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Robert Elsie
Albanian Literature

Albanian Authors



Ornela VORPSI, 2007 (Photo: Corinne Stoll).

Ornela VORPSI, 2007
(Photo: Corinne Stoll).





    Albania is a country where no one ever dies. Fortified by long hours at the dinner table, irrigated by raki and disinfected by the hot peppers in the ubiquitous fat olives, bodies in this country are so robust that nothing can destroy them.
     Spines are made of iron. You can do whatever you want with them. If they crack, you can repair them. Hearts for their part can be saturated in fat, suffer necrosis, an infarct, thrombosis or whatever, but will beat on heroically. We are in Albania, and let there be no doubt about it.

    This country where no one ever dies is made of clay and dust. It is scorched by the sun to the point that even the leaves of the grapevines grow rusty and minds begin to melt. This has one, I fear, inevitable side effect: megalomania, a condition which sprouts like weeds in this environment. Another consequence is an absence of fear, although this may be caused by people's distorted and flattened craniums - the seat of indifference, or of a downright lack of conscience.
     The word fear has no meaning here. Look an Albanian in the eye and you can tell right away that he's immortal. Death is something that has nothing to do with him.

    Morning raises its head at five o'clock in the summer. At seven, the old people are already having their first coffee. The young people sleep in until noon. God decreed that time in this country should be spent as agreeably as possible, like a sip of strong espresso on the terrace of a café around the corner as you stare at a good pair of legs on a girl who doesn't deign to look back at you.
     The steaming coffee seeps slowly down your throat, warming your tongue, heart and guts. Life, after all, is not as bad as they say. You savour the bitter black liquid as the barkeeper, who has just had a fight with her husband, gives you a ferocious glance.
     It's eleven thirty. Thank God you still have the whole day ahead of you, and lots of time to waste. There are all sorts of things you could do, thousands of them. Dusk is nowhere in sight.
     Suddenly, Xifo comes in rubbing her chapped hands and expounding for the umpteenth time on her traumatised heart and liver, as if it were a legend that had nothing to do with her. As if it were something very important, but far away. Everything seems exaggerated and distorted. And then, in a low conspiratorial voice, she adds:
     "Have you heard the news? Our neighbour, you know, Suzi's father, died in the shower last night. He came home from work, had dinner, took a shower and kicked the bucket."
     "You're kidding! He was so young, poor guy!"
     "Well, what can you do? Life is full of surprises."

    As you can see, it is the others who die.

    This is the way life goes by in a country in which everything is eternal (with the exception of things that happen to other people). But there are things that are even closer to these people than death. It's no exaggeration to state that one of these things is the quintessence of their existence.
     I'm referring to fornication.
     It is a subject they delight in. Their hearts are set aflame (although they can actually ignite over nothing at all). They are completely absorbed and begin to hallucinate, young and old, educated and illiterate.
     Certain maxims arise quite naturally in the way of thinking of a people. They grow like leaves on a tree. These maxims derive from one universally held supposition: a good-looking girl is a whore, an ugly one - poor thing - is not.
     In this country, a girl has to pay particular attention to her immaculate flower. A man can wash with a bar of soap and be clean, but a girl can never be purified, no matter how much water she uses - a whole ocean's worth.

    Whenever a husband is away on business or is in prison, people remind his wife that it would be a good idea for her to sew up the crack, to convince him that she has waited for him alone because she has missed him so much and his absence has shrunk the space between her thighs (in this country, men have a highly developed sense of private property).
     Whenever a pretty girl passes by, muffled sighs rise from the terrace where the men are sitting around and enjoying the day, sighs that are steamier than the coffee.
     "Look who's going by!"
     "You're not serious, are you? Do you know how often she's had herself stitched and unstitched?"
     And they go on nostalgically:
     "Oh, Ingrid, my Ingrid! Who was it that broke the stitches between your sweet hot thighs last night? Come on over here, my beauty. When we're finished, I'll give you the money to have yourself stitched up again."
     Their stares penetrate you on the street as if your being were transparent. As soon as a stare has penetrated you, it transfixes you forever.

    At home, it's the same story. "Don't worry now," says my aunt, "we'll take you to the doctor's to find out if you're a virgin or not."

    Her menacing glace lacerates me as she spits the words from between her teeth, and though I'm only thirteen and haven't even seen what men have in their trousers (a secret which has something to do with the fornication), I already have the feeling that I'm a perfect whore. The stare of my aunt causes me to blush.
     Stiff with fear, I crawl into bed, thinking: "What if they do send me to the doctor's and he finds out that I wasn't born a virgin, like those children born with missing hands, blind, deaf or, worse still, without an innate devotion to the Party?"
     I'm overcome by sleep as I silently beg my aunt to accept the tragic fate that has befallen our family. "I swear, auntie, I swear I haven't done anything wrong. That is the way I was born. Believe me! I swear it!"

    In this country, in which no one dies, my aunt is no exception. She doesn't die either.

    I had a recurrent dream (which I never told anyone about). Before I fell asleep, with my eyes half open, I had a vision of her funeral.
     I saw myself wearing a black scarf (a nice lace shawl would have suited me better), draped around my neck as Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina would have worn it. Of course I was pale and wept a lot because I did love her, yet my desire to escape her and her outbursts of anger which were always directed at me, was simply too great.
     As I had grown up without a father and was apparently not bad-looking, I was very soon confronted with the said subject of fornication.
     "Some day, you're going to turn into a big whore, ya... ya!" The voices of my aunt and my cousin always quivered, as if they meant to say: "Come on, we know all about you." They would shake their heads. "There's nothing we can do about it. We didn't choose to have you. We'll swallow the shame of it all like bread. What else can we do? One day, you are going to come home with a swollen belly."
     My aunt and my cousin put on a mournful expression, as if at that very moment they were being forced to swallow the shame-filled sandwich, while my grandfather silently rolled himself a cigarette.

    The thought of the swollen belly was terrifying. Do you know the paintings of Bosch? The anguish and folly on the faces, and the bodies of the fallen, pressed together, like souls in hell? I could see it clearly. A brownish, dark-red belly brimming with scraps of organic refuse, and me as its container. You can't hide a swollen belly, and you can't crawl out of your skin. You are marked. The swollen belly means that you've been screwing around in the bushes (from my aunt and cousin I had learned that fornication took place in the bushes, apparently the ideal venue for such anonymous undertakings). It meant that you were feeding the worms of shame, nourishing an embryo that was to disfigure your body and make it obvious to everyone that you had been screwing around.
     Even today, this vision pursues me. A pregnant woman is one who has been screwing around in the bushes.

    What a longing for tragedy they had! My whole wonderful country thirsted for tragedy! It created them out of nothing, just as God created us from a handful of dust.

    Whenever I was sick, everyone would make a fuss over me. They would come into my room and whisper "my dear" and when they went back out, they murmured "poor thing."
     They would prepare delicious foods for me without ever considering the possibility that the illness might have robbed me of my appetite. I stared longingly at the pots of jam on the night table beside my bed. I exchanged loving glances with the meatballs, but the sight of such delicacies that made me nauseous and I had to look away.

    My mother, my grandmother and my aunt suddenly turned into the most affectionate people on God's earth and I was convinced that, with them at my side, and the solid predictions they were voicing, I would most certainly not succumb.
     I had a great time of it whenever I was sick. I wasn't scolded, didn't have to bake potatoes after school, and I could sleep in as long as I wanted. I didn't have to husk rice, grain by grain. There was no wood to be chopped and, for some reason, I was no longer a whore... until the day of my recovery, that accursed day when I had to get out of bed and on which the scolding and invectives would resume. I was once again a whore and the pots of jam vanished as a consolation prize to find their way to the bedsides of other sick children. You only get jam if you have one foot in the grave. Otherwise, forget it!

    In this dear land of ours, in which one never dies, in which bodies are as heavy as lead, we have an adage, a profound saying: "Live that I may hate you and die that I may mourn you."
     This adage is the lifeblood of our country. When you die, no one says another bad word about you. I would go so far as to say that they no longer even think badly of you. There is respect for the institution of death.
     (It's no easy task to gain the respect of an Albanian. It increases when you're on your deathbed, and when the struggle is over, you've finally won it.)
     All of a sudden, men are imbued with the best of qualities and women are exceptionally virtuous. They weep for you, lamenting about what a wonderful human being you were. All the wrath evaporates.
     I heard my aunt, with profound conviction and with prophecy in her trembling voice, use another maxim known to our country: "Your own people (meaning your blood relatives) will gobble up your flesh, but they will save the bones."
     I sensed that my country was in possession of a sublime truth.
     And indeed, my aunt's voice exuded sublime beauty.
     "Auntie," I said to her one day, "if they eat my flesh, they may as well throw away the bones. What good will they be?"
     She cast me a withering glance, turning me to ash. I became aware that I was not of the pedigree race of my mother, but was the result of an accident, that I resembled him. Her glance said to me: "Shut up, girl of that father!"

    I shut my mouth and could hardly wait to be sick again.

[From the novel Il Paese dove non si muore mai, Turin, Einaudi 2005. Translated by Robert Elsie]