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Robert Elsie
Albanian Literature

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Luan STAROVA, 2001 (Photo: Robert Elsie).

Luan STAROVA, 2001
(Photo: Robert Elsie).

Webdesign J. Groß

Luan STAROVA

 

The Goat Age

    The fortress held us in its spell, engraving itself deep in our souls from the moment we had settled on that riverbank. We often stared at it from the stone quay, gazing at what was left over from the last war, in particular the old cannons which still fired salutes on the holidays that had been created by the victors: the First of May, Victory Day and Republic Day.

    For those of us who had found our way back to the city, the fortress was like some balcony high up in the open sky. It was the pride of the town. Anyone wanting to approach the fortress had to cross the Wooden Bridge first. Having crossed this beautiful construction, which really was made entirely of wood, you would find yourself face to face with a shining white building, almost like a palace. On its protruding facade, there was a row of statues as if to protect it, caryatids with their feminine bodies enveloped in long robes, alongside of which were stone masks displaying a variety of expressions. This was the theatre, a venerable building constructed in neoclassical style, that conveyed the impression of having been wrenched from Vienna, Rome or Paris and plopped down in the heart of the Balkans. This more recent construction and the adjacent House of the Army, were built on the property of a mosque which, due to its ring shape, was known as Burmali Xhamia or Ring Mosque. Both had been constructed to show off the power of the new State. The same was true of the large bank building on the other side and of the central train station, one of the most beautiful on the Balkan Peninsula, especially since it graced a town that was still very much a provincial backwater. Now, about twenty years since the foundation of the State which had been created by the Treaty of Versailles, foreign capital had flooded in and made its mark on the symbols of power of the new age. The more modern buildings, the Stone Bridge and the huge fortress rising above everything else recognised as one of the main strongholds of the Balkans through the ages, gave the city its enduring characteristics.

    In the middle of these lofty buildings was the main square - perhaps the only one of its size in southeastern Europe - connected on one side by the Stone Bridge and on the other by the main road in the direction of the railway station. The best known of the trains which stopped there was the Orient Express which linked the city to northern and western Europe and to the southern and eastern reaches of the Peninsula.

    During the Ottoman period, when it served as a barracks, the fortress was simply known as "The Castle" and was the only remaining symbol of empires past. Each of these forgotten empires, condemned to inevitable downfall and cast into oblivion, had left its epigraphic imprint, so to speak, on the cyclopean stone ruins. On these heavy blocks were engraved inscriptions in various alphabets which had been overturned by subsequent rulers or by tremors.

    The inscriptions which were carved into the jumble of stones eventually weathered and paled with time. History freed itself of them, testifying to the transitory nature of all things. In these giant walls lay the ruins of ancient civilizations. No force on earth could cause them to budge, except perhaps the violent earthquakes which struck the city every five hundred years. It was in this fortress more than anywhere else that time stood still in the Balkans. The inscriptions carved in stone by former rulers were but epitaphs to their former power and glory.

    After the great resettlement which caused us to leave our town on the west side of the lake, we arrived and remained on the banks of the swiftly flowing Vardar, taking up residence in the old dilapidated home of an Ottoman aristocrat built in the shade of four huge poplar trees. These formed a row between the Wooden Bridge and the one-time Secondary School for Girls, which would later be given the name of Josip Broz Tito and which, after many a tremor, collapsed (although it could have been saved). The resulting empty lot soon became the home of a three-storey building somewhat resembling a pagoda which housed the Central Committee of the Communist Party until the latter's demise.

    Only the fortress survived, shaken and damaged by the earthquake that toppled the brick-coloured barracks which had been transformed into a Museum of the Revolution.
When we had gotten used to life in the city, and the final vestiges of the war had been carted away, we children also sensed a desire, or was it some vague instinct we had inherited, to conquer something. This brought us to explore our surroundings in the direction of the theatre and what was once the Jewish Quarter until we reached the foot of the hill. Rising above us was a belly-like formation of rippled clay, the softer parts of which had been eaten away by rainstorms or by the flooding of the river, leaving behind deep gouges and caverns in which shelters had been built to protect the population from aerial bombardments and similar attacks against the city.

    From the top of the fortress we could see the whole town. Below us flowed the waters of the river, sometimes pale blue and at other times a sallow green. We imagined ourselves to be on the mast of a galley sailing through time.

    We watched people coming and going, and observed the old horse-drawn wagons, and stared at the colours of the great bazaar and the eternal flow of the river. But from wherever we stood, it was the main square that captured our attention most. It was this square that had taken centre stage in most periods of history. It was here that rulers had held their parades, liberators had declared victory, and workers and politicians had organized their meetings.

* * *

    One spring morning when we were up on the fortress, we turned our eyes as usual to the centre of town and were taken by something quite unusual - a quivering mass of white that had filled the square. When our eyes had adjusted to the scene and we could see what was going on, one of us exclaimed: "Goats! Look at them, masses of goats and people down on the square!"

    We looked around town in all directions. Everywhere there were goats and people flocking through the streets. A seemingly endless mass of white was gathering in the main square.

    "A goat demonstration!" shouted one of the children, recalling the many rallies and demonstrations that had been held there.

    "It's not a demonstration, it's a goat parade!" countered a third child, mindful of the frequent parades that had also taken place on it.

    In no time at all, the square was jammed to capacity. The herders from mountain villages who were driving their flocks with the help of robust billy goats pacing behind them, mounted the wide review platforms which were set up in the middle of the square where, under normal circumstances, the supreme authorities of the Republic of Macedonia, part of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, were in the habit of observing parades, processions and important rallies.

    This time, it was the herders who were waiting for their first meeting with the municipal authorities and the Party. But what was actually occurring on the square?

    From our vantage point up in the fortress, we had no idea as to what as going on, but it was evidently something "great and historic," as they used to say. Later, with time, we would learn what had happened.

    The peasants from the surrounding mountain regions who had not "voluntarily' joined the workers' co-operatives had descended upon the town with their faithful goats. The authorities hoped to transform these goat herders in no time flat into members of the working class, who would carry out the socialist revolution. This is what we were later to learn. But how could we have been expected to understand all this at the time?

    The city seemed to come to life with the fresh mountain breeze blowing in and bringing all these new residents with it. It was not without regret that these people had left their native reaches, the mountains that had sustained them in good times and bad. They had abandoned their huts, but still hoped to return one day. They took nothing with them but the essentials they needed to survive, yet had taken their house keys, though they would certainly never return. It had been hard to persuade them to give up their animals, especially the cattle which were to be handed over to the cooperatives. In the end, they had nothing left but their goats, and no law or force on earth could drive a wedge between them and their prized animals.

    The goats lived among them like full-fledged members of their large family units. The docile animals had indeed saved many people in the years of hunger and deprivation during the war. Each family possessed whole generations of goats, descending from those who had been privy to the earliest conflicts and catastrophes of the Balkans. Without them, these people would certainly not have survived to produce this new generation of life on earth...

    Most of the womenfolk had changed their clothes and were now, for the first time in their lives, dressed up in their fine national costumes, garments embroidered with strands of shimmering gold and silver and woven in those splendid colours seen only in the mountains - from indigo blue to various shades of green bordering on yellow.

    To reach the city, many of the peasants had to walk for days and nights on end. Some got there within a day. As if in silent agreement, the goat herders had left their homes and villages in the mountains, though it was obvious that they must have discussed the exodus beforehand. They travelled together in convoys. Behind the families with the most children were large herds to match, and the occasional billy goat.

    From time to time, the convoy would grind to a halt because one or several of the children would not quit whining. The goats stopped, too. They were more than willing to nurse the moaning children who were cowering beside their starving mothers. The women had no more milk to offer.

    On their way, the goats grazed and ate up virtually everything they came across: leaves, branches, shoots, grass, anything they could find of nutritional value. They were the mobile food supplies of the peasants who were making their way in victorious strides to the main square of the capital of the republic. These herders and their lactiferous goats marched forth as if they were victors returning from war. En route, they encountered veterans wearied from the long years of war, their chests covered in medals and decorations. They met young volunteers who were carry out road work. The herders stopped to greet them, giving them some of their remaining milk and cheese - proof of the generosity inherent in the people of the mountains. Thus, the herders and their goats arrived in town that spring morning, welcomed by our childish eyes which were observing them from atop the fortress.

* * *

    The supreme representatives of the State and the Party were well informed about the arrival of the newcomers who were descending upon the city from their little villages in the countryside. They regarded them as brothers and germ cells of the working class.

    They had thought that the newcomers would have great difficulty abandoning their native lands and had expected them to show up with a cat, a dog, a rooster or a few sheep and goats, but never in their wildest dreams had they envisaged that they would witness a full-fledged invasion of goats in the town! No one would have imagined that, just a few days after the Victory Day parade, hundreds of goats would be gambolling across the main square.

    The supreme representatives of the State and the Party were delighted at the arrival of these new recruits of the working class who had finally abandoned the old customs and habits of their mountain domain and would now, without any doubt, be dealing the final death blow to the domestic and foreign enemies of the working class. But now, this "counter-revolution of goats," this white invasion, was hindering and in fact destroying all the strategic planning which had been carried out by the Party ideologists and thinkers.

    Accustomed as they were to working in accord with instructions from their superiors, the municipal counsellors did their best to deal with the situation, but they were helpless in this case because they had received no concrete directives as to the attitude to be adopted towards the herders and their goats.

    Indeed, there was no time for emergency consultations. The goats were already covering the main square, and the herders, their wives and their children were waiting for an immediate decision. In the subsequent words of a Party functionary, the city was experiencing a huge "goat invasion"...

    The municipal Party Secretary and the Chairman of the Executive Committee now mounted the review platform to welcome the motley horde's representatives. The most notable of the herders, who was of course their leader, was called Changa. He was wearing a sort of gown made of goatskin and a leather cap not unlike that of Tito. Changa was the first to greet the head functionaries of the town. He looked confused by the words of the Party Secretary who was addressing the masses in the following terms:

    "Welcome, brothers from the countryside, builders of our glorious future, a society without class distinctions! We have been eagerly waiting for you for days now, but we were not expecting the goats. Brothers, where will we be able to find room for you with all these goats? Do you really intend to live and work with them here in the city? Remember the old saying: "You can't go ploughing with goats." And certainly not in a classless society, in communism..."

    Changa was evidently bewildered at this unexpected speech in lieu of a simple greeting. When the Party Secretary mentioned the word "communism," the leader of the herders interrupted him, adding cleverly: "With our goats, brother, we have brought communism with us, whereas the rest of you have only just set forth on the path leading to it. We and our goats have been living together as nature would have it, in a pre-communist manner. We have shared our fate with one another. We have co-existed with our goats, as you say, in a 'society without class distinctions'. We suffered through fascism with our goats and survived with their help. Without them we would never have managed to get here and join you to form the working class with you..."

    The herders around them voiced their vivid approval and the white mass began to quiver. The Party Secretary had certainly not anticipated such a reply. While he was trying to come up with a suitable answer, the mass of men and goats which had gathered on the main square grew restless and stopped listening.

    The news of the white infiltration of goats spread throughout the town. As soon as we saw the assembly of goats on the main square, we ran off in various directions to broadcast the news. Our families did not believe us at first, as it seemed quite unimaginable, but very soon everyone had headed down to the main square.

    No one could understand what was going on in the city, nor could they decipher the hidden significance of this furious outpouring of goats. Each observer interpreted it in his own fashion.

    For some, the goats portended a "white counter-revolution." For others, their arrival was the consequence of the "reaction of the country people to the creation of the compulsory co-operatives." For still others, "Stalin had his fingers in the pie."

    Many townspeople had now squeezed themselves into the square among the herders. When the latter had calmed down, the Chairman of the Executive Committee turned to Changa and spoke in a pensive and calming tone:

    "We had expected you to arrive earlier. Trucks were made ready to move you into town. How did you get here?"

    "We came by foot because of the goats. There was no room for them in the trucks, and we certainly did not want to leave without them," responded Changa.

    "I see, I see," retorted the chairman with a worried look on his face. "But what in God's name are you going to do now with all these goats? Are you going to sell them, or slaughter them or what?"

    Changa bristled when he heard this. His first impulse was to throw himself at the chairman and seize him by the neck, but he controlled himself. The same sentiment of indignation was felt by the men around them and then by all the herders - children, women and old people. The white masses snorted and stirred in disagreement, rising up as if to put the right words into Changa's mouth.

    "The goats are part of our families and our lives. Without them we would not be ourselves. With them we feel strong. If we didn't have our goats..."

    "I understand, I understand...," interrupted the chairman in a conciliatory tone.

    "No, you can't possibly understand what the goats mean to us! But you will soon see the benefit they will bring to the whole town," uttered Changa, ensuring that he was making his views known.

    On hearing Changa's words, the Party Secretary shook his head in a gesture of suspicion and threat. He wanted to add something, something peremptory, but backed down. Changa took advantage of the Secretary's silence and continued:

    "Have you noticed, honourable citizens, how strong and healthy our children are with their ruddy cheeks? They are so different from the pale, sickly and ill-fed children in this town of yours. Each of our children was raised by a goat. They survived and live in company with their saviours. Our children have their mothers who gave birth to them, but they also have the goats who kept them alive."

    The Party Secretary and the Chairman of the Committee exchanged helpless glances. Changa was the sort of person who called a spade a spade.

    The words of the herder, mused the Secretary, were not at all in accord with Party norms. If anyone else had ever spoken out like that, or contradicted him - even in the gentlest of terms - he would have paid dearly. That person would have been told where his place was, and so would everyone else. Speaking publicly about the regime, the Party, social classes and socialism, even in reserved terms, was unimaginable for the simple people of the capital.

    In an attempt to restore his battered authority in front of his subordinates, the Party Secretary turned to Changa, speaking in a moderate tone, but loudly so that the other herders could hear:

    "We are constructing socialism, which will lead us to communism and a classless society. This means that our new factories, roads and bridges can only be built if we are united, if we join forces as workers and peasants. We need heavy industry. We do not have enough dams and hydroelectric stations. Our cities have not yet recovered. We do not have enough apartment buildings to house all the people. As to the existing houses, they are far too small because they were built for families with few children."

    The Party Secretary fell silent for a moment to see what effect his words were having. Then, encouraged by the silence, he continued:

    "It was with great difficulty that we managed to find accommodation for you. We have built barracks. We have only just managed to shelter you. But you have now overwhelmed us with all of these goats of yours! How are we supposed to advance on the road of socialism with these goats?"

    The herders had already foreseen such opposition, and Changa interrupted the Secretary categorically:

    "Without our goats we will not take a single step on the road to socialism. We will stay here where we are. But we are ready to depart with them and go back where we came from. As I said, we succeeded in getting through fascism with them so I don't think this socialism of yours will be much of a problem for us."

    The Party Secretary murmured something to himself and fell silent. He did not wish to continue the discussion. He needed instructions. He did not want to lose any more of his authority which had been so evidently shaken by the herders.

    The Chairman of the Executive Committee was an elderly gentleman, conscious of the limitations of his power. When he was with the Party Secretary, he usually let the latter take the lead; but this time, he understood that it was his job to take the initiative and that he had to do so immediately. The government directives, which were in full accord with Party directives, were crystal clear. The city was obliged to take in the herders and was not to allow them to return to the mountains. Otherwise, there would be a disaster. Consequently, the herders and their families were to be given accommodation and, since the situation had developed as it had, this could only be accomplished by retaining the goats. Such was to be the policy.

    The Chairman of the Executive Committee reflected on the "personal responsibility" he would bear if the herders returned to the mountains, and gave the Party Secretary a sharp glance. The two understood one another immediately.

    The Party Secretary knew that his instructions were confidential. They were stored in the large safe in his office, together with his revolver. They were clear and there was no way of getting around them. The Chairman understood this, too, when he broke the silence, pleading:

    "Let's leave the discussions for later. We must come to some sort of agreement. Let us deal with the practical problems at hand. You herders are aware that the apartments we have for you are small. There are few rooms in them. We have foreseen one room per family. To be precise, I don't know how you can possibly fit the goats in. We could perhaps keep them on some of the unfinished premises in the industrial zone or in the pens of neighbouring co-operatives..."

    The Chairman thought to himself, trying to find other options for the goats, but Changa interrupted him once again.

    "We are prepared to share our rooms with the goats, any rooms you may give us. The children are used them. They sleep beside them in the winter to keep warm. The women and old people do the same."

    The Chairman took the Party Secretary aside, ignoring the further reasoning of the herdsman. It was evident that neither he nor the other herders would give way.

    The Party Secretary was furious but maintained his decorum. He understood the possible consequences of the instructions for his career and feared the wrath of all those whom he had dressed down since taking power, and there were many of them. Up to that moment he had never encountered such virulent resistance, neither as a commissar during the war, nor as the number one man in town after the Liberation. In this decisive moment of his career, he had lost control and was obliged to hand the initiative to the Chairman. To make matters worse, Changa had gotten the best of him, but the latter would pay for his insolence when the time was ripe! If only these damned instructions had never been issued!

    When he had recovered himself, he was reminded that the instructions referred to the herders and not to the goats, but he had no courage to embark upon further fruitless discussion with the herders because this would lead nowhere. Yes, the instructions referred only to the herders, and not to that devilish mass of white which was on the point of destroying his career. He realized it was better to hold his tongue in order not to damage his authority any further. In particular, he considered convoking the Politburo of the municipal Party Committee - more than anything to ensure that it share all responsibilities with him. But there was no time for that, and what was more, he was not sure if this would achieve anything. Of course, there were the armed forces and the police; but to send them in, he would have to arrange for urgent consultations with all the levels of government in the Republic. He was hesitant to take such a step and, not seeing any other solution, he left the matter in the hands of the Chairman of the Executive Committee.

    Night fell slowly on the town. Lanterns were being lit in the fortress. The herders and their goats stayed put. The children fed the animals the final withered leaves they had gathered en route.

    The Party Secretary and the Chairman convoked a meeting of the heads of the concerned departments in the municipal administration. An interim decision was taken to accommodate the herders and their goats for the time being in the foreseen houses and apartments and to wait for further instructions from the upper echelon of the Party. All those present were convinced, and expressed their convictions thereof more than once, that the herders would give up their animals as soon as they realized what fate was awaiting them.

    Later that evening, the Party Secretary and the Chairman of the Executive Committee returned to the main square with their assistants to inform Changa and the other herders of the decision that had been taken. They were permitted to reside temporarily with their goats in the accommodation that had been set aside for them by the municipal authorities.

    The smaller children were already sound asleep on the ground among the goats, keeping warm against their flanks. Mothers, relieved to see their children sleeping, were making dinner with the scraps of food that they had carried with them.

    But suddenly there was a great commotion!

    The herders began celebrating their first victory in the capital. They struck up a revolutionary hymn. There arose a refrain in which goats were mentioned. Shaken from their sleep, the children took fright and began to whine. Shouts of joy and triumph blended with their whimpering and the bleating of the goats.

    The white convoys receded, making their way back through the streets of the town where they disappeared into a multitude of empty houses.

[Extract from Koha e dhive (Skopje: Logos-A, 2004), p.13-33. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]