Dritëro Agolli (b. 1931) is a writer who has had a far from negligible influence on the course of contemporary literature. He was head of the Albanian Union of Writers and Artists from the purge of Fadil Paçrami and Todi Lubonja at the Fourth Plenary Session in 1973 until 1992. Agolli was born to a peasant family in Menkulas in the Devoll region near Korça and finished secondary school in Gjirokastra in 1952. He later continued his studies at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Leningrad and took up journalism upon his return to Albania, working for the daily newspaper Zëri i Popullit (The People’s Voice) for fifteen years. Agolli not only served as president of the Writers’ Union from 1973 to his retirement on 31 January 1992, but was also a deputy in the People’s Assembly.
Agolli first attained success as a poet of the soil. His early verse collections Në rrugë dolla, Tirana 1958 (I went out on the street), Hapat e mija në asfalt, Tirana 1961 (My steps on the pavement), and Shtigje malesh dhe trotuare, Tirana 1965 (Mountain paths and sidewalks), introduced him to the reading public as a sincere and gifted lyric poet of the soil and demonstrated masterful verse technique. An attachment to his roots came to form the basis of his poetic credo.
Agolli delights in earthy rhymes and unusual figures of speech. His fresh, clear and direct verse, coloured with the warm foaming milk of brown cows in the agricultural co-operatives, with ears of ripening corn in the Devoll valley and with the dark furrows of tilled soil, has lost none of the bucolic focus which remained the poet’s strength, and one which he cultivates consciously.
Over the years, Agolli has advanced and managed to remain true to himself and to his readers despite the vicissitudes of public life. In the volume Pelegrini i vonuar, Tirana 1993 (The belated pilgrim), his first book ever written without an eye to the invisible censor, we encounter a new chapter, not only in the life of the poet, but also in the struggle of his people for survival. Agolli confesses in a postscript: "For poets of my generation, an age of disappointments and dilemmas has dawned, an age in which to re-evaluate what we produced, without forgetting or denying those fair and humane values we brought forth. But the fortress of ideas and ideals which we believed in, some of us completely, others partially, has all but collapsed, and in its walls burn the fires of our dreams. Those fires have awakened a different type of verse..."
Dritëro Agolli has been exceptionally productive in recent years, with numerous well-received verse collections: Lypësi i kohës, Tirana 1995 (The time beggar), Shpirti i gjyshërve, Tirana 1996 (The spirit of our forefathers), Vjen njeriu i çuditshëm, Tirana 1996 (The strange man approaches), Baladë për tim atë dhe për vete, Tirana 1997 (Ballad for my father and myself), Fletorka e mesnatës, Tirana 1998 (Midnight notebook), and Kambana e largët, Tirana 1998 (The distant bell).
As a prose writer, Agolli first made a name for himself with the novel Komisari Memo, Tirana 1970 (Commissar Memo), originally conceived as a short story. This didactic novel with a clear social and political message was translated into English as The bronze bust, Tirana 1975.
Agolli’s second novel, Njeriu me top, Tirana 1975 (The man with a cannon), translated into English as The man with the gun, Tirana 1983, takes up the partisan theme from a different angle and with a somewhat more subtle approach.
After these two rather conformist novels of partisan heroism, the standard theme encouraged by the party, Agolli produced a far more interesting work, his satirical Shkëlqimi dhe rënja e shokut Zylo, Tirana 1973 (The splendour and fall of comrade Zylo), which has proved to be his claim to fame. Comrade Zylo is the epitome of the well-meaning but incompetent apparatchik, director of an obscure government cultural affairs department. His pathetic vanity, his quixotic fervour, his grotesque public behaviour, in short his splendour and fall, are all recorded in ironic detail by his hard-working and more astute subordinate and friend Demkë who serves as a neutral observer. Comrade Zylo is a universal figure, a character to be found in any society or age, and critics have been quick to draw parallels ranging from Daniel Defoe and Nikolay Gogol’s Revizor to Franz Kafka and Milan Kundera’s Zert. But it is doubtless the Eastern European reader who will best appreciate all the subtleties of the novel. Shkëlqimi dhe rënja e shokut Zylo first appeared in 1972 in the Tirana satirical journal Hosteni (The goad) and was published the following year in monograph form.
All in all, Agolli’s strength in prose lies in the short story rather than in the novel. Sixteen of his short stories were published in English in the volume: Short stories, Tirana 1985. One early collection of tales, the 213-page Zhurma e ererave të dikurshme, Tirana 1964 (The noise of winds of the past), had the distinction of being banned and ‘turned into cardboard.’ The author was accused of Soviet revisionism at a time when the party had called for more (Maoist) revolutionary concepts in literature and greater devotion to the working masses.
Though Agolli was a leading figure in the communist nomenclature, he remained a highly respected pillar of public and literary life after the fall of the dictatorship, and is still one the most widely read authors in Albania. In the early 1990s, he was active for several years as a member of parliament for the Socialist Party of Albania. He also founded his own Dritëro Publishing Company by means of which he has been able to publish many new volumes of prose and poetry, and make a major impact on literary and intellectual life in the country. Among recent volumes of prose are: the short story collection Njerëz të krisur, Tirana 1995 (Insane people); the novels Kalorësi lakuriq, Tirana 1996 (The naked horseman) and in particular the volume Arka e djallit, Tirana 1997 (The devil’s box).
Dritëro Agolli has been a prolific writer throughout the nineties, a rare voice of humanity and sincerity in Albanian letters.