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Writing Europe

Ursula Keller

Between the Local and the Universal

Fatos Lubonja
Traduction de John Hodgson

Texte intégral

Ky lloj konceptimi thjeshtë si dëshmitar i rolit të
intelektualit të vendeve të vogla në nivel kontinenti, kjo
rezistencë e Evropës për t’i pranuar edhe si shkrimtarë
evropianë shkrimtarët e vendeve të vogla nuk ka mbetur
pa lënë gjurmë alienuese në procesin krijues të

1When trying to answer the question, “What is European in my work?” my mind goes back to Burrel Prison, where I wrote my first novel, The Final Slaughter, between 1988 and 1991, and to the diary I kept during my last year in prison, in 1990–1991, later published as In the Seventeenth Year.

2I cannot think of Burrel Prison without seeing in my mind’s eye the rectangular cell in which I spent the final years of my imprisonment with eight, nine, or sometimes ten fellow inmates, accord­ing to circumstances. It had a row of beds placed on a wooden platform leaning against one wall, a narrow passage between this platform and the opposite wall, a slanting outside wall with a window and an iron grille, so high that nobody could see out of it, and in the slanting inside wall a door that opened only a few times a day, with a spy hole kept almost always open. A prisoner spent twenty-two of twenty-four hours on his bed or in the passageway, walking up and down the narrow gap to stretch his legs, and only two hours in the prison yard for fresh air. He spent most of his waking hours with his backside to the straw mattress, which was so narrow that you often bumped elbows with your neighbor. To sit more comfortably he would position the pillow between his back and the cold wall, drawing his knees up to his chest, wrapped in blankets, especially in winter.

3In a life of this kind the most commonplace reality coexisted with the highest ideals: physical survival, with a bent aluminum food dish, cigarettes rolled with bad tobacco, and piss pots in the corner of the room went with dreams, love, and the most fantastic ambitions. A prison poet described it in this way:

I wake at dusk to a gnawing belly
And soon chew on memories
That rise in my gorge and I cannot keep down;

I wrap myself in forgetfulness and my blood boils
I stretch my limbs and cover my desires
And the lamp of dreams glows all night

  • 1 Gjergj Peçi, Rage (Tirana: Përpjekja Publications, 2000).


4Time underwent strange distortions under the pressure of this kind of existence. The extreme monotony, with one day exactly like the next, and the absence of any sense of the present, meant that the past shrank into a short space and the future stretched out endlessly. Everything belonging to the past, both historical and personal, seemed to draw very close. This was because stories that had been regurgitated again and again in conversation, reading, or in the revolving mind became vivid, intimate, and part of your life, taking the place of all kinds of routine matters that fill the “normal” life of a free man. So the distant past of Socrates’ Athens or Nero’s Rome became very immediate. The Crucifixion of Christ and the monks copying manuscripts in the monasteries of the Middle Ages drew very near in time to each other and to you. The Renaissance was still closer. It was as if you had lived through the French Revolution yourself, with the execution of the king, and Danton saying to himself before the guillotine, “Don’t flinch!” World War II, with the victory of the Allies and the Communist defeat of the nationalists in Albania, seemed to have ended yesterday. The same compression of time affected personal memories from childhood, school, marriage, the birth of your children, and your arrest: all these seemed part of a two-hour movie. Then came your years in prison, which shrank to a few moments. On the other hand, the future stretched ahead without end. A century would have to pass before your next meeting with your family, and the year of your release lay beyond your own death. It was like the opposite of time in a spacecraft traveling at the speed of light.

5Something similar happened to geographical space. The longer you spent in isolation, the more meaningless the geographical borders of states became. A prisoner increasingly felt like a citizen of the world, living more and more in other civilizations, beyond the Adriatic, beyond the Atlantic, or beyond the Indian Ocean, while Albania grew smaller and smaller.

6Then there would come a moment when the prisoner’s mind stopped, and he would find himself at a still point in the very center of the globe, in hell.

Suddenly the globe stands still
Gathers its burden and slips into the abyss
Sound is caught short and shuns its echo
And the world speaks to me wordlessly, as if under water.

  • 2 ibid.

(The Globe)2

7I see myself poised between this sense of the universal, a citizen of the world and of all ages, and this point where I sit transfixed, my legs wrapped in blankets and my back against the wall, a notebook and pencil in my hands, writing The Final Slaughter and the diary that was later called In the Seventeenth Year.

The Final Slaughter

8At the time when I was writing The Final Slaughter and In the Seventeenth Year, my conception of art was nourished by the idea that a work of merely local significance is just as inadequate as one that is purely universal; that is, if a piece is to be really good it must be both local and universal. What I want to say by describing the maturation and subsequent fate of these two books of mine concerns the local and the universal, which I would interpret as the Albanian and the European. Certain thoughts have also come to me on this subject during the years since I disembarked from this “spacecraft” of prison.

9The creative germ of The Final Slaughter lay in a problem that had preoccupied me for years during my long incarceration: Why was it that the ruling Communists, after they had seen that their idea had failed, did not resign, but clung to power and persisted in their crimes? This was a question of particular relevance to Albania up to 1990, because Albania experienced no de-Stalinization, no thaw, and no perestroika, but on the contrary, only increasing Stalinist terror.

10In order to express this concern, I chose my material from perhaps the most universal source with which my background had supplied me: the Greek mythology that, as I have said, felt so much a part of me at the “center of the world” where I found myself. Taking as my point of departure Sophocles’ drama in which Oedipus, once he discovers from the Delphic oracle that he is the cause of the curse of Thebes, surrenders his rule, gouges out his eyes, and is left abandoned and banished by the Thebans, I had the idea of recreating the myth of Thebes and of Oedipus, but taking it in the opposite direction. In short, this is the story of the novel:

11The rain that lashed men into fury (a symbol I created myself) first waters the dragon’s teeth that Cadmus has sown, feeding and bringing forth from the earth the children of the Dragon, who are the citizens of Thebes (the creation myth of Thebes). This rain sometimes falls on Thebes, and the Thebans, drinking the water that floods over everything, are transformed into beasts, turning against each other, murdering and tearing one another to pieces. Meanwhile the rain also brings the Sphinx, who announces that only the solving of his riddles will save the city from the curses and periodical bloody disasters that the rain causes. But the solutions offered to the Thebans as their salvation turn out to be nothing but myths that are sooner or later exploded. The solution that my Oedipus offers to the riddle of the sphinx is also of this kind. And so Thebes falls under a new curse. My Oedipus becomes aware of this; he knows that he brought about the curse by murdering his father and sleeping with his mother, that he has given a wrong answer to the riddles of the Sphinx, and that his continued rule will merely perpetuate the general curse. Yet, unlike the Oedipus of Sophocles, he does not surrender his rule, but on the contrary embarks on a policy of terror in order to retain power, liquidating anyone who reveals the truth.

12The power-hungry Oedipus of this story is different from Sophocles’ Oedipus in another way as well. The absence during the first year of his infancy of any relation with his mother, the strong affective tie that defines and, indeed, according to one psychoanalytic view, determines a person’s emotional disposition throughout life, has created a dark void in his soul that generates only hatred, a desire for destruction, pleasure in violence, and the degradation of others as a pleasure in itself: in other words, the traits of a tyrannical character. Thus, in the Oedipus of this story, incest and a tyrannical predisposition fit together.

13The novel ends with the noise of the wings of the approaching Sphinx, implying that the rain of fury is about to fall again. But Oedipus does not end up banished by the citizens of Thebes, persecuted and lonely, as in Sophocles’ drama. His destiny is to rule in solitude over a devastated Thebes, imagining himself as a cursed God, who will die as soon as the rain begins. After his orgy of mur-der, he is surrounded only by the corpses, not only of the sons of the Dragon, but of his other more recent adversaries, including even his closest supporters and most loyal guards. It is worth mentioning here Elias Canetti’s idea, upon which Leonardo Sasha has commented, that a dictator, deep down, seeks to resemble God, so that his ego envelopes the entire world at the expense of the existence of other egos: thus a dictator’s ultimate dream is to create and rule over a world without people. However, this is impossible because he would not have anybody to rule over, and so he tries to create a world without individuals.

14The Final Slaughter was also written as a prophecy of what would happen after the fall of Communism.

In the Seventeenth Year

15A prisoner sometimes lived his real life in parallel with the ideal world and sometimes inextricably entwined with it. His life con­sisted of three types of daily struggle: against the government; against other prisoners; and against himself. A prisoner could never win against all three simultaneously. Most often, he would win one struggle and lose the other two.

16In the Seventeenth Year is a prison diary about these three struggles, a description of a prisoner’s daily life and his prison memories. It depicts the prisoners’ relations among themselves, with the guards, the soldiers in the watchtowers that kept them under surveillance, their family letters and family meetings. It also describes the events of the fall of Communism in Albania in 1990– 1991 as experienced in prison. One climactic day is February 21, 1991, when the student demonstrations in Tirana toppled the statue of the dictator Enver Hoxha, who had inspired The Final Slaughter. The diary ends with my release on March 17, 1991.

Prophet, Judge, Witness

17Both books were published in Albania in 1994, after the fall of Communism.

18The book I liked best was certainly The Final Slaughter, to which I had devoted so much effort. I had even done research into the language, finding archaic Albanian words to create a sense of timelessness. I loved it so much that after writing it in prison, I copied the whole of it on cigarette papers to hide it from a possible search by the guards. I claimed, as I still do today, that this work was not a simple allegory, but the kind of work of art that might be called an “open parable,” which can be interpreted or decoded from the language of symbol to the language of ideas in many, almost infinite, ways. In other words, it was a myth with possible resonances of countless universal meanings, viewing the human world through the perspective of psychological and metaphysical symbolism.

19I loved this book because I had created it with the idea that it was written by a writer who was a citizen of the world as much as of Albania, who had lived through the year 2500 in time, and had inhabited the entire world in space.

20But when these works were published, both in Albania and abroad, their fate was different from that which I had anticipated. The Final Slaughter was passed over almost in silence, while the diary had a lot of success in Albania, and was published, unabridged, in Italy, with excerpts published in other countries as well.

21Regardless of whether The Final Slaughter indeed has the merits I ascribe to it, its failure and the simultaneous success of the diary, by the same author, are not unrelated to a continental shift in the conception of the role of the writer in small countries and of socalled minor literatures as compared to that of so-called European or Western writers of the major literatures of major countries — a shift that, in my opinion, threatens to distort the nature of creativity.

22I can explain this idea most clearly by telling a story from a meeting that took place in Budapest in the middle ‘90s on the subject of intellectuals of the East and West. There the Hungarian phi­losopher, Gáspár Miklós Tamás, told a joke. Talking about the role of the intellectual, he said:

Now let me tell you what the three roles of the intellectual are:
First, the prophet, who creates and spreads visions of the future, etc., etc.;
Second, the judge, who judges his time, history, reality, etc., etc.;
Third, the witness, who bears witness to his time ...

23So, Tamás continued, these Westerners have taken upon them­selves the two main roles of prophet and judge, leaving only one role to us of the East, that of witness.

24This provocative joke also expresses my understanding of the success of the diary, a work that attempts, above all, to bear witness, and the failure of The Final Slaughter. The cause lies in the conception, common throughout the continent, that gives the intellectual in small countries only the role of bearing witness. The reluctance of Europe to accept writers from small countries — here I refer mainly to the experience of my own country — as European writers has had a certain alienating effect on the creative process in literature. The great aspiration to transcend the borders of their own country has led some writers to concentrate on local exotica without any universal dimension. It has led others, especially the young, to the universal, without any local characteristics.

25Recalling his conversations with Goethe, Eckermann describes how the German poet read a book about China. Goethe said that he started the book, imagining that he would be delighted and amazed by the exoticism of the Chinese world. Yet, in fact, what surprised him was not the difference, but the similarity between his own world and China. He then advocated the translation of books and cultural exchange. Two centuries later, perhaps more than ever in this era of globalization, this idea of the Enlightenment is fraught with the danger that what is called Western culture might impose its own methods and assimilate other cultures. On the other hand, also implicit in this idea is the demand that cultures should not be of merely local interest, but that their modes of thinking and their truths should also be universal and accessible to the peoples of the greatest diversity in order that every human creature might be able to understand himself through them. Nobody feels this contradiction more acutely than the writer, who seeks less to resolve it than to experience it in the creative process.


Further Reading:
“Neocolonialism and Responsibility. The Western Presence in the Balkans” and “Re-Inventing Skenderbeg.
Albanian Nationalism and NATO Neo-colonialism.”http://www.eurozine.comT1">.” Translated John Hodgson.


1 Gjergj Peçi, Rage (Tirana: Përpjekja Publications, 2000).

2 ibid.

Table des illustrations

Fichier image/jpeg, 223k


Born in Tirana in 1951, Fatos Lubonja, who was called Albania’s Václav Havel by the New York Times in 1997, is one of the most highly reported independent writers of Albania. His penetrating analyses are much noted both at home and abroad. Under the communist regime, he spent seventeen years as a political prisoner in detention centers and work camps. He has recorded his experiences in autobiographical stories and the novel Ridënimi (Second Judgement). Lubonja is publisher of the literary journal Përpjekja, which he founded in 1994. He lives and works in Tirana.

John Hodgson (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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