child froze to death. Its red and purple blood congealed in its veins and heart, turned into crystal like the glasses in the tea service of a millionaire. No, its blood has transformed into rubies for the necklace of a lady. The body of the little child, his mother's favourite, was as stiff as a stone statue. A stone statue plucked from his mother's breast.
     Get rid of the statue, take it into town. Set it up in some square. Let it serve as a monument to someone. Dedicate it to the worthiest person in the land! To a minister, a member of parliament, or another... And if you don't find anyone of sufficient merit, then dedicate it to a less-worthy figure: to some traditional god.

[Bukuria që vret, first published in Bota e re on 15 December 1936. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 171-173.Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 155-156.]

 

THE HARVEST

    The sun rose day after day, larger and more splendid, only to sink in radiant satisfaction with the people far below.
     Early up on these crystal-clear mornings were the farmers who thanked the rising sun and, when the rosy rays of evening came, they begged it, entreated it, not to come back the next day, but to send rain, because their newly-sown fields in the verdant valley needed two days of rain a week.
     The sun heard their prayers, as would a beaming mother those of her beloved child. It smiled blithely and went down in a glorious magenta. The next morning it did not rise. Instead, accompanied by all the hues of a rainbow, there came a soft and priceless rain shower which tenderly moistened the earth and gently watered the plants, not even hurting the poppies.
     The same happened on the second day.
     On the third day, a splendid sun appeared again. Its golden rays quivered as if they were the limbs of some profound and delicate spirit.
     How the people were looking forward to the coming harvest! From the hillside over the village they observed the fields of grain, like a green sea, as it was caressed by a gentle breeze from the west. The farmers could not only see it; they could feel the grain growing, and with the grain, they, too, were growing, reaching to the heavens, becoming titans. At last! rose the satisfaction from their breasts as they dreamt of the coming harvest.
     The children, seeing their parents satisfied, were all the happier. They wove garlands of flowers in the meadows and set them on their little heads, took one another's hands, sang and danced. Ah! Ah! Cries of joy rose from their little breasts, inspired by a blithe future.
     And the day of the harvest arrived.
     The farmers got up early on that crystal-clear morning. They seized their sickles, sharpened them, and set off down the valley. The sun ascended large and splendid, causing the farmers to squint. The sickles in their hands shone and glittered. Once again the farmers thanked the sun from the bottom of their hearts and proceeded, hand in hand, down to the fields.
     When the farmers got there, they rubbed their eyes. They looked at the fields in front of them and rubbed their eyes again in disbelief. Cannon barrels threatened to devour them. They were positioned in the direction of the village. For the farmers, these cannons were like monsters from the fairy tales they had heard from their forefathers. They shook in their boots.
     "What are those?" they asked, approaching in confusion. When they placed their hands on the cannons, the coldness of the metal penetrated their hearts. They looked at the wheels planted firmly in the soil and felt as if those wheels had been planted in their bodies. They were in pain.
     "What are they? We never sowed this kind of seed." Doesn't the saying go: 'As ye sow, so ye shall reap?' We planted grain and now we've got plants of iron."
     "What are they?" the poor farmers asked one another. But no one replied. They stood there shaking, their fingers stroking the cannons and the cannonballs, as if to appease some apocalyptic beast. But the cannons were built of cold iron and the beast was not to be appeased.
     "What are they?" each of them asked himself, all with tears of frustration in their eyes. They frowned. Wrinkles appeared on their foreheads. They did not even notice the sun shining above them. The poor farmers, their hopes dashed, returned to their village in undescribable sorrow. When they got home, half-crazed with worry and pain, they exclaimed to the children who were singing and dancing:
     "You will have to learn to eat iron!"
     "Ho! ho! ho! we're going to eat iron!" sang and danced the unsuspecting children.

[Të korrunat, first published in Përpjekja shqiptare on 16 April 1938. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 179-181.Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 157-159.]

 

ZENEL

    Zenel was like the fertile soil in which seed, wherever it is cast, sprouts, grows, and bears more fruit than one would expect.
     I said to him:
     "Zenel, tell me something that the other children don't know."
     His large chestnut eyes stared pensively at mine as he stood up with his white teeth, his tanned face, his smooth and well-shaped brow, and his oblong skull. He gave his reply, quite confident in himself. It was confidence which had often been put to the test, for he was always the one to reply when the others did not know the answer. He spoke, with a frown between his eyebrows.
     Sometimes when he talked, Zenel was overcome by childish fantasy. He would mount the winged horse of his imagination and soar from one cloud to the next, but when he noticed me smiling, he realized his mistake, fell into an embarrassed silence, sat down without asking permission, and, out of shame, hid his face in his hands. I laughed, and the children laughed, too, looking back and forth at Zenel and at me.
     Very occasionally, Zenel would get bored and reply:
     "I don't know, teacher."
     I knew then that something in the lesson had gone wrong. He was not interested.
     Equally rare are the moments in which Zenel bubbled with childish mirth. He laughed out loud for no reason at all, jumped up and down, could not sit still, and disturbed the other children. Neither a warning nor an interesting lesson would help. It even happened that Zenel began to complain and make fun of me, saying: "Come on, teacher. Enough is enough. You've taught us how to live. Fine. You've taught us all things bright and beautiful. But we are subsisting in the same life our forefathers did, with the same joys and the same sorrows they had in these isolated mountain valleys. Look for yourself. You can see that boy's pale shoulder through his torn shirt, and the other boy's bloated belly. He's dying of hunger, and this boy cannot even keep his teeth from clattering with fever."
     I noticed an ironic reproach in Zenel's features when he laughed, as if he were to say: "Let's laugh and have some fun as long as we are at school. Long live school! Long live education! How often have we sung songs although there is neither joy nor laughter here. Long live school! Long live education, which teaches us to read and write, although this will not help us much in our lives, but at least we will have found a stick, if nothing more, and can write in the sky with it: Long live school! Long live education!"
     Letting the children have their fun, I went over to the window and looked out at the mountain pastures, above which stretched a seemingly endless forest. We had hiked up there once and it was indescribably majestic. I studied the slopes and mountains, the meadows in the distance, the trees, the red earth, and the green and yellow leaves. Closer were the cottages stamped into the earth and covered with nothing but straw. I fell into morose contemplation and sensed my lips talking to themselves automatically. I soon realized that the children were looking in my direction. Turning around, I saw Zenel:
     "Teacher, are we not having a lesson today?"
     "Alright, geography then." I got out the globe and addressed them.
     "Where is Albania?" two or three of them inquired, leaning forward to get a better look.
     I showed them the spot, a little red dot among the other colours, and could sense their displeasure, hear their disconcerted reactions:
     "That small?"
     "Look how tiny it is! You can hardly see it."
     "Is Albania really that small, teacher?" asked one of the boys, gesticulating angrily.
     They murmured among themselves in a disillusioned manner, as if Albania had recently shrunk and they would have to fight to preserve the rest. Zenel, for his part, said nothing. He looked up at me with his sparkling eyes as if to say, "Teacher, do something. You've saved us in many other situations. Remember when you taught us about agricultural equipment and why we don't have any, and when we talked about all the commodities of modern life, all the things we don't have, and when we talked about rich countries, which we are not? You always saved the situation. Save us this time, too."
     I noticed the little souls worrying about the country which had seemed so big to them, but now appeared as a little dot on the globe. They thought there was some mistake. I had a feeling that by the next day one of the little sons of the eagle would redraw the country on the globe as much larger.
     To raise their spirits, I said to them:
     "What? Albania is not small! It is large. If you divide the country up by all the people living in it, there is more space per person here than in the other countries of Europe."
     "Well, why did they draw it so small, then?" asked one little advocate of the rights of his nation indignantly, supporting his intervention with a gesture of his hand.
     I could hardly resist laughing, and replied:
     "Because we are smaller than the other countries. But that doesn't mean anything. To live happy lives, all we need is the land that we have. We just need to work, and..." At this moment, the bell rang and the children lost interest in the theory of happiness which I was projecting. Irritated, they stomped out of the classroom, one by one, still discussing the matter with one another. Zenel remained behind, unnoticed by the others. When they had all left, he said to me with a bitter smile:
     "We have nothing at all, teacher, neither new equipment to work the land, nor clean, modern houses like they do in other countries. We are small..."
     I interrupted. Zenel's conclusion was both depressing and true. I talked to him and endeavoured to pacify him. I don't know if he believed me.
     I had often thought about Zenel's future. But what could I do? Good will on my part was not enough to allow Zenel to climb the lofty peaks in order to glimpse the light shining on the horizon. There was something fatalistic within me which said: Let Zenel grow up to live the primitive life his parents did. It is better for him. There is no sense in my dragging him up the dizzying aeries where he will only despair and break his neck when he looks down at his loved ones and realizes he cannot help them.
     Thus, when the time came, I handed Zenel his graduation certificate and wished him well. When he departed, I was disconsolate, knowing we would never see one another again.

[Zeneli, first published in Përpjekja shqiptare in December 1938. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 183-187.Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 160-164.]

 

THE ROBBER'S KISS

    Another spring has come. It is the seventeenth spring for Dila who is lying in the grass and feels exactly as if seventeen springs have passed, no more and no less.
     "Mother, how old am I?" she had inquired at home.
     "You have just turned seventeen, daughter!" responded the mother, resting on one arm and holding the other arm over her eyes to protect herself against the rays of the sun.
     And Dila, stretched out in the grass, feels exactly seventeen years old. There she lies, looking up at the blue sky and listening to the bells of the herd. The bell with the higher tone belongs to the bellwether, whereas the louder bell belongs to the cow. She gets up from time to time to take a look at the herd and then lies down again, with an undefined longing in her breast. How strongly Dila senses the seventeen years within her! A prisoner of desire, she folds her hands behind her head and lies back, feeling the blood beating hard in her temples. Now the longing within her has become all the stronger. Dila closes her eyes and waits for something to happen. A warm breath of air passes over her moist, half-open lips.

***

    A hard winter had preceded that spring. The snow, which was now confined to the high mountain ridges, had covered all the land. A violent storm had driven the drifts right into the mountain caves and hollows of the tree trunks. In the course of that frosty winter, the wild animals had come down into the valley, to the humans who had not made them welcome. Together with the animals arrived a robber, the terror of all those who had heard of him but had never seen him. Having received a promise of good conduct, Dila's father took the robber in and gave him bread and salt. During the month he stayed with them, Dila realized that this robber could not possibly be the person accused of murder, theft, and rape. That was the reputation he had, but he was not really like that. Her mother smiled at their twenty-four-year-old guest, and so did Prenda, her brother's young wife. He conversed with her father, and he sang songs with her brother. Their robber guest was a good man and they all thought highly of him. Dila, willingly or unwillingly, stared at him from time to time and blushed, willingly or unwillingly. On occasion, willingly or unwillingly, she touched his arm while passing, to do her household chores. The contact made her breasts swell.
     Dila was not even afraid of his weapons - his cartridge belt, his rifle, his revolver. A long-suppressed sensation blossomed in Dila's heart and burgeoned from day to day. The feeling turned into a yearning which left her awake at night.
     But one morning, when the sun rose like a gold coin in the sky, the robber was gone. Dila was left alone with her love for him.

***

    Dila's desire had transformed into passion on that bright spring day as she lay in the grass. She could feel the blood throbbing in her veins. Her passion increased all the more when she closed her eyes and dreamed of what she had never had. She had never known ... She never saw the robber again. Her seventeen springs were seventeen silent, but passionate calls to this man.
     There she lay dreaming and refused to look even when she felt a weight on her body, when she heard the heavy breathing of a man, and when she tasted the moisture of his lips. She would not open her eyes. Perhaps she was afraid of destroying the moment of rapture which had taken possession of her... Only when the weight was gone from her body did she open her eyes. She stood up, but there was no one there. She looked around and saw only the traces of footsteps in the grass to her left. Dila quivered. "It was him," she cried, " the robber!" and set off after him, following the footprints. She ran in her ecstasy, as if intoxicated, and did not even notice the smirk on the face of a nearby shepherd. Dila hastened down the hillside, still in rapture, though no more traces of his steps were to be found. She had left the herd behind her, not even realizing why she was following the robber, and ran until she reached the edge of a cliff. She called out his name. Her footsteps echoed from stone to stone, but her call went unanswered.
     In the twilight, agonized voices could be heard on the high mountain pastures and in the ravines: "Dila!, Dila!, Dila!"

[Puthja e cubit, first published in Tirana in 1954. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 188-191.Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 164-166.]