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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter IV. Aesthetic modernism and collective identities

We, the sons of the new age; the highlander recital

Millosh Gjergj Nikolla
Traduction de Robert Elsie

Texte intégral

1Title: Të birtë e shekullit të ri (We, the sons of the new age); Reçitali i Malcorit (The highlander recital)

2Originally published: in Migjeni, Vargje t’lira, Tirana, Ismail Mal. Osmani Botonjës, 1944

3Language: Albanian.

4The text used is from Migjeni, Free Verse. A bilingual edition, translation and introduction by Robert Elsie (Pejë: Dukagjini, 2001).

About the author

5Millosh Gjergj Nikolla (known under his literary acronym Migjeni) [1911, Shkodra (It. Scutari, Srb. Skadar) – 1938, Torre Pellice, near Turin]: writer and one of the most powerful poetical voices in interwar Albanian literature. Born to an Orthodox Christian family in which Serbo-Croatian was the dominant language, young Millosh first attended the Serbian primary school in Shkodra. In 1925 he was enrolled in a secondary school in Bitola (Gr. Monastiri, Tur. Manastır), where he studied Old Church Slavonic, Russian and Greek, as well as Latin and French. In 1927, he entered the seminary of St. John the Theologian, also in Bitola, where he studied until 1932. He became acquainted not only with the tradition of the Orthodox East, but also with the Western literary tradition. It was during this period that young Millosh started to suffer from tuberculosis. He abandoned priesthood and in 1932 began to work as a teacher in the primary school of Vrakë, a village nearby Shkodra inhabited entirely by Montenegrins. His literary debut was a short story entitled Sokrat i vuejtun a pod derr i kënaqun (Suffering Socrates or the contented pig), which was published in the monthly Illyria with the pseudonym Migjeni. The years he spent in Vrakë and Shkodra were formative for the young poet. He began to publish the first of his many path-breaking poems in Illyria. In the spring of 1936, he was transferred to the village of Puka in the hopes that the mountain air would improve his health. There, he experienced the misery of everyday life of the Albanian highlanders, a subject much favored by other authors of the epoch, such as Father Gjergj Fishta. It was during this period that he wrote most of his poems and some of his best short prose sketches, all of which were enthusiastically received. His first and only collection of poems was published in Tirana in 1936, but was immediately banned. In December 1937, already seriously ill, he left for Turin hoping to receive an appropriate medical treatment. His condition soon deteriorated, and he passed away in August 1938. His premature death only augmented his fame, especially among the young radical circles. It was due to this fascination that after the war, with the establishment of the communist regime, Migjeni was depicted as one of the precursors of socialist realism in Albanian literature. For the same reason, in the wake of the changes of 1989 and 1990, he lost his primacy within the Albanian literary canon. Nevertheless, his poetry is still recognized to be a milestone in the development of Albanian literature.

6Main works: Vepra [Works] (1988, 2006).


7Migjeni entered Albanian literature in one of its most crucial moments. During the preceding ‘National Awakening’ period, practically all Albanian literati lived within the diaspora (see Sami Frashëri, Albania, what it was, what is and what it will be). The social and political turmoil of the 1920s hindered all cultural activity in Albania. However, the political stability and relative economic progress of the early 1930s constituted a turning point. Parallel to heated discussions on social and cultural issues (see Branko Merxhani, The organization of the chaos), literature also had to face similar challenges.

8In the late 1920s, Albanian literature was still under the strong influence of patterns inherited from the earlier period, that is to say, Romantic in form and nationalist in content. These tendencies still prevailed during the 1930s, reaching their peak with the epic poem Lahuta e Malcis (The highland lute), the opus vitae of the Franciscan father Gjergj Fishta. However, already in the poems and comedies of Andon Zako (1866–1930), better known under his literary pseudonym Çajupi, realist and modernist motifs had emerged. Arguably, the most prominent prose writer of the period, Ernest Koliqi (1903–1975) elaborated on themes from the everyday life of northern Albania in his short stories. Under the influence of Italian writers, Koliqi broke away from the rather neo-romantic efforts typical of the 1920s. What Koliqi contributed to the development of prose in the northern (Gheg) Albanian dialect, Dhimiter Pasko (1907–1967), known better under his literary pseudonym Mitrush Kuteli, achieved for the southern (Tosk) dialect. Both of them introduced the oral forms of their native dialect to the exigencies of modern prose.

9Within this constellation of publicists, playwrights and writers, two poets, who were to become the leading figures of literary modernity in Albania, made an impressive and original appearance. These were Millosh Gjergj Nikolla and Llazar Gusho (1899–1987), known by his literary pseudonym Lasgush Poradeci. Poradeci’s poetry escapes any effort of definition with reference to standard poetic schools or trends. While portraying nature in panoramic fashion, he masterfully focuses on details, especially in the description of his small native town Pogradec and lake Ohrid (Alb. Ohër).

10Contrary to Poradeci’s poetry of human passion, Migjeni chose to reflect on human pain. During the communist period, Migjeni’s poetry was interpreted in the context of revolutionary poetry, and was conceived to be ideologically leftist, foreshadowing the revolutionary transformation following the Second World War. This allowed literary historians of the epoch to see Migjeni as a precursor of socialist realism, especially with reference to such poems as Të birtë e shekullit të ri (We, the sons of the new age) and Kânga e rinís (Song of the youth). But other critics, consider Migjeni’s poems to be modernist to the heart, as indicated in the very title of his sole published volume, Vargje t’lira (Free verses), and argue that they are informed by an individualism that draws upon the modern human condition. His call for social justice is not the voice of the masses, but the voice of a desperate human being envisioning the advent of a Nietzschean super-man, a theme especially evident in the Reçitali i malsorit (The highlander recital) or Trajtat e mbinjeriut (The forms of the super-man). Similar to Branko Merxhani’s writings, Migjeni embraced the vitalist philosophical trends and wished to portray Albanian realities through them.

11Although he had received religious education in Catholic and Muslim Shkodra, and Orthodox Bitola, Migjeni eventually rejected both the idea of God and the Church. As presented in the poem Parathanje e parathanjeve (Preface of prefaces), for Migjeni God remained distant from everyday life, in complete obscurity. No help can be expected from God, says Migjeni, because He has abandoned this world. The hypocrisy of religious hierarchs was another central theme in his poetry, especially in such poems as Blasfemi (Blasphemy) and Kânga skandaloze (Scandalous song). Contrary to the erotic poetry of Poradeci, Migjeni expressed his erotic desires only in few poems, but in a highly symbolic manner. It is the misery of everyday life that predominates the overall mood, as exemplified by his powerful Poema e Mjerimit (Poem of poverty). No other Albanian poet ever spoke with such a potent voice.

12Following the fall of the communist regime in Albania, Migjeni’s poetry became a target of criticism. His fall from grace can be linked to the prominent position he held in the communist literary canon. However, an even more politically controversial issue was Migjeni’s Orthodox Serbian background. Some nationalist publicists have gone so far as to deny his ‘Albanianness.’ However, such opinions were decisively rebutted by critics and historians of literature who believe that Migjeni remains an Albanian poet simply because he wrote only in Albanian. What is needed is not a redefinition of his place in the Albanian literary canon, something which is not to be disputed, but rather a critical re-assessment of Migjeni’s literary work.


We, the sons of the new age

We, the sons of a new age,
Leaving the old to its “sanctity,”
Have clenched our fists
To fight new battles
And triumph…
We, the sons of a new age,
Scions of a soil drenched in tears
Where the sweat of our brows has been shed in vain,
For our land was the prey of foreigners
Whose fury had to be paid for dearly,
We, the sons of a new age,
Brothers born and raised in misery,
When our ultimate and joyful hour
Rang out We learned to say:
We will not be lost
In the bloody game of human history,
No! no! We will not be forever lost.
We will have victory!
Victory of conscience and free thought!
Nor will we, for the sake of the degenerates
Of the past in search of their “sanctity,”
Wallow again into a mire of misery
And return once more to our sad lament,
Our monotonous lifeless lament of bondage,
And be but an irritation in the human brain.
We, the sons of a new age,
With our all-consuming ardour,
Will take up new battles
And sacrifice ourselves for victory.

The highlander recital

Oh, had I but a fist with the might
To strike at the heart of the mute mountain!
So that it too might know what weakness means,
And writhe like a giant in the pains of death.
Like a phantom, some muddled spirit,
Heir to suffering and hardship,
Do I roam the mountainside, kept away by hunger,
And moan with the unrequited pangs of instinct.
The mountain is silent, though each day
On its skin, in a terrible gamble
I strive to find a mouthful more,
Though midst mockery, lies and treacherous hopes.
The mountain is silent—and in silence derides.
I suffer—I am dying of starvation,
What of me? When will it be my turn to laugh?
Or must I first perish?
Oh, had I but a fist with the might
To strike at the heart of the mute mountain!
To see it reel from my illegal blow…
And to be the one to laugh serene.

14Translated by Robert Elsie in Migjeni, Free Verse. A bilingual edition, translation and introduction by R. Elsie (Pejë: Dukagjini, 2001).


Robert Elsie (Traducteur)

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