On his return to Shkodra in 1932, after failing to win a scholarship to study in the ‘wonderful West,’ he decided to take up a teaching career rather than join the priesthood for which he had been trained. On 23 April 1933, he was appointed teacher of Albanian at a school in the Serb village of Vraka, seven kilometres from Shkodra. It was during this period that he also began writing prose sketches and verse which reflect the life and anguish of an intellectual in what certainly was and has remained the most backward region of Europe. In May 1934 his first short prose piece, Sokrat i vuejtun a po derr i kënaqun (Suffering Socrates or the satisfied pig), was published in the periodical Illyria, under his new pen name Migjeni, an acronym of Millosh Gjergj Nikolla. Soon though, in the summer of 1935, the twenty-three-year-old Migjeni fell seriously ill with tuberculosis, which he had contracted earlier. He journeyed to Athens in July of that year in hope of obtaining treatment for the disease which was endemic on the marshy coastal plains of Albania at the time, but returned to Shkodra a month later with no improvement in his condition. In the autumn of 1935, he transferred for a year to a school in Shkodra itself and, again in the periodical Illyria, began publishing his first epoch-making poems.
In a letter of 12 January 1936 written to translator Skënder Luarasi (1900-1982) in Tirana, Migjeni announced, "I am about to send my songs to press. Since, while you were here, you promised that you would take charge of speaking to some publisher, ‘Gutemberg’ for instance, I would now like to remind you of this promise, informing you that I am ready." Two days later, Migjeni received the transfer he had earlier requested to the mountain village of Puka and on 18 April 1936 began his activities as the headmaster of the run-down school there.
The clear mountain air did him some good, but the poverty and misery of the mountain tribes in and around Puka were even more overwhelming than that which he had experienced among the inhabitants of the coastal plain. Many of the children came to school barefoot and hungry, and teaching was interrupted for long periods of time because of outbreaks of contagious diseases, such as measles and mumps. After eighteen hard months in the mountains, the consumptive poet was obliged to put an end to his career as a teacher and as a writer, and to seek medical treatment in Turin in northern Italy where his sister Ollga was studying mathematics. He set out from Shkodra on 20 December 1937 and arrived in Turin before Christmas day. There he had hoped, after recovery, to register and study at the Faculty of Arts. The breakthrough in the treatment of tuberculosis, however, was to come a decade too late for Migjeni. After five months at San Luigi sanatorium near Turin, Migjeni was transferred to the Waldensian hospital in Torre Pellice where he died on 26 August 1938. His demise at the age of twenty-six was a tragic loss for modern Albanian letters.
Migjeni made a promising start as a prose writer. He is the author of about twenty-four short prose sketches which he published in periodicals for the most part between the spring of 1933 and the spring of 1938. Ranging from one to five pages in length, these pieces are too short to constitute tales or short stories. Although he approached new themes with unprecedented cynicism and force, his sketches cannot all be considered great works of art from a literary point of view.
It is thus far more as a poet that Migjeni made his mark on Albanian literature and culture, though he did so posthumously. He possessed all the prerequisites for being a great poet. He had an inquisitive mind, a depressive pessimistic nature and a repressed sexuality. Though his verse production was no more voluminous than his prose, his success in the field of poetry was no less than spectacular in Albania at the time.
Migjeni’s only volume of verse, Vargjet e lira, Tirana 1944 (Free verse), was composed over a three-year period from 1933 to 1935. A first edition of this slender and yet revolutionary collection, a total of thirty-five poems, was printed by the Gutemberg Press in Tirana in 1936 but was immediately banned by the authorities and never circulated. The second edition of 1944, undertaken by scholar Kostaç Cipo (1892-1952) and the poet’s sister Ollga, was more successful. It nonetheless omitted two poems, Parathanja e parathanjeve (Preface of prefaces) and Blasfemi (Blasphemy), which the publisher, Ismail Mal’Osmani, felt might offend the Church. The 1944 edition did, however, include eight other poems composed after the first edition had already gone to press.
The main theme of ‘Free verse,’ as with Migjeni’s prose, is misery and suffering. It is a poetry of acute social awareness and despair. Previous generations of poets had sung the beauties of the Albanian mountains and the sacred traditions of the nation, whereas Migjeni now opened his eyes to the harsh realities of life, to the appalling level of misery, disease and poverty he discovered all around him. He was a poet of despair who saw no way out, who cherished no hope that anything but death could put an end to suffering. "I suffer with the child whose father cannot buy him a toy. I suffer with the young man who burns with unslaked sexual desire. I suffer with the middle-aged man drowning in the apathy of life. I suffer with the old man who trembles at the prospect of death. I suffer with the peasant struggling with the soil. I suffer with the worker crushed by iron. I suffer with the sick suffering from all the diseases of the world... I suffer with man." Typical of the suffering and of the futility of human endeavour for Migjeni is Rezignata (Resignation), a poem in the longest cycle of the collection, Kangët e mjerimit (Songs of poverty). Here the poet paints a grim portrait of our earthly existence: sombre nights, tears, smoke, thorns and mud. Rarely does a breath of fresh air or a vision of nature seep through the gloom. When nature does occur in the verse of Migjeni, then of course it is autumn.
If there is no hope, there are at least suffocated desires and wishes. Some poems, such as Të birtë e shekullit të ri (The sons of the new age), Zgjimi (Awakening), Kanga e rinis (Song of youth) and Kanga e të burgosunit (The prisoner’s song), are assertively declamatory in a left-wing revolutionary manner. Here we discover Migjeni as a precursor of socialist verse or rather, in fact, as the zenith of genuine socialist verse in Albanian letters, long before the so-called liberation and socialist period from 1944 to 1990. Migjeni was, nonetheless, not a socialist or revolutionary poet in the political sense, despite the indignation and the occasional clenched fist he shows us. For this, he lacked the optimism as well as any sense of political commitment and activity. He was a product of the thirties, an age in which Albanian intellectuals, including Migjeni, were particularly fascinated by the West and in which, in Western Europe itself, the rival ideologies of communism and fascism were colliding for the first time in the Spanish Civil War. Migjeni was not entirely uninfluenced by the nascent philosophy of the right either. In Të lindet njeriu (May the man be born) and particularly, in the Nietzschean dithyramb Trajtat e Mbinjeriut (The shape of the Superman), a strangled, crushed will transforms itself into "ardent desire for a new genius," for the Superman to come. To a Trotskyite friend, André Stefi, who had warned him that the communists would not forgive for such poems, Migjeni replied, "My work has a combative character, but for practical reasons, and taking into account our particular conditions, I must manoeuvre in disguise. I cannot explain these things to the [communist] groups, they must understand them for themselves. The publication of my works is dictated by the necessities of the social situation through which we are passing. As for myself, I consider my work to be a contribution to the union of the groups. André, my work will be achieved if I manage to live a little longer."
Part of the ‘establishment’ which he felt was oblivious to and indeed responsible for the sufferings of humanity was the Church. Migjeni’s religious education and his training for the Orthodox priesthood seem to have been entirely counterproductive, for he cherished neither an attachment to religion nor any particularly fond sentiments for the organized Church. God for Migjeni was a giant with granite fists crushing the will of man. Evidence of the repulsion he felt towards god and the Church are to be found in the two poems missing from the 1944 edition, Parathania e parathanieve (Preface of prefaces) with its cry of desperation "God! Where are you?", and Blasfemi (Blasphemy).
In Kanga skandaloze (Scandalous song), Migjeni expresses a morbid attraction to a pale nun and at the same time his defiance and rejection of her world. This poem is one which helps throw some light not only on Migjeni’s attitude to religion but also on one of the more fascinating and least studied aspects in the life of the poet, his repressed heterosexuality.
Eroticism has certainly never been a prominent feature of Albanian literature at any period and one would be hard pressed to name any Albanian author who has expressed his intimate impulses and desires in verse or prose. Migjeni comes closest, though in an unwitting manner. It is generally assumed that the poet remained a virgin until his untimely death at the age of twenty-six. His verse and his prose abound with the figures of women, many of them unhappy prostitutes, for whom Migjeni betrays both pity and an open sexual interest. It is the tearful eyes and the red lips which catch his attention; the rest of the body is rarely described. For Migjeni, sex too means suffering. Passion and rapturous desire are ubiquitous in his verse, but equally present is the spectre of physical intimacy portrayed in terms of disgust and sorrow. It is but one of the many bestial faces of misery described in the 105-line Poema e mjerimit (Poem of poverty).
Though he did not publish a single book during his lifetime, Migjeni’s works, which circulated privately and in the press of the period, were an immediate success. Migjeni paved the way for a modern literature in Albania. This literature was, however, soon to be nipped in the bud. Indeed the very year of the publication of ‘Free Verse’ saw the victory of Stalinism in Albania and the proclamation of the People’s Republic.
Many have speculated as to what contribution Migjeni might have made to Albanian letters had he managed to live longer. The question remains highly hypothetical, for this individualist voice of genuine social protest would no doubt have suffered the same fate as most Albanian writers of talent in the late forties, i.e. internment, imprisonment or execution. His early demise has at least preserved the writer for us undefiled.
The fact that Migjeni did perish so young makes it difficult to provide a critical assessment of his work. Though generally admired, Migjeni is not without critics. Some have been disappointed by his prose, nor is the range of his verse sufficient to allow us to acclaim him as a universal poet. Albanian-American scholar Arshi Pipa (1920-1997) has questioned his very mastery of the Albanian language, asserting: "Born Albanian to a family of Slavic origin, then educated in a Slavic cultural milieu, he made contact again with Albania and the Albanian language and culture as an adult. The language he spoke at home was Serbo-Croatian, and at the seminary he learned Russian. He did not know Albanian well. His texts swarm with spelling mistakes, even elementary ones, and his syntax is far from being typically Albanian. What is true of Italo Svevo’s Italian is even truer of Migjeni’s Albanian."
Post-war Stalinist critics in Albania rather superficially proclaimed Migjeni as the precursor of socialist realism though they were unable to deal with many aspects of his life and work, in particular his Schopenhauerian pessimism, his sympathies with the West, his repressed sexuality, and the Nietzschean element in Trajtat e Mbinjeriut (The shape of the Superman), a poem conveniently left out of some post-war editions of his verse. While such critics have delighted in viewing Migjeni as a product of ‘pre-liberation’ Zogist Albania, it has become painfully evident that the poet’s ‘songs unsung,’ after half a century of communist dictatorship in Albania, are now more compelling than ever.
Poem of poverty
Poverty, brothers, is a mouthful that's hard to swallow,
A bite that sticks in your throat and leaves you in sorrow,
When you watch the pale faces and rheumy eyes
Observing you like ghosts and holding out thin hands;
Behind you they lie, stretched out
Their whole lives through, until the moment of death.
Above them in the air, as if in disdain,
Crosses and stony minarets pierce the sky,
Prophets and saints in many colours radiate splendour.
And poverty feels betrayed.
Poverty carries its own vile imprint,
It is hideous, repulsive, disgusting.
The brow that bears it, the eyes that express it,
The lips that try in vain to hide it
Are the offspring of ignorance, the victims of disdain,
The filthy scraps flung from the table
At which for centuries
Some pitiless, insatiable dog has fed.
Poverty has no good fortune, only rags,
The tattered banners of a hope
Shattered by broken promises.
Poverty wallows in debauchery.
In dark corners, together with dogs, rats, cats,
On mouldy, stinking, filthy mattresses,
Naked breasts exposed, sallow dirty bodies,
With feelings overwhelmed by bestial desire,
They bite, devour, suck, kiss the sullied lips,
And in unbridled lust the thirst is quenched,
The craving stilled, and self-consciousness lost.
Here is the source of the imbeciles, the servants and the beggars
Who will tomorrow be born to fill the streets.
Poverty shines in the eyes of the newborn,
Flickers like the pale flame of a candle
Under a ceiling blackened with smoke and spider webs,
Where human shadows tremble on damp stained walls,
Where the ailing infant wails like a banshee
To suck the dry breasts of its wretched mother
Who, pregnant again, curses god and the devil,
Curses the heavy burden of her unborn child.
Her baby does not laugh, it only wastes away,
Unwanted by its mother, who curses it, too.
How sorrowful is the cradle of the poor
Where a child is rocked with tears and sighs.
Poverty's child is raised in the shadows
Of great mansions, too high for imploring voices to reach
To disturb the peace and quiet of the lords
Sleeping in blissful beds beside their ladies.
Poverty matures a child before its time,
Teaches it to dodge the threatening fist,
The hand which clutches its throat in dreams,
When the delirium of starvation begins
And when death casts its shadow on childish faces,
Instead of a smile a hideous grimace.
While the fate of a fruit is to ripen and fall,
The child is interred not maturing at all.
Poverty labours and toils by day and night,
Chest and forehead drenched in sweat,
Up to the knees in mud and slime,
And still the empty guts writhe in hunger.
Starvation wages! For such a daily ordeal,
A mere three or four leks and an 'On your way.'
Poverty sometimes paints its face,
Swollen lips scarlet, hollow cheeks rouged,
And body a chattel in a filthy trade.
For service in bed for which it is paid
With a few lousy francs,
Stained sheets, stained face and stained conscience.
Poverty leaves a heritage as well,
Not cash in the bank or property you can sell,
But distorted bones and pains in the chest,
Perhaps leaves the memory of a bygone day
When the roof of the house, weakened by decay,
By age and the weather collapsed and fell,
And above all the din rose a terrible cry
Cursing and imploring, as from the depths of hell,
The voice of a man crushed by a beam.
Under the heel, says the priest, of a god irate
Ends thus the life of a dissolute ingrate.
And so the memory of such misfortunes
Fills the cup of bitterness passed to generations.
Poverty in drink seeks consolation,
In filthy taverns, with dirty, littered tables,
The thirsting soul pours glass after glass
Down the throat to forget its many worries,
The dulling glass, the glass satanic,
Caressing with a venomous bite.
And when, like grain under the scythe, the man falls
To the floor, he giggles and sobs, a tragicomic clown,
And all his sorrow in drink he drowns
When one by one, a hundred glasses downs.
Poverty sets desires ablaze like stars in the night
And turns them to ashes, like trees struck by lightning.
Poverty knows no joy, but only pain,
Pain reducing you to such despair
That you seize the rope and hang yourself,
Or become a poor victim of 'paragraphs.'
Poverty wants no pity, only justice!
Pity? Bastard daughter of cunning fathers,
Who like the Pharisees, beating the drum
Ostentatiously for their own sly ends,
Drop a penny in the beggar's hands.
Poverty is an indelible stain
On the brow of humanity through the ages.
And never can this stain be effaced
By doctrines decaying in temples.
[Poema e mjerimit, from the volume Vargjet e lira, Tirana: Ismail Mal' Osmani 1944, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie, published in English in Migjeni, Free Verse, Peja: Dukagjini 2001, p. 34-43]
The mosques and churches float through our memories,
Prayers devoid of sense or taste echo from their walls.
Never has the heart of god been touched by them,
And yet it beats on amidst the sounds of drums and bells.
Majestic mosques and churches throughout our wretched land,
Spires and minarets towering over lowly homes,
The voice of the hodja and priest in one degenerate chant,
Oh, ideal vision, a thousand years old!
The mosques and churches float through memories of the pious,
The chiming of the bell mingles with the muezzin's call,
Sanctity shines from cowls and from the beards of hodjas.
Oh, so many fair angels at the gates of hell!
On ancient citadels perch carrion ravens,
Their dejected wings drooping - the symbols of lost hopes,
In despair do they croak of an age gone by
When the ancient citadels once gleamed with hallowed joy.
[Blasfemi, from the volume Vargjet e lira, Tirana: Ismail Mal' Osmani 1944, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie, published in English in Migjeni, Free Verse, Peja: Dukagjini 2001, p. 55]
Song of noble grief
Oh, noble grief of the suffering soul
That into free verse bursts out...
Would you perchance take comfort
In adorning the world with jewels?
Oh, noble grief in free verse,
Which sincerely sounds and resounds,
Will you ever move the feelings of men,
Or wither and die like the autumn leaves?
Oh, song worthy of noble grief...
Never rest! But with your twin,
Lamentation, sing out your suffering,
For time will be your consolation.
[Kanga e dhimbës krenare, from the volume Vargjet e lira, Tirana: Ismail Mal' Osmani 1944, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie, published in English in Migjeni, Free Verse, Peja: Dukagjini 2001, p. 63]
Autumn on parade
Autumn in nature and autumn in our faces.
The sultry breeze enfeebles, the glowering sun
Oppresses the ailing spirit in our breasts,
Shrivels the life trembling among the twigs of a poplar.
The yellow colours twirl in the final dance,
(A frantic desire of leaves dying one by one).
Our joys, passions, our ultimate desires
Fall and are trampled in the autumn mud.
An oak tree, reflected in the tears of heaven,
Tosses and bleeds in gigantic passion.
"To live! I want to live!" - it fights for breath,
Piercing the storm with cries of grief.
The horizon, drowned in fog, joins in
The lamentation. In prayer dejected fruit trees
Fold imploring branches - but in vain, they know.
Tomorrow they will die... Is there nowhere hope?
The eye is saddened. Saddened, too, the heart
At the hour of death, when silent fall the veins
And from the grave to the highest heavens soar
Despairing cries of long-unheeded pain.
Autumn in nature and autumn in our faces.
Moan, desires, offspring of poverty,
Groan in lamentation, bewail the corpses,
That adorn this autumn among the withered branches.
[Vjeshta në parakalim, from the volume Vargjet e lira, Tirana: Ismail Mal' Osmani 1944, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie, published in English in Migjeni, Free Verse, Peja: Dukagjini 2001, p. 71]
A pale-faced nun who with the sins of this world
Bears my sins, too, upon her weary shoulders,
Those shoulders, wan as wax, which some deity has kissed,
Roams the streets like a fleeting angel.
A pale-faced nun, cold as a marble tomb,
With greyish eyes like the ashes of spent desires,
With thin red-ribbon lips, tightly pressed to smother her sighs,
A chilling image of her has lingered in my memory.
From pious prayers she comes and to her prayers she returns.
In downcast eyes, in lips, in folded hands her prayers repose.
Without her prayers what fate would be the world's?
Yet they cannot stop another day from dawning.
Oh, nun so pale, making love to the saints,
Consumed in ecstasy before them like an altar candle,
Revealing herself to them..., oh, how I envy the saints,
Pray not for me, for I am hell-bent with desire.
You and I, nun, are two ends of a rope,
On which two teams tug one against the other -
The struggle is stern and who knows how it will end,
So, tug the rope, let the teams contend.
[Kanga skandaloze, from the volume Vargjet e lira, Tirana: Ismail Mal' Osmani 1944, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie, published in English in Migjeni, Free Verse, Peja: Dukagjini 2001, p. 73]
In tears have we found consolation...
Our heritage in life has been
Misery... for this whole world
Is but a grave in the universal womb,
Where human reptiles are condemned to creep,
Their will crushed in the grip of a giant.
- An eye adorned in purest tears of profound pain
Shines from the far side of hell,
And at times, the reflection of a fleeting thought
Flashes round the globe
To give vent to awesome wrath.
But the head hangs, the sorrowful eyelids droop
And through the lashes wells a crystal tear,
Rolls down the cheek and splashes on the earth,
And in every splash of a teardrop a man is born
To take to the road of his own destiny.
In the hope of the smallest victory, he roams from land to land,
Over roads covered with brambles, among which he passes
Graves washed in tears and crazy folk who snigger.
[Rezignata, from the volume Vargjet e lira, Tirana: Ismail Mal' Osmani 1944, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie, published in English in Migjeni, Free Verse, Peja: Dukagjini 2001, p. 75]
On the mercy of the merciless
The little beggar survived.
His life ran its course
In dirty streets,
In dark corners,
In cold doorways,
Among fallacious faiths.
But one day, when the world's pity dried up
He felt in his breast the stab
Of a new pain, which contempt
Fosters in the hearts
Of the poor.
And - though yesterday a little beggar,
He now became something new.
An avenger of the past,
He conceived an imprecation
To pronounce to the world,
His throat strained
To bring out the word
Which his rage had gripped
And smothered on his lips.
Speechless he sat
At the crossroads,
When the wheels of a passing car
And... silenced him.
[Fragment, from the volume Vargjet e lira, Tirana: Ismail Mal' Osmani 1944, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie, published in English in Migjeni, Free Verse, Peja: Dukagjini 2001, p. 77]
Is there the theme of a poem among fading memories,
Among the happy memories of childhood innocence,
When the heart was full of worldly pleasures,
Desires, hopes and ever-sweet dreams?
Is there the fiery theme of a poem of love
Among the lingering memories of eager youth,
With sonorous rhymes and ardent vows,
Full of the lust for life and shouts of mirth?
On the pallid faces of fallen women
Loitering in doorways to sell themselves,
On their faces a tragic poem is carved
In tears and grief that rise to the heavens,
In dark corners where derision reigns
In disgust, and the insane jeer
At their wives and children,
There in revolt great themes await creation.
In hidden corners where fear dwells
And passivity lurks to smother life,
There in betrayal does the theme take its source
And with it, the poet pens his verse.
Throughout man's life do themes of all kinds
Come and go. Now the ultimate of themes has come,
Frightening in our fantasy - the paling of the face,
An ominous shadow, and the death knell tolls.
[Motivet, from the volume Vargjet e lira, Tirana: Ismail Mal' Osmani 1944, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie, published in English in Migjeni, Free Verse, Peja: Dukagjini 2001, p. 81]
For some time now
I have seen clearly
How from suffering my eyes are growing larger,
The furrows in my face and brow are growing deeper,
And my smile has grown bitter...
...and I have come to realize
That the coming days
Will no longer be constructive ones
Of energy and work, but simply the passing
Of a waning life.
With time, I have come to see
How this treacherous life
Each of my senses,
One by one,
Until nothing remains
Of the joy
I once had.
I did not know before
How much I dreaded
But helpless now,
I gaze into the mirror and see
How from suffering my eyes are growing larger,
The furrows in my face and brow are growing deeper,
And that soon I will become
A tattered banner,
Worn and torn
In the battles of life.
[Vuejtja, from the volume Vargjet e lira, Tirana: Ismail Mal' Osmani 1944, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie, published in English in Migjeni, Free Verse, Peja: Dukagjini 2001, p. 123]
Under the banners of melancholy
Of a mournful melancholy
Throughout our land...
Nor can it be said
That here live a people
Who are building
Here and there in the shadow
Of the banners
An effort can be seen,
A gigantic struggle
To triumph over death,
To give birth to something great,
To bring a jinni to light!
But (oh, irony of fate)
From all that labour
Only a mouse is born.
And thus this comedy
Bursts our vein of humour,
And we ourselves
Burst into rage.
Over the threshold of each house
That contains a sign of life
Unfolds its banner.
[Nën flamujt e melankolisë, from the volume Vargjet e lira, Tirana: Ismail Mal' Osmani 1944, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie, published in English in Migjeni, Free Verse, Peja: Dukagjini 2001, p. 135]
THE STUDENT BACK HOME
In one of the cities of Central Europe, Nushi was reading the letter which the postman had just delivered. He recognized that it was from home the moment he received it. Yes, the white, rectangular envelope conjured up visions of the one-storey house with the little yard full of flowers. He then saw his father, who had written the letter, returning home at dusk and bringing nighttime with him. Comings and goings were extremely uncommon the moment he closed the door behind him. Patriarchal custom was violated only rarely when someone would come to announce a birth, a death or the arrival of an unexpected guest. A law, and what a law it was! Whoever violated it would spend the whole night with the sensation of having tread on something cold and slimy like a snake. This was exactly the feeling Nushi had whenever his father looked at him. It was as if he had trod on a snake. This was one of the reasons why he was in no hurry to return home. He had been studying at the university for over three years now and could still not bring himself to return home for Christmas or Easter. "What will I do there?" he would say to himself.
But the letter he received now gave him a definite deadline. "Your sister is going to get married in a month and, as her brother, you must not fail to be there." Such was his father’s command. At the beginning, Nushi felt quite pleased about the matter and was happy at the prospect of returning, but when he thought about it at length, his enthusiasm dissipated. He was the type of person ruled more by intellect than by emotion.
"Is this really the same yard I left three years ago? I could have sworn it was bigger," Nushi thought to himself as he glanced about to see if anything had been built in it which might have made the yard look smaller. There was nothing new. The same trees: the fig, the plum, the vine trellis and the same flowers. The roses were in their usual place, and just beyond them was the honeysuckle bush. When he entered the house, the rooms seemed so tiny. The furniture looked as if it had never been touched by human hand. Everything was exactly where it had been, as if it were destined to rot on the spot. At the same time, everything seemed smaller. Nushi then discovered the cause of this optical illusion. His mind was still on the large buildings and broad squares of the city he lived in. Yes, everything now seemed smaller to Nushi, everything except his brothers and sisters who had grown. They were bigger than he had imagined them while abroad. He noticed that his mother had lost a tooth and that his father’s forehead was wrinkled and his moustache now grey.
"You finally made it," said his father, seeing him. Nushi was touched to see his father and wished to express his feelings, but his father simply shook his son’s hand. Nushi found no adequate response. When he gave his sisters a hug, they seemed to be unsure as to whether to kiss him or not. Only his mother embraced him without hesitation, the smack of her kisses resounding in the room.
One evening, in the midst of a conversation with his engaged sister Agia, she exclaimed "Mother!" and rushed off to the kitchen. "Mother, Nushi says that girls like me, even the married ones, go to school." She broke into convulsions of laughter at seeing the expression on her mother’s face. "Don’t laugh like that, the neighbours will hear you. It is not in good taste." The daughter gave no reply. She was so absorbed at the stories her brother was telling her that she could think only of those marvellous lands where girls were not kept indoors, where they could go out for a walk with the boys without shame, where they could dance. Oh, how beautifully they must dance!
"Nushi!" she called out from the kitchen, "will you teach me to dance? One of my girlfriends has been driving me mad, boasting that she knows how to dance." (Just you wait until Nushi teaches me how to dance! she thought as she dried a plate). The brother took his sister by the hand and began to show her some steps, and it was dancing arm in arm that their father caught them.
"Are you not ashamed of yourself? You’re going to get married tomorrow! And you, "he said, turning to Nushi, "you are no longer a little boy. It is a good thing that you got back early tonight!" added his father with a scowl on his face.
His sister went back into the kitchen and Nushi excused himself, saying he was tired.
"Tired in your own home? No, nothing like that ever happened to me. That seems to be why you had such difficulty finding your way back home."
Nushi did not know what to say. He did not know how to talk to his father. When he was a child, he understood him far better. There had been a time when his father was more than just a father in his imagination. He was an ideal, an ideal of childhood dreams. But that time had passed. Nushi now realized that his father was one of a thousand fathers like him in town, one of the many who are busy transforming their children into living anachronisms, into images of themselves, worthy heirs of a sombre past.
"I’ve been told that you were out walking with some boys who are not of our faith."
"But they are my friends."
"Your friends, are they? Haven’t you been able to find better friends? Are there no boys of our faith here?"
"I simply happened to meet them and couldn’t just leave them like that, dad. But all right, from now on I will only go out with the boys you approve of," Nushi replied in an attempt to appease his father.
"Very well. Listen to your father and you will not regret it. You should keep the company of people you can learn from. What can you possibly learn from the company you are keeping now? Boys of that faith will never become good men, whatever school they may attend. Listen to your father."
And Nushi listened. He wanted to be an obedient son. How could be not listen to the father who had given life to him, who had raised him and done so much for him? Anyway, what choice did he have? Nushi listened, though against his own will. He paid attention to his father’s words and endeavoured not to frown. His brothers and sisters sitting around them paid attention to everything that was said, too. They were all ears. How could they fail to listen? His mother was also listening from the kitchen, filled with a sense of awe at the learned words of her spouse. A whole family, enclosed within the walls of the house and within a patriarchal environment, was now preparing to face the future. "I hope they don’t put me to shame," thought the head of the family to himself, casting a glance at the members of his household. "They must never put me to shame. I must hold them back, tighten the screws as much as possible, retain them until they suffocate and burst. How difficult it is to raise children nowadays! How hard it is to keep control of the girls! In the old days... Do you realize, children, that when I was your age... when I first began to earn a living... so that, thanks be to God, you would have enough to fill your bellies..."
Nushi listened. Everyone listened. Who would dare not to listen? Nushi did so and thought to himself, "Perhaps experience in life has made this man so strict."
One evening, Nushi began to miss those distant lands, that city where he was studying. He loved his home, or to put it more exactly, he loved to see his family sitting around the fire: his parents, his brothers and sisters, but there was a strong sentiment which tied him to those distant lands - those lands where you could live and enjoy life to the full, however you wished, young or old, philosopher or simpleton. Nushi was aware of the appalling contrast between those lands and his own home. Being young, he was captivated by their marvellous and he meditated upon the reasons why his country was so backward. He began to hate those reasons with all the passion of his youth. He hated the past which was yet so close to him, as was his father. As a parent, his father was close, but as a representative of society and as an individual, he was a long way off. All the disagreements and misunderstandings arose from there being so many individuals under one roof, so many beloved and at the same time, detested beings. Living with them was like being faced with the dilemma of an operation. To amputate the leg and live, or not to amputate and die. A tragic alternative. Nushi was aware that it was not his father’s fault for being the way he was. He was the product of his environment, of the society in which he grew up. It was for this reason, too, that he still cherished a paternal affection for Nushi, although he could never put it into words. But did his brothers and sisters love their father? He recalled the feelings he had had for his father as a little boy. The feelings were inspired more by fear than by love. His sisters now trembled at the sight of him, and his brothers showed absolutely no desire to spend time with him. They disappeared whenever he arrived.
"What would you be doing now, Nushi, if you were still abroad?" said Agia, interrupting his thoughts as she entered the room in her lively manner.
"It is the time of day for a walk, so I would probably be out walking with one of the guys or with..."
"Or maybe with a girl, ha ha," countered his sister with a giggle.
"Yeah, why not? It doesn’t matter there whether you are out with a boy or a girl. Here everyone goes crazy if they see a girl walking with a boy. There, no one pays any attention whatsoever. Everyone minds his own business."
He was filled with nostalgia for those distant lands as he described to his sister all the beautiful things he had seen and the way people lived there. He told her about important public events and of the little scandals which had occurred. Agia listened attentively. From time to time, she interrupted with a question. The expression on her face changed constantly during the course of her brother’s tales. She would let out a cry of astonishment without even realizing it. Nushi spoke with all the power of his emotions so that his sister would understand everything, unaware that his words were gradually giving birth within her to a dream which would surely never be realized, which would torture her young heart. She would sigh and lament, "What good is it to be alive here?" - a lamentation heard more and more often in our country. Nushi grew silent and reflected on the fact that his sister was now engaged and would soon be married off to some good-for-nothing.
Linked by memories of a common childhood, Nushi was extremely fond of his older sister. They had grown up together. On cold winter evenings, shivering under the blankets, they used to cuddle up and listen to one another’s hearts beating. Their bodies warmed to the murmur of a long fairy tale and they sensed the presence of something new and foreign, something as yet unknown to their bodies which now, in the warmth of the bed, was coming to be, was growing and rocking them to sleep. When their mother came in and saw them sound asleep in one another’s arms, she felt a sense of joy, but also an ever so slight sense of jealousy which clouded her bliss for a moment.
Nushi knew his sister well. She was still the same Agia she had been as a little girl. Vivacious and full of joy, but not as inclined as her girlfriends to romantic daydreams. She had no time for dreaming, as she had to help her mother with household chores: washing the dishes, sweeping and polishing the floors, and looking after the constant needs of half a dozen brothers and sisters with whom God, as they say here, had blessed her parents. Agia had no time for reveries. Nushi was aware of this fact, as he was of his sister’s beauty. What he did not know, but wished to find out, was what his sister thought of her coming marriage, of her marriage to a good-for-nothing. Nushi had spoken to his future brother-in-law on several occasions. All that he could recollect of him was the banal smile of a swollen, pallid face, the utter boredom of his mutterings, his bad teeth and his apish snobbery. Such was his future in-law. "He comes from a good family and is a competent businessman," his father had remarked. That was enough for his wife. By the next day, everything had been settled. And Agia? Agia is a good and clever girl and listens to her parents (which amounts to the same thing). When she first caught sight of her fiancé in the living room, or rather through the keyhole, she paled slightly, but no doubt out of emotion - nothing else. "He’s a bit on the short side," noted her aunt, "but he’s loaded with money. What a lucky girl you are!" Agia was doubtful of her luck and grew morose. It was only when Nushi arrived that she recovered some of her liveliness and that her laugh could once again be heard throughout the house.
Nushi still did not know what she thought of the marriage. One night, when their father happened to mention the up and approaching marriage, Nushi and his sister exchanged glances. She then got up and went into the kitchen. Nushi remained silent as his father talked, and thought about his sister’s glance. She had given him such a startled look that he now understood. Nushi understood everything from one glance. It was a much-used means of communication in such families in which no one had the right to speak freely.
The next day, Nushi happened to return home to look for a book. He was not expecting anyone to be there. In his room he found Agia with her hands over her eyes to try to cover them. He approached.
"What is the matter, Agia? Why are your eyes all red?"
"From the smoke..."
Nushi was suspicious and went into the kitchen, but there was no fire on.
"Why have you been crying, Agia?"
"I wasn’t crying," said his sister, endeavouring to smile.
"Yes, you were."
"I was not," she countered, rushing out of the room as if she had work to do.
From a distance, Nushi tried to elicit some reaction from her by giving her a smile, but it was to no avail. On leaving the house, he realized why Agia had been crying. He recalled the look she had given him the day before. He wanted to go back into the house, but he knew that Agia would be too ashamed to say anything. Shame, and especially shame on the part of engaged girls, is yet another link in the chains which constrain life here. How should an engaged girl not be ashamed when she knows that she is being sent to her husband for the sole purpose of going to bed with him? She can imagine no other possible relations with the man she is going to marry, since she had never even exchanged a word with him. Shame? How can she be anything but ashamed? They say that only dishonourable girls have no sense of shame. Shame is therefore a necessity, and it is one which impedes them from raising their voices to defend themselves against those who decide on their happiness. "I don’t want to!" No, such an utterance has never been heard up until now in our family from an engaged girl. Any husband, whoever he may be, is at least a man.
Nushi was resolved to tell his father that he did not approve of Agia’s marriage. It was a difficult decision and he had to wait for the best opportunity to speak to him. One evening, when his father was in a particularly good mood and seemed willing to talk, Nushi endeavoured to express his opinion on the marriage.
"Well, who else do you think we could find for her? Indeed, where will your other sisters ever find a husband like him? He is from a good family, is wealthy and is the most industrious young man in the bazaar."
"Yes, but nowadays, father, girls like to take a good look at their future husbands."
"You don’t mean that we should have asked her for her opinion, do you? What could she possibly know?"
"She is not happy about it."
"Only at the start. With time, she will be happy with him."
That is all I have been able to accomplish for Agia, thought Nushi to himself and was enraged at not having been able to do more for her. He lost confidence in himself. "It was your only opportunity to show the strength of your character, of your mind and of your love to save someone precious from the clutches of such fatal customs. But what chance did you have? How could anyone lead a sane life in such an atmosphere? You have striven in vain to make your own contribution to society, to do a noble deed. At the very first attempt, you have failed." Such were the thoughts that kept him awake through the night until he finally fell asleep towards dawn.
Agia stopped asking him questions about the marvels of those distant lands. Her mind was on the good-for-nothing husband she was to marry. The more she thought about him, the worse he seemed. "A guileless individual." she overheard her girlfriends saying. Agia felt a sense of revolt taking possession of her, a revolt which had become apparent in her attitude to her brothers and sisters, and occasionally to her mother. From time to time, she would fly into a rage, drop a cup, a plate or a glass, or break something she happened to have in her hand. When her mother complained about the broken dishes, she countered sharply, "I didn’t do it on purpose," and ran off to hide in a corner and weep.
Nor did Nushi tell her any more about the marvels of those distant lands. He only spent the time at home that he had to. His father reprimanded him for coming home late at night, but he simply gave no reply, and the sermon was thus brought to an abrupt end. When he noticed the preparations being made here and there for the wedding, he was reminded of a film he had once seen. It was called ‘Ecstasy,’ the story of an unsuccessful marriage.
"We mustn’t allow anything to put us to shame," said his father. "Everything must be made ready for the wedding. Everything must be in order. Take care not to forget a thing," said his father to his mother.
The wedding went off well. Everyone had a good time. There was raki and wine galore. Weddings are not an everyday happening. They must therefore be occasions of joy. To the health of the beautiful bride! To the health of the host. Many a toast followed to a clinking of glasses and a ‘down the hatch,’ from which songs now resounded, like the unoiled, squeaking wheels of an ox cart.
God knows the singers themselves were well enough oiled. The women were busy singing a song about stuffed vine leaves. They all talked at the same time, each of them listening to no one but themselves, and giggling about. In the corners were the children, munching on something or other for the most part and amazed to see their mothers in a state of excitement such as they had never been in before.
"Why is Agia getting married?" asked her younger, seven-year-old brother.
"Daddy told her to."
"I know that daddy told her to, you idiot, but why is she getting married?"
"My mommy is married, too, and so is yours."
"That’s true. But why do they get married?"
"So that they can go to bed with their husbands," intervened a older boy of nine.
"How do you know anyway?" asked Agia’s brother.
"It’s true. My mommy goes to bed with my daddy," replied the precocious lad.
"Don’t say wicked things or I’ll tell on you at school," said the nine-year-old, before departing in search of something sweet.
All during the wedding celebrations, Nushi felt sick to his stomach. He could not get into the spirit of things, with all the noise and to-do. He needed to help arrange things and deal with the guests. He was obliged to greet and talk at length with cousins he had never seen before and tell them all about his stay abroad. His eldest cousins inspected him with great curiosity and wished him well. The younger cousins smiled and showed their unbound admiration for him. Nushi felt nauseated. He did his best to get into the spirit of things, to drink with the guests and even to sing with the women, but all the time he had the impression he was making a fool of himself. He did not even reply to the congratulations of the women guests when he happened to enter the bride’s room. Agia stood there, as erect and pale as a candle. "Come in. Don’t be ashamed," the women said to him as they arranged the bride’s veil. Nushi wished only that the whole ceremony would be over with as soon as possible. Let Agia depart whither fate, or more exactly her father, had consigned her. Perhaps she will come to love her new husband, as his father had said, he thought to himself.
"No, I have never seen a bride weep so much on her wedding day," said one of the women when, as custom decreed, they came to escort her to the house of her new husband.
"Well, there is no reason why she should not weep. After all, she is leaving her parents, and her brothers and sisters."
"I heard that Agia did not even want the boy," said a third woman with a sigh, turning away from her companions.
"Indeed. But what better husband could she possibly find? They say the lad is wealthy enough and is from a good family."
"Yes, he is."
"You probably heard that from what’s-her-name trying to get the lad for her own daughter."
"No, on the contrary. I, too, have heard that Agia did not want the boy," said a fourth woman who could not help herself from breaking into the enigmatic gossip and who had her eyes fixed upon the doorway all the time.
"It was strange. She wept the most when she said farewell to her brother. Poor Nushi. The tears were welling his eyes, too."
"Yes, it is a pity. You can see that they’ve married her off by force."
"Well, after all, what does it matter? We were all married off by force. Where had we ever met our husbands beforehand? They married us off to the first man who asked. If a Gypsy had been the first one to ask, they would have given us to him. That is our destiny," exclaimed a woman with a masculine face.
"I feel sorry for Agia. She is a good girl," said the youngest among them.
"Well, were we any worse?" countered the woman with the masculine face, and scowled at her companions.
Two days after the wedding, Nushi went to visit Agia at her new home in order to say good-bye, since he was soon to leave the country. When he announced his departure, she began to weep and did not stop crying until after he left. At the gate, she threw her arms around him and hugged and kissed him so warmly and tenderly that he never forgot that the moment.
Social conventions are inviolable. Woe to those who try to contravene them. At least, they seem that way. May the aura of decency in our city shine forth untouched. May the light of our day-to-day social relations shine forth like polished shoes in the mud. And if a woman suffers in anguish from having to sleep with her elderly or ignorant husband, and loves another, what does it matter? It is of no importance. Marital relations are sacrosanct. That is what the church says at any rate. There is only one catch. No scandals are allowed. Do anything to avoid scandal. Scandal is as lethal a danger to one’s honour as a 42 degree temperature is to one’s body. Society begins to languish at a certain temperature, and if you wish to maintain your honour and your immaculate reputation, take care that the temperature does not surpass a certain threshold.
At the market in our city, when people sing the praises of a young man, they use various attributes, as they would elsewhere. Among the most usual of these attributes is ‘son of the devil.’ Any apprentice in the market whom they call thus will do well. It means that he will be someone of importance. Not that he will become a millionaire, but that he is skilled enough to learn his profession well and to satisfy the demands of his master. One of these young men was Luli, an apprentice of Agia’s husband. And what a ‘son of the devil’ he was. Without Luli, Agia’s husband would never have had much success in his trade. That was the opinion held by the other members of his guild who were all interested in getting Luli to work for them. But in vain. Although Luli was only twenty years old, he refused to leave his master who had no reason to be unsatisfied with him.
When Luli first saw his master’s wife dressed as a bride, he was overwhelmed by her beauty, and by the ugliness of her husband-to-be. Up until the wedding he had looked upon the man simply as his boss, as the storekeeper who paid his wages regularly and generously. He found it difficult to imagine that this man was the husband of a woman as beautiful as Agia. In his mind, Luli had formed an opinion of him. His master sat behind the counter and watched how his apprentice was handling the sales, weighing goods, receiving payment and bringing the money to him. Seated at his desk, he would give a toothless smile to those under his command. Luli was by no means afraid of him. He felt as little fear as one might feel for a slightly older colleague. But now that his master was married to such a beautiful woman, there was an unconscious pang of dissatisfaction in the depths of his soul. This instinctive discontent, which Luli, the simple apprentice of a merchant, was unable to analyse, expressed itself from time to time in anger and jealousy. "What a fool. And what a beautiful wife he got for himself!" Luli once confided to a close friend. This opinion of his master crossed Luli’s mind again and again. The friend, smiling and pulling Luli’s arm, had only made things worse by agreeing with him.
Three years later, Nushi returned home, having finished his studies in medicine. The optimism which had given him the strength to complete his degree as a doctor was still with him when he arrived in town. The whole world now revolved around him; his friends, cousins and acquaintances all revolved around him like the planets around the sun. He was the epicentre. At least, that was the way it seemed to him. And a fact it was. Nushi wondered why, but he had no time to reflect on the matter. He was too caught up in a series of greetings, visits, luncheons and dinner parties, and in new, select acquaintances.
Even at home, things had now changed for Nushi. His brothers and sisters behaved differently in his presence. The word ‘doctor’ seemed to exude an odour of drugs which evoked a fear of illness. His brothers and sisters lost their fraternal love and now looked up to him and admired him. Nushi noticed that even his father behaved differently in his presence. If Nushi happened to return home late at night, his father made no remark. On the contrary, his father spoke to him cordially, asking him whom he had seen that day and whom he had just been out with. His questions, now devoid of the bitterness and irony of the past, evinced an objective interest. He also began talking to Nushi of the career which the latter would soon being embarking upon.
"The time has come that I will need your assistance because my business is not doing well. Up to now, I have managed to keep it going, but things are getting worse. What a relief it is that you have finished your studies. Your sisters are grown up now and you will have to give a bit of thought to them, too."
Nushi smoked his cigarette, observing the fumes rising, and through the smoke, saw the face of his father speaking gently, especially when he mentioned Nushi’s imminent work as a doctor. Whenever another member of the family showed up, he changed his tone and became somewhat more severe.
Nushi of course, being a doctor, was also something of a psychologist. He studied his father’s behaviour attentively both in his presence and in the presence of the others. A new thought took violent possession of his brain. He shook his head as if trying to rid himself of it. He had come to the conclusion that the so-called family spirit was nothing other than egoism. Nushi remembered having read something about this in a book. It was true. If his father’s attitude towards him had changed, it was due to the fact that Nushi was about to start making a living. One might consider it quite normal for a father to expect assistance from his son to support the family, as his father was no longer in a position to do so. But Nushi’s reasoning was more radical, more left wing, as they say nowadays. Three years ago, although Nushi was already grown up, his father behaved like a tyrant, whereas now, though still no angel, he was striving to be Nushi’s best friend. Three years ago, you were not even allowed to open your mouth. You were nothing in your father’s eyes because you had no earnings. But now, with prospects of a fat income looming, it was "I salute you and I tip my hat, or rather my black fez to you." It was thus, in the form of a dialogue, that Nushi studied the situation, although with little pleasure. He refused to subscribe to the new material doctrines or to admit that there was no ideal family and that the love which we regard as sincere, only reflected material or physical interests. Nushi shook his head, wishing to rid himself of the thought which was destroying all his sacred ideals which had been wrapped in a veil of mystery. Like a drowning man clinging to a raft, Nushi clung to that mystery to preserve his illusions. But the values he held sacred were in vain because he was beginning to realize that the mystery in them, like a lifesaver on the high seas, was nothing but deception. And yet it was a deception which he clung to because he needed it, even though he knew it was a lie.
After three years of marriage, Nushi had seen Agia change considerably. She had not had any children as yet, but her waist and thighs had expanded and she looked pregnant. The blossom in her cheeks was no longer what it had been, and her eyes which could once look deep into his soul meandered and only crossed his from time to time, just enough to remind him that she was talking or listening to him. Nushi was surprised at the change, considering the fact that married sisters usually show even greater affection for their brothers. On leaving her house, he had the impression of not having visited his sister Agia at all. Perhaps she was just being bashful, he said to himself. That evening, Nushi told his family that he had visited Agia and that she had changed a lot. On hearing him, his father turned to his mother and noted: "What a fool her husband is. Is he waiting for me to go and tell him to fire his employee?"
"But he cannot run his business without him. You know what a clever worker Luli is," replied his mother gently, giving Nushi a furtive glance. "If he doesn’t mind, why should you be bothered?"
"Are you serious? Haven’t you heard what people have been saying?" countered his father, raising his voice and looking at Nushi.
Nushi said nothing but the conversation almost took his breath away. The blood rose to his head. He soon regained his composure though and began thinking about what his parents had been saying.
Perfect harmony reigned at Agia’s house. No disputes, fights or ugly scenes, as they say. Perfect harmony reigned. For example, when her husband got home from shopping or from work in the evening, Agia did her best to see that everything in the house was in order so that he could rest after a hard day’s work. They even asked one another how the day had been, if there had been any problems or if anything new had taken place. Agia carried through with these family rituals in a cool though sincere manner. Her husband, more emotional, went further. He would approach Agia and pinch her cheek with his two fingers smelling of fat, as one would pinch a little child. He would stroke her hair or the nape of her neck and look longingly at her figure. Then, relishing in conjugal bliss, he would light a cigarette, have a glass of raki and begin to talk about his day at work. Agia would shuffle back and forth in the living room, doing this and that, listening to her husband and answering now and then.
"Did Luli bring you everything you wanted?" asked her husband raising his glass.
"Yes," she replied briefly. "But you forgot to give him the pepper," she added with a slight blush, and turned away.
"Did he bring you this? Did he bring you that?" When Agia said yes, he continued: "Yes, Luli is an honest fellow. Up to now I’ve had no cause for complaint whatsoever," and made a zero in the air with his fingers. "In the store, I trust him more than I do myself because he’s clever. Of course, I know there are people trying to make me get rid of him by spreading all sorts of rumours, because they want him for themselves."
Hearing this, Agia blushed right to the temples, her heart began to pound and she replied in a more than usually brusque manner: "But why do you send Luli to me during the day when you could bring what we need home yourself in the evening?"
"Well, where would I get the meat for our lunch? Why shouldn’t he come? People do talk, but I know why..." Agia wondered if there were any reasons why he should not come when she was alone at home. It was the perfect time for him to come, whispered an emotion from the depths of her being - though, as the respected wife of a merchant, she tried to resist it. But the emotion took hold of her young body and she replied to her husband:
"Don’t forget to send me the pepper tomorrow." She wondered, too, if there was anything else she might need to order.
"All right, I’ll send it along, with some fresh meat. The butcher said they would be slaughtering tomorrow. Anything else?"
Nushi knocked once or twice at the door leading to the courtyard and, seeing that no one had come out to open it, he entered and walked up towards the house, wondering why Agia had not come out. At that moment he met Luli on the steps who murmured, in a somewhat agitated manner, that he was sorry for the delay in coming out to open the door. Nushi was surprised at first, thinking that something might have happened, and then had a doubt. Hesitantly but instinctively, he ran up the staircase. He found Agia with her back to the door, one hand in her hair and the other one fiddling mechanically with some ingredients in a bowl. Turning around, she saw her brother and smiled at him, but her face was pallid.
"What’s wrong, Agia?" Nushi asked, taking her hand.
"Nothing at all, Nushi. Why?" she replied somewhat confused.
"Yes, I have a bit of a headache, or rather, I had a headache this morning, but I’m all right now," stammered Agia, her voice and her expression giving way to her brother’s piercing glance. Her heart began to pound in fright and her knees quivered. She would have fallen if Nushi had not been there to prop her up.
"Agia, you shouldn’t really be working so much anymore," said Nushi, turning his head towards the window and trying to speak as calmly as possible. She tried to get a peek at the expression on his face but could only see his ear and part of his chin as he looked out of the window onto the road, gritting his teeth.
"Look, Agia," he turned to her suddenly, "don’t work so much. The less you work, the better off you will be. You won’t have breakdowns like that. And it’s not good for you to work while you’re pregnant."
Agia looked into her brother’s eyes and saw that he meant nothing more than what he had said, and Nushi was relieved to see that he had succeeded in deceiving his sister, in convincing her that he suspected nothing of her relations with Luli. He went on to talk about various matters, asking his sister about this and that, and she inquired about their father, mother, brothers and sisters, laughing all the time.
Nushi left his sister’s place with a smile on his face. And he was happy and relieved. Indeed, he was surprised at the joy and tranquility he felt. But an hour earlier, something might have happened. Yes, Nushi thought to himself, just like it would have up in the primitive mountains. The rifle would have spoken, so that people large and small would know what respect is, so that honour could be cleansed. Someone would have died and society would have been satisfied. Not that society is malevolent - it is just that people in our town get bored, and cleansing one’s honour with the rifle is a great sensation. It may keep you up for several nights on end, but at least it gets rid of the boredom. After all - honour, my friends - honour is not water. It may be champagne, but it’s certainly not water. Smiling still, Nushi remembered that an hour earlier, he had been on the verge of committing an act which would have been quite spectacular and theatrical. Yet he had managed to check his emotions immediately. He now smiled at the thought of himself with a fez over one eyebrow, with a long moustache and with a rifle in his hand, standing over the body of his sister and her lover, the two of them slaughtered for having tasted of the forbidden fruit.
This manly act is what ennobles our people, say the moralists. This barbarous act only serves to reveal how primitive and ignorant our country really is, countered Nushi to himself. I may be amoral, but my way of thinking, my ideology if you will, is incompatible with what society tries to impose upon me. I make use of its morals as a screen, and make fun of them behind its back. I’m playing society’s game, just like hundreds of other people do. So, society, if you don’t want everyone to make fun of you behind your back, change your style. Get rid of all the stuffiness.
[Studenti në shtëpi, 1936, from the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 201-224, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]
THE STORY OF ONE OF THEM
Who couldn't remember her? Come on, guys, who couldn't remember her? Who? Which one? That one! One of those women. But which one? There are a lot of them. Which young (or old) man doesn't know at least ten of them? There are a lot of them. There are so many men out there, and so much money, so there has to be a corresponding number of them who sell their bodies... So, who is the one I mean?
Lukja, Lukja! Don't you remember Lukja? I find that hard to believe. But maybe you are just pretending. Maybe you even deny having known her. Sorry, but you can't fool me. Come on, a bit of courage! You can tell your stories elsewhere. You still deny ever having known Lukja? You pretend you're too virtuous? Don't worry, I'm not going to start preaching. But at least you admit to having known one of Lukja's many "sisters," don't you? They're just as good. All their lives are the same. They are all alike and they all give you whatever you desire - cash up front.
Sweet Lukja. Merciful Lukja - she was almost a saint. She never said no to anyone who really wanted her. The students sometimes went to have a look at her, not with any bad intentions, but simply to accompany a fellow student. When she finished with the first one, she would say to the next student, "So, how much money have you got in your pocket?" "Four." "Come on, then," she would say to the second, third and fourth fellows and take them into her room. Her price was three francs. But Lukja was a good soul, more benevolent than many who pretended to be so.
On their first visits, the students would blush, but when they came back for the second time, they would take a furtive glance left and right to see that no one was watching, and then dart in at the speed of a bullet. Lukja would sometimes make fun of them and shout:
"What are you guys doing around here? Who are you looking for? The person you are trying to find is not here."
The students, disconcerted, would begin to stammer and stare at one another, turning red, and on the retreat. Lukja would then burst into laughter and take them by the hand to her room. On occasion she would chastise them, especially if they kissed her bare arm or stroked her cheek as men have the right to do with their wives, when they are officially married by priests or hodjas. Lukja would say to them:
"Hey, no touching, you vagabond. Be good now," and would give them a slap on the face. The lads, not giving up, would laugh and try to seize her hand.
When they came late, having been delayed by long discussions in a café, she would tell them all: "Off with you now, or your parents will be out looking for you." Sometimes she would say to the youngest one: "Look, it's getting late... this is the time of night when your father usually drops by."
The room then echoed with hilarity. On occasion, one of the lads would be irritated and protest, saying:
"My father is a man of virtue, he's not like me..." Lukja and her companions would then laugh all the louder at the lad's naivety and ignorance.
Sometimes a customer would make fun of Lukja and ask:
"Hey, Lukja, where did you leave that native costume of yours, the one the peasant women wear up in the mountains?"
"Come on and have a look in my room."
"But have you got any money with you?"
"I've got three leks..."
"Get out of here. Three leks in your pocket and you want to see America?"
I mentioned that Lukja was more benevolent than many who pretended to be so. On occasion she would accept a young lad with no money at all, if she was in the right mood.
Lukja's name, and especially her body, had something of an aura about them, like the haloes around the heads of saints. Some disliked it when they heard her being called a whore. They preferred more euphemistic words like 'prostitute,' 'lady of the night,' 'courtesan,' terms they had come across in newspapers. There was one fellow in particular, who never swore and who was particularly disturbed when he heard Lukja being called a whore. He never used the term himself, and if anyone else did in his presence, he winced as if to the sound of a fork scratching out the bottom of a saucepan. The word whore was in crude dissonance to the harmonious pleasures that Lukja offered. Calling Lukja a whore was like calling a priest a woman because he wears a cassock. They popularized the use of the word 'prostitute' among their friends. The sentimental attachment to Lukja went so far among the young men that they would get into fist fights with one another over her.
Mother Earth reproduces. Beings with souls and without souls reproduce, too. They reproduce and create over millions of years and within the space of a second. They reproduce forms which exchange warmth with one another to create other, new forms and to perpetuate life. Within a worm and a man there is the very same impulse. Reproduction. Only, the worm doesn't know it's reproducing, has no idea what reproduction is. Man, on the other hand, knows full well what reproduction is; he senses it as he consumes the energy which is there for consumption. And it is here, only here, not in any other sphere of the imagination, but in the awareness of his reproductive faculties that the difference between worms and men becomes apparent. The worm reproduces and goes its way doing what worms do (gnawing away at wood) and perpetuating its race. Man creates and produces technology, architecture, art, literature and, at the same time, perpetuates his race. He has energy which must be consumed according to his abilities, energy which emanates from one source.
This mounting energy, when accumulated, gives rise to melancholy and nervous agitation if it has no other way out. The fantasies of young men fashion a halo around the body of any woman who sells herself and whose reproductive instincts are bound to material interests because society, rightly or wrongly, forces her to do so.
The energies of the young men were consumed in Lukja's room. If they had not been consumed there, they would have been consumed elsewhere, in an unnatural, more refined and artificial manner, mixing the intellectual with the physical.
"Lukja, yes, that's the way. How beautiful your eyes are..." murmured one of the lads.
She remained silent.
"How beautiful your... your... your..."
"Shut up, little vagabond. Come on, get a move on. That's why you came here."
The intimacy of their physical embrace, the heavy breathing, a little bite here and there, a quiver of lust, and a slap on naked flesh...
Sometimes, Lukja was depressed by it all. She suffered from time to time, but only in what we call the soul. Had these emotional crises been more frequent, the proprietor would have thrown her out because Lukja was wont, on those rare occasions, to break anything that got into her hands: glasses, dishware, mirrors, and whatever else she could find. On such days, she even refused to receive visitors. Perhaps she was depressed by the idea that all that energy in the lads was being consumed senselessly. Perhaps she, too, had a desire to reproduce, like Mother Earth and all other creatures. What sorrow she must have felt, almost physical pain, at being reminded that she was a woman who was not allowed to reproduce. She was a puppet, a mere toy to be played with in a moment of debauchery, and then to be forgotten.
One clear winter's day when the north wind was blowing and the frost had turned the dewdrops to ice crystals, Lukja went into town. The story of her life had been simple up to that point, though full of suffering, like the existence of all women from the mountains. Life in the big city looked so attractive from a distance. You could at least make money if you were young and healthy. But when Lukja had her first miscarriage, she realized that life was the same everywhere for those living in misery, and wanted to get out of the trade. But the others insisted:
"Keep at it, you fool. You're still young... you can make a lot of money, and with the money you'll easily find a husband who'll love you when you're old."
And Lukja was intelligent enough to appreciate the philosophy of the town in which she had settled.
It wasn't long before Lukja had made two hundred napoleons. Three leks each time from the students, and three francs from the merchants. She amassed a good amount of cash, and counted it avidly as it grew. With all the money she was making, Lukja hoped to find some lost soul like herself to live with in old age. She wasn't asking for much. She did not need to be seen on the main thoroughfare, arm in arm with the man of her choice, nor did she want any of the other pleasures which virtuous, married women enjoy. She just wanted a little home to spend her old age in, and someone to sit with her beside the fire and exchange a few words on those long and cold nights of winter to dispel the sorrow of existence. Such were Lukja's modest ambitions.
Two hundred napoleons are two hundred banners of triumph over a life of backwardness and misery. They are two hundred cries of victory in the struggle for survival, two hundred "hurrahs."
And with her two hundred napoleons, Lukja hoped to build herself a castle and live in it with some suffering soul like herself. There in silence beside the fireplace she would let pass in review all the epic and sentimental struggles of her past. Finally she would have peace and quiet, like a ship tossed and turned in a heavy sea which finally reaches its port of call.
And one day, Lukja found a home of her own, away from the brothel. And a husband. He was no romantic knight in shining armour, no great thinker poised to rid the world of suffering. He was simply a tinsmith who had gone bankrupt.
"There's no future for our profession. Tin utensils are out of fashion. Only the older households keep copper pots and pans, and even the homes that have them, don't use them. They hang them on the walls like antiques," said the tinsmith, raising his pale glass of raki.
"A bit of fresh capital might revive the profession, but where can you get funds like that nowadays?" he continued, chewing on his hors d'oeuvres.
"If you could help me, you'd be doing a good deed," he said to the owner of the café where Lukja worked, as he paid for his drink.
And the deal was made. He married Lukja who was supposed to help him in his business with her money. "Work, work, nothing but work. And so much money, you won't know what to do with it all," dreamed the tinsmith. Lukja, for her part, had reached her port of call. She now had a home and a family as she had always wanted, and was looking forward to old age. After all, why shouldn't she think a bit about the pleasures of her own life now that she and her husband were in their thirties and forties, mused Lukja.
But her dreams were torn apart like a blouse sewn together with the threads of a spider's web only to reveal the sordid nudity of reality. No use trying to make true your dreams. Leave them as is and make do with what you have (if you are satisfied with dreaming). Otherwise you will despair, like the couple in this short and undated story.
Lukja's two hundred napoleons were soon reduced to one hundred. They were swept away by the high tide like the fruits of the fields during a flood.
"Easy come, easy go," said the husband bitterly to his wife.
"Easy go because you are incompetent. You're being taken in and deceived because you don't know what you're doing!" replied his wife in a voice betraying both anguish and anger.
"Shut up!" he shouted furiously.
"Alright, alright!" replied Lukja and went off to the living room, almost in tears for having thrown her two hundred napoleons out the window.
"All for nothing," she sobbed as she stirred the embers in the fireplace with her tongs to make her husband a cup of coffee.
She thought about the future and saw herself once again at the mercy of the faceless masses. But the masses, whom she had taken advantage of while she was young by getting her claws into all that young flesh, would not want anything to do with her anymore. They would not even give her the time of day. Who would take pity on an aging whore? And then, there would follow starvation and a slow death. Not a swift end, but a slow and steadily increasing debility, day afer day, just the way her sisters and brothers in the mountains had perished.
When she brought the coffee to her husband, she found him staring out the window, his glance lost in the twilight of the evening. He then turned to her.
"Give me a napoleon. I need it for something I've got to do."
"You must be joking," she replied, making an obscene gesture and giving him a furious look.
"Just look at yourself, who you are and where you've come from..." he said to his wife. He was not in the mood for a big fight, and spit in her direction.
Rare were the fights which stopped at that. The two often began by pushing one another around. He would slap her first, and she would give him back the same. When the disputes became more frequent, Lukja began to use all of her physical strength. Having lived in the mountains as a shepherd and having learned to use her forces to defend herself against the other girls and boys, she was stronger than her short and weak husband who only had a man's courage.
He soon forgot his household responsibilities and Lukja watched as her other hundred napoleons seeped through her hands, day after day. Strangely enough, she did not despair any longer. She was like a person coming to terms with an infirmity. Sometimes, her husband would come home drunk and would inevitably turn violent. He would beat her, throwing her to the ground. Whenever he succeeded in getting on top of her, he would tear her clothes off and have his way with her. She would just close her eyes, horrified by the memories of the past, and look at the faces of all the men who had lain on her, right down to her backward and disgusting husband. His was the only face she now saw when she opened her eyes. The neighbours confirmed that she always preserved her husband's honour and had nothing to do with other men. She could have served as a good example for the other women of the neighbourhood.
"How dare she! Comparing herself to us, as if only yesterday she hadn't been a ..." cursed the other women in fury.
Lukja did not work anymore. She spent her time preserving her husband's honour, though he never brought home a cent... Lukja's money quickly vanished. Even her husband could see that. Increasingly, when he got home, he found nothing on the table to eat. On his wife's face he could observe the bitter traces of deprivation and starvation, a life of suffering. And one day, he declared:
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going to look for a job in the countryside. I'll send you some money when I get there. You won't get very much from me though," he wanted to add, but didn't know why, so he didn't say it. He was filled with a sense of insecurity and stared at the ground, not daring to look Lukja in the eyes. She replied:
"I'll come with you."
"What else can I do? Who else can I live with, and how will I survive?" she reflected, terrified by the thought of ending up on the street once again at the mercy of the masses.
It was in a village which called itself a town that the bus made its final stop. There was no more road towards the east, only a horse track. Anyone who came down from that direction did so out of great need (There were also a few foreign tourists from time to time).
One day, when the post bus set off for the regional capital from the village which called itself a town, it did so bearing a woman sitting between two policemen, her hands in shackles.
"Hey, Lukja," shouted one of the people who had gathered around the vehicle.
"Where did they find her?"
"Where has she been?"
"What are the police there for?"
"Look, they've tied her up!"
Lukja stared at the people and grinned.
"Why have they tied me up, eh?"
"She's gone mad," murmured someone in the crowd.
"Poor thing," said one of the mountain women, carrying a load of wood on her back.
The people began to taunt her about her sinful past. She just stared at them with a smile on her face.
One lad, who had a job somewhere, handed her a bouquet of withered flowers, whether to make fun of her or not, who knows? She nodded to thank him for the gesture and beamed:
"Thank you, young man. Ha ha ha," she giggled, trying to hold the flowers up between the shackles.
The vehicle set off. And Lukja, her countenance sombre from the pain and suffering, with her eyes of a madwoman and her absurd tittering, was dispatched to an insane asylum. There, amidst all the giggles, she began to tell her story. But few were the people around her who understood the giggling.
Her husband, the vagrant tinsmith (merchant), ended up in some isolated mountain village from where he had arranged for Lukja to be sent to the asylum. He chuckled at the fate of the whore who had been his wife.
"Thank God I got rid of that one!"
[Historia e njenës nga ato, from the collection Novelat e Qytetit të Veriut. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 96-106.]
TRAGEDY OR COMEDY?
Man is a living guitar on which a fervent hand transforms the vibration of strings into melodies... tragic or comic?
Man is a living guitar by which Good and Evil have revealed tragedies or comedies of their own.
Man is a living guitar, by which God, in long, never-ending melodies, has expressed the majesty of His... tragedy or comedy? Who knows...?
Ding, dang, dong... are the sounds of the guitar, or rather of the heart, which create melodies - perhaps sad, perhaps bitter, as acrid as our world (Earth) on the tip of the tongue of the Cosmos. Ding, dang, dong... ding, dang, dong. It is perhaps pleasure, perhaps a friendly smile, a wild rejoicing like the grinning of a madman at the crossroads. Perhaps. Who knows?... The ardent hand plucks the strings of the guitar, slowly at first, then faster and faster. Lustful fingernails wound the guitar, no, the breast, the heart... blood drips and flows... the string breaks... the melody dies - and so does man!
An individual, of an unsavoury sort, revealed his pain at the corpse of what was once man, while in the corner of his eye a crocodile tear glistened, reflecting the tragedy of the corpse. Another individual, of a better sort, laughed, guffawed so much that the features of his face became distorted and turned ugly. It was the mirth of a man in the face of comic fatality. Through man, Good, Evil, and God emerged from the dark into the light, and through man, they will recede into the darkness once again. Behind them the vaguest of impressions will subsist, planted in the lap of life, and will plunge into complete oblivion. But for the moment, all man is a stage on which Good, Evil, and God perform dramas of hatred and love, of contempt and affection, of desire and apathy, of adoration and condemnation... And while they are playing out their martial dramas of artistic refinement and theatrical majesty, they jab the sharp knives and poison arrows and pour molten lead into man, emitting cries of victory. When the battle is won, the tragedy concludes with a majestic Te Deum, with a Te Deum Laudamus full of perfidious sincerity. The Te Deum is the key to a comic opera called Peace: tragedy, comedy, and so it goes on and on. Where tragedy is born, comedy is present as a guest of honour - a godfather - and conversely, where comedy is born, tragedy attends as the guest of honour and godfather. They call it a tragicomedy, or is it a comic tragedy or a tragic comedy? Do you understand? If not, remember: "Laugh, Pagliaccio, at your shattered love," and you shall understand.
"Laugh, Pagliaccio, at your shattered love!" The figure of Pagliaccio was created by the Absurd to entertain the shadows of the night, the light of day, and the creatures of the other world. All of them are waiting for him to laugh, and this will give rise to a universal laugh, a burst of laughter, a roar which will cause the Cosmos with all its planets and spheres to shudder. And all the time, man's heart is breaking. His heart is breaking because his life depends on that laugh, depends on the mercy of the merciless planets, depends on the hearts of the heartless spheres, depends on the Absurd which created him. It is a difficult and far from comforting condition for the fragile reed which is man in the face of the Cosmos. The tragedy of man is to be found in his illusion of grandeur, and the comedy is in his sense of insignificance. Thus: "Laugh, Pagliaccio, at your shattered love!"
It is a tragicomedy!... or, the tale of human feelings, whichever you prefer.
[Tragedi apo komedi?, first published in Illyria on 1 July 1934. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 115-117 Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 129-131.]
REFRAIN OF MY TOWN
"Sir, sir, please sir, please give me something!" This is the refrain, the fair refrain of my town. When morning awakens in the streets, when the sun's rays begin to shine between the legs of passersby, and the shadows of cars and carriages begin to glide along the ground, the chorus starts up on the sidewalks, the fair refrain of my town: "Sir, sir, please sir, please give me something!" Who could put the beauty of this refrain to music? Mozart? Beethoven? Ha, ha, ha! Only the sidewalks of my town know how to sing this melody and only its inhabitants hear it. And they love it, for the people here are very fond of music. From morning to night they hear the same litany and are never bored with it. They've never chased away (or given a penny to) a singer yet. No! They are great fans of music. The refrain sounds especially beautiful in the twilight. The streets of the town then have a romantic allure (like the one you see in coloured photographs). Citizens, satisfied with their day's work, are out for a bit of nightlife. The sky smiles down on them like a virgin and the lips of each of them are ready to respond with a sensuous kiss... and in the midst of it all, the fair refrain of my town. Can you imagine such joy?
I don't know if what I'm now going to tell you is a dream or a nightmare.
"Sir, sir, please sir, please give me something!" A boy, some ten or twelve years old, like a pretty little puppy (white, black, or reddish-brown) leaping up and down to lick its master's hand, limps along behind a gentleman. He gives a gentle tug to the seam of his coat, a very gentle tug, for he is afraid of waking the wrath of the gentleman, of a god, of a devil, the wrath of this gentleman/human being, I mean. He thus gives an exceedingly subtle tug and implores, "Sir, sir, please sir, please give me something!" But the gentleman/human being is lost in thought: the new season has begun! The season! The season! Always the season and, as the season changes, so does his wife, his children and so does he himself - with whatever the season calls for. Preoccupied with such matters, he pays no attention to the little beggar who, wasting no thoughts on the season, reflects on how well the gentleman must have dined, how warm his coat must be, how fine his shoes are... Lost in such thoughts, he pulls more strongly at the gentleman and implores in a louder voice, "Sir, sir, please sir, please give me something!" Suddenly, the gentleman turns and slugs the little beggar in the face. "You good-for-nothing," he snarls and departs without giving him anything. Or rather, he did give the pallid face a slug. A groan from the child's breast attracts the attention of passersby. "Hey, look," someone cries out, "that little beggar is trying to steal something!" The people think that the boy has attempted to pick the gentleman's pocket. That's why he was struck. The blood from the little beggar's heart flushes in his face and, like a stalked bird, he gathers all his infant force to flee. He spurts off, relentlessly pursued by fear, and only comes to a halt when his face and back are bathed in sweat. A hole, a tiny hole that I could crawl into somewhere far away and die of hunger - that was his only thought. Another boy, a bit older, sees the urchin running and cries out in a fit of mocking, "Hey, you little twirp, where do you think you're you off to? Hang on! Don't you remember what we decided on the other day? I get to throw a handful of coins into your face and you get to keep them... Aren't you going to keep your promise?"
"Alright, but don't throw them hard. I get to cover my eyes with my hands so you don't blind me."
"OK, let's do it now. Hey, what are you trembling for? You're not chicken, are you?"
"No... but I'm hungry."
"So, you're not chicken, eh..." and suddenly hurls the money in the younger boy's face, the coins scattering with a jingle. The little beggar, poor lad, stands there unmoved, but then, almost robbed of his strength, gets down on his knees and, with a grin on his face, begins to pick up the pennies. A scarlet drop on his forehead sparkles in the sun. It is blood.
No, no. It was no dream, but a nightmare, when a singer, inspired to this refrain by these fictitious events, sang by mistake:
On the mercy of the merciless
The little beggar survived.
His life ran its course
In dirty streets,
In dark corners,
In cold doorways,
Among fallacious faiths.
But one day, when the world’s pity dried up
He felt in his breast the stab
Of a new pain, which contempt
Fosters in the hearts
Of the poor.
And - though yesterday a little beggar,
He now became something new.
An avenger of the past,
He conceived an imprecation
To pronounce to the world,
His throat strained
To bring out the word
Which his rage had gripped
And smothered on his lips.
Speechless he sat
At the crossroads,
When the wheels of a passing car
And... silenced him.
[Një refren i qytetit t'em, first published in Illyria on 15 July 1934. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 122-126. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 132-135.]
A man of thirty years. He stands in front of the movie theatre billboard, unemployed, on a work day. Pfff. He spits, turning away from the billboard. He has the impression that someone has called him, but no, no one has. No one needs a manual labourer. And so he continues his daily routine. He stares at the posters in front of the movie theatre. Pfff. They know how to live, he says, and approaches the posters to have a good look. It's the same film every day: an attractive girl standing beside a good-looking young man. The worker gazes at them in envy. He takes a dislike to the leading man and gives him a nasty stare. He spits and looks down at his own shoes. He does not really know what they are, his old, worn-out shoes, an incarnation of real shoes. He bends over to tie the laces, uttering a groan as he straightens up. He saunters off, along the sidewalk of course. You can even go barefoot on the sidewalk if you want. Why not?
He paces slowly, taking it easy. Like a man without a job. Others come by, too, not at ease, but more in a hurry. How good it is to be able to take it slow, to stroll like a gentleman. But, what am I saying? Is it really a good thing to stroll and take it easy? Yes and no! No and yes! It depends. For a gentleman, it's a proper thing to saunter at one's leisure, it's good for the digestion. For a working man, it's not. Why? You know why. But our worker strolls and takes it easy. Like a gentleman. That's the way the times and the world are nowadays. If you want to be a gentleman, you can. Yet our worker doesn't want to be or imitate a gentleman, just the times... No interest. He doesn't like their pompous ways. Not that they bother him, it's just... well, you know.
Bong, bong, bong, bong. Four o'clock in the afternoon! How cruelly the bells resound in a worker's guts. The bell tower of the church strikes four and resonates hollow in a worker's damn guts. Four! Four! Four! Four everywhere! And why four? Why? An argument, a revolt. Almost a revolution. A revolution in miniature. The roar of a cannon... No! the sound of starving, rumbling guts.
Our worker continues to loiter in the streets of the town. He is looking for work. Like his fellow-workers in Berlin and London. Nowhere is there a laden truck for him to unload. Nowhere is there a traveller with suitcase in hand in need of a porter. Nowhere! Nowhere! No one wants the sweat of his brow. Nowhere are there a couple of leks to be made.
The worker stops in front of some shops and stares into the window. He observes and savours our romantic era. He stands in front of the store display of a stationery shop. Behind the glass are postcards of movie stars. He grits his teeth. In anger he raises his fist to... But there are laws! And police! The consequences flash through his mind. He turns from the stars in disdain and spits. He continues on his way and spits again. He looks to the left and to the right. And spits again. Starving and in rags he saunters past shops full of "forbidden fruit" (a tale from the Bible).
His instincts yearn to express themselves. Our worker gets control of himself once again! The law! Police! To play it safe, he folds his hands behind his back. His hands are strong, powerful. They could seize the devil by the throat and strangle him. But the law protects the devil, too.
Bong, bong, bong, bong! How long will it last?
[Moll' e ndalueme, first published in Jeta dhe kultura on 20 July 1935. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 132-135. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 136-137.]
DO YOU NEED ANY COAL, SIR?
Two sacks of coal loaded onto a packhorse. At its flank, a highland woman. The sidewalk with its line of shops to the left and right. The horse and the highland woman are passing by. Coal for sale. An artist would be alarmed at the disharmony of the scene. Appalling disharmony. The highland woman blows her nose using her fingers. The result falls onto the ground and she wipes her fingers on her jubleta. A simple gesture, but a select motif for a painter. The stick in the woman's hand drags along the road, leaving a kilometre-long trail behind it. It is the residue of the mountain dweller's thoughts.
"Do you need any coal, sir?"
"How much are you charging?"
"Twelve leks - or better, you say your price. Hey, don't go away."
"Twelve leks in this heat?" someone else asks her with a grin.
"Well, how much will you give me?"
"No, I don't need any coal."
True, it is hot outside. Who needs coal? Alright, ten leks, thinks the highland woman to herself, walking down the shady side of the road. The horse paces onwards with its eyes closed. Perhaps it is dreaming. Now in old age, it is musing on its love for a long-forgotten mare. The woman leaves the horse alone to relish its memories. She is patient. Back in the sunlight now, a shadow follows them, or rather two shadows. Two shadows entwined and merged with one another - the shadow of the horse and the shadow of the highland woman. You cannot tell which is which, or separate them. One is nothing without the other; each is of no value. Only together do they form a whole. A living whole. Krk, krk, krk, the coal crunches on the horse's back. Krk, krk, krk, the monotonous clicking of the horseshoes over the cobblestones.
The highland woman lifts her head to see where the sun is. It's time to head back, to return to the mountains. And the coal has not been sold. She resolves to sell it more cheaply.
"Hey, young man, what time is it?"
The lad is attracted by the good-looking mountain lass. He approaches politely and tells her the time. He asks how much she wants for the coal and starts to barter with her, although he has no intention of buying. She is young and attractive. Why shouldn't he talk to her? "Oh, she's filthy," the lad realizes. "The mountain peasants are so stupid. They don't understand anything. You have to tell them everything, even what cannot be said in words." This is what the young man is thinking to himself as he musters the young highlander, as would a nobleman his young servant. "What a fool she is. She doesn't understand a thing!" And the lad goes on his way. The highland woman has begun to worry about the homeward journey. She looks at the sun sinking in the west. How can she return to the mountains in the dark? She is not afraid of vampires and demons, and if she were an old woman, she would not be frightened at all, but, she cannot forget that people once or twice approached and at first she had not known what they wanted... She certainly has no fear of vampires in town, but she is wary of these people. Why? Because she is young and not bad-looking.
Ardour penetrates her breast.
"How much is the coal, my good woman?"
The highlander turns around. She recognizes the fellow speaking to her. She had once sold coal to him. She replies:
"No, that's too much. I was mad about you last time," says the man, looking left and right.
The highland woman smiles, somewhat embarrassed. She covers her face, blushing, and looks away from him. Timidly she asks:
"Well, how much will you pay?"
"Give me seven."
"Alright, six and it's a deal."
The mountain lass hesitates. She reflects for a moment, turning her gaze towards the sun. "May fortune be with me," she murmurs, and follows her customer. The fellow walking in front of her wallows heavily in the memory of the highland woman, who blushes - red with shame.
[A do qymyr, zotni?, first published in Illyria on 28 September 1935. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 136-140. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 138-140.]
THE SUICIDE OF THE SPARROW
The sparrow was suffering from depression. It was born in a very barren land. Instead of grass, there were boar bristles, and instead of trees, there were the horns of prehistoric beasts. Who would not be depressed in such an environment, if one could call it nature? A sparrow does not need much to live on, but an environment devoid of nature, did not provide anything.
Do not ask how the sparrow happened to be born in that land, or how man ended up in this part of the universe. We don't know much about it. There are hypotheses and there are dreams. Millions of years and then a word is uttered, for example: "Let there be light. And there was light." Do you see? It's all magic. Hocus pocus. Applause!
I already explained that the sparrow was destined to live in a land where instead of grass there were boar bristles, and instead of trees, there were the horns of prehistoric beasts.
Once, the sparrow was perched on a horn. It was demoralized at seeing nothing but boar bristles. It was glum at having to fly from horn to horn. It closed its eyes out of frustration and sorrow, and fell into a sombre mood. A person with a melancholic disposition is intelligent, and the sparrow with a melancholic disposition was intelligent, too. Intelligence, in the broadest sense of the term, has rarely been a blessing to anyone.
The sparrow, perched on a horn and in the depths of depression decided to commit suicide. It looked about in philosophical irony and took the irrevocable decision which glimmered in its despairing eyes. It chirped once, it chirped twice, it chirped three times. Then there followed a long and poignant cry, its last will, the testament of its suffering. Without spreading its wings, it jumped off the horn and plunged into a boar bristle as long and sharp as a knife, and was impaled.
A sparrow, impaled on a boar bristle. Its tail and wings fluttered, causing it to rotate around the bristle, as metal weather vanes turn on the top of our chimneys when the North Wind begins to blow.
What is the logical connection here? Do I detect complaints?
Indeed, my dear and far from superficial reader, are there not enough logical, moral, and dogmatic inconsistencies in the realities of this world? Why get angry and accuse me of a few logical inconsistencies which are doing harm to no one?
[Vetvrasja e trumcakut, first published in Illyria on 4 January 1936. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 147-150.Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 141-142.]
No one knows Luli. Even the friends playing with him don't know him. Or rather, they know him, but play among themselves, and Luli watches them. Everyone has his own problems and difficulties nowadays, even children. So does Luli. Oh Luli, how early you learned to stand on your own two feet.
When Luli enters the schoolyard, with a slight grin on his face, he speaks to no one. He walks slowly, glancing to the left and to the right, advancing all the time until he reaches the school door. This is his favourite spot. There he stands in the golden rays of the sun in these autumn days. Luli leans against the wall, little fists clenched in his pockets, and his snubby nose, red from the morning frost, turned in the direction of the sun, and... looks around. What attracts his attention most are the boots which the other schoolboys are wearing. "How splendid they are! Look how they shine!" thinks Luli to himself and then stares down at his own beat-up shoes, with five bare toes protruding from each. Out of curiosity, he approaches one of the boys who is wearing brand-new boots. "Look how they're shining!" But the lad with the boots runs off, and Luli returns to his spot in the sun to warm his feet. What is poor Luli supposed to do when the sun is not shining? Perhaps the apostles of love and mercy will bear some of his suffering.
From time to time the teacher comes over to Luli. And when Luli's face is clean and he has no pimples, the teacher strokes his cheeks and the nape of his neck. Luli cuddles up and takes the teacher's hand, looking fondly at it and wishing he had something to give to the teacher as a present. But he doesn't have any violets. And what else could little Luli give to the teacher? Only his shoes with their mouths gaping wide open as if they would devour the teacher. Yes, yes, little Luli's shoes are going to devour the teacher.
[Luli i vocërr, first published in Illyria on 18 January 1936. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 151-152. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 143-144.]
IN THE FLY SEASON
He is grown now and cannot chase flies through the house and squash them as he used to do because people would otherwise say he'd lost his mind. The neighbours, the gossiping neighbours, are only waiting for a chance to pounce on him. Hylli remembers as if it were yesterday how the teacher told the third grade pupils that if they swatted a fly in the springtime, it was like swatting the thousands of flies which would have been born of it in the summer. And when the oldest of the children asked whether they ought to swat the female or male flies, the teacher stammered and only with difficulty was able to reply "all of them have to be swatted." In accord with the teacher's suggestion, the tables, walls, wooden chests and chairs echoed that spring to the swatting of flies. Encouraged by their teacher, the children had declared war. The following day, each child at school would recount how many enemies he had exterminated, how the battle had taken place, and what weapons had been used. Hylli had not been any better or worse than the others as a warrior in the bloody battle. He had accomplished as much as any other boy. In fact, he had caught one fly, but had thereby broken a vase and been given a beating by his mother.
Hylli is now sitting in an armchair with a book in his hand, staring at a fly making circles under the ceiling. He can hardly control his impulse to leap up and nab it. Soon though, surprised by his fratricidal instincts, he calms down. He now reflects on the fly in a more amicable fashion and sees it as a harbinger of summer - although not even one harbinger of spring had made its appearance yet. Such things do not interest him anymore. Swallows, who cares? But where did the fly come from? There must be a dunghill somewhere around. Then he remembers the dung piled in the yard of the beautiful lady next door. Hylli now observes the fly with admiration. He admires its loops under the ceiling. The fly, the dung, and the beautiful lady next door all combine to form a rhapsody on this spring afternoon, a rhapsody of urban life on an afternoon in May.
But the fly did not remain at its usual altitude. It began its slow descent to the lower spheres of the room. Hylli was afraid it might drown in the coffee cup which he had just been handed. A shiver ran down his spine when he considered how he might swallow a dead fly when gulping down his coffee. His pessimistic nature found the thought revolting. In reality, when considered as part of the divine plan, this fly was quite superfluous, he reflected. Unemployed apprentice boys and students sitting around at home would have found something to do, if it were not for these flies.
But as Schopenhauer once remarked, pleasure is nothing but a temporary interruption of ever-recurring pain. If it were not for driving nervous people crazy, there would be no need for flies at all. And there are certainly enough other flies in life. And what flies there are! Think of the horseflies which you cannot get rid of when they are drawing blood without giving them a swat, or rather, a big slap.
It is the nature of flies to interfere in other people's business and to take things into their own hands. It flew over his cup of coffee like a reconnaissance aircraft. Where the hell are the people responsible for getting rid of them? The people being paid to do the job? What are the members of parliament doing about this? The flies are the only decorations we have in this town. Finally something for visitors to see here... he thought. Unwillingly, Hylli got nervous and, with a swift move of his arm, swiped at the fly. He opened the palm of his hand, but there was nothing in it. Almost got it. Suddenly, a former ally in the fly-war and now a fellow student stood in the doorway.
"What are you doing, Hylli? Catching flies?"
"Nothing... I was just thinking how futile life is," responded Hylli, as usual.
[Në sezonën e mizave, written in Puka in May 1936. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 192-194.Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 145-147.]
THE PLATFORM OF A MAGAZINE
"No! We agree. Politics have no healthy basis, no law, no rules, no framework. Not even morals," added a moralizing editor, observing his colleagues from over the rim of his glasses. This same editor had bitten off a chunk of the book "Religious morality" for lunch instead of his sandwich and had spat the bite out again when he discovered he could not swallow it. But the gentleman had children at home, and children, according to the principles of modern education, are monkeys. This is why, when they saw their father spitting, they began to imitate him with a "Pff, pff, pff."
Politics are like a chameleon which, as is known, takes on the colour of its environment. If a chameleon happens to be sitting on a cliff, it will take on the colour of the cliff. Even if someone points it out to you, you will have trouble distinguishing it from the cliff. If you rush headlong to catch it, the trophy you have on your return - when you get back from this Trojan War - will be found on your forehead. It will have swollen as thick as the cliff you bumped into. The moment you think you have caught a chameleon, it is gone.
"That is the definition of politics, if there is one," said another editor.
"Our magazine has nothing to do with politics!"
"No! not at all," repeated all the editors, remembering the story about trying to catch a chameleon! Politics are dangerous!" they repeated to one another, nodding.
"Let us not forget, gentlemen, our magazine must be idealistic."
"It will devote itself to the education and defence of those who have no defence! It will open the eyes of the blind!!
"It will awaken pride in our nation."
"Yes, bravo! National awareness is sleeping and needs to be awakened with a forty-two..."
"Shshsh!" they turned on the uncouth speaker, who happened to be the one who sorted the mail.
In the end, they drafted a platform for an idealistic magazine.
Supernatural posters were put up throughout the town, many of which were glued onto the front windows of people's ground-floor homes, so that they now sat in the dark.
In a little alley where, in one day, four cats, three people, and perhaps a rooster with its hens pass by, a cow stopped in front of the red poster and speared it with its horns. It must have been related to the Spanish toreros.
"War! war!" cried the people as they gathered in front of the poster on the main street (the population was caught up in a war psychosis because of the Italian-Abyssinian conflict). Finally they found someone with a modicum of education who was able to read out loud: "Idealistic magazine!"
"What nonsense!" muttered a lady with bobbed hair who set off down the road at a martial pace.
The magazine remained unsold, for the population happened to be illiterate. There was no money left over for the second number. "What we need is a subsidy!" resolved the editors.
[Programi i një reviste, first published in Bota e re on 16 June 1936. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 156-158.Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 148-149.]
THE HEADLESS IDOLS
A terrible tempest toppled the idols. Some crumbled to dust, others lost their heads. The heartless storm did not arise on the horizon or appear from out of the skies, but from the bowels of the earth. And whatever emerges from the interior of the earth is either tender, like the most intimate of pleasures, or is terrible, like the tempest which toppled the idols.
The remains of the pulverized idols' heads blew away. Nothing was left behind them, and the headless gods stood there as awkward witnesses to an age gone by.
Decapitated idols. Disfigured nature. And the people who lived among them wandered about aimlessly. Those who had been born before the destruction of the idols and who had seen them in all their ceremonial splendour, now grieved and longed for the age of the former glory. They still hoped that the deities would save them when they died. Those who were born in the age of headless idols did not know what to make of them. They wanted to worship them, but what was there to worship? Faceless forms? They wanted to believe in them, but what was there to believe in? Brainless bodies? How could such abominations be worshipped? Who could believe in a headless god? Anything without a head is a corpse, and corpses have no place among the living. Corpses are for burying. Any other contact with them could prove fatal. A catastrophe. The whole nation could be destroyed.
(Our nation was not destroyed. But the only reason for this is that our direct neighbours suffered more or less the same fate as we did.)
Headless deities! Victims of time which devours everything, victims of fatality. There they stand, mutilated, only because no one can be found to build new ones. But one day, someone will be found. And the new idols he builds will be worshipped by the masses. The material they are made of will be the morals of the age, and the form they are modelled after - modern man.
Headless gods! At their burial, the tolling bells will crack, the minarets will bend over backwards, and chanting jaws will spring out of joint. Then there will be silence, for every cry begins and ends in silence. Only then will work begin.
[Idhujt pa krena, first published in Bota e re on 30 July 1936. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 164-165.Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 150-151.]
THE LEGEND OF CORN
Gods are not glorified in the twentieth century. Corn is. Our mountain pastures, temples to the greater glory of god, have now become temples to the glory of corn.
A grain of corn is a seed of suffering, in which there is much hunger and little corn.
The word 'corn' is the stuff of legends born of the will to survive. The will to survive is as great and wondrous as our mountains which open their bosoms to bury the starving people. On our mighty peaks, the legend told is one of birth, of life, and of death. And this bitter legend, full of ago-old pain and agony, is so heartrending that it would move you to tears.
A cry for help. Glorification of the twentieth century! It is not the names of gods which are heard in the mouths of babes when they begin to speak, but the word corn. Corn! It is the symbol of our age; it is synonymous with survival for the legendary inhabitants of these wild and savage mountains.
The alpine valleys echo the words of starving highlanders who plod along in a line, one after the other, each bearing half a sack of corn. It is a long, endlessly long line, as long and endless as their suffering. Each of them bears half a sack of corn on his back, bears his life, bears his god. The true god - long-desired corn.
The news that corn was to be distributed emerged from the bowels of the earth and flowed through deep veins into the stiff limbs of the land called the State. And it caused the breathing masses, who hardly have enough to keep themselves alive, to quiver with delight.
Like ants gathering around grains of corn, the highlanders assemble around the depot in the district capital. Corn is to be distributed to the surrounding villages. The savage peaks with their fog and snow had tried to prevent the mountain dwellers from getting there, as did the skies which poured rain to drench them to the bone. But who can stop them when they set out in search of corn? Corn for their children, marked by misery, who when they stretch out their arms, resemble pale little ghosts. These tykes are the real testament of human tragedy. The tragic witnesses in this part of the globe which, for foreigners, calls to mind legends of the past. Legends of the past with legendary glory, for real glory is to be found nowhere near the aeries of the Mountain Eagles.
The highlander makes his way down through the mountain valleys with nothing but the shirt on his back and his legendary trousers to so as to reach the district capital in search of corn. His breast is a slab of granite broken off from a cliff and stuck on two legs as strong and straight as tree trunks. This chunk of mountain advances without making a sound. In front of the corn depot his real nature comes to the fore and he turns chicken, becomes servile, frightened, because - in his thinking - that is the way the law and the authorities want him to be, otherwise he gets no corn. "As you wish, sir," he repeats from time to time in the most ridiculous fashion, with the voice of a madman and the gestures of a monkey, hoping desperately not to awaken the disfavour of the angels distributing corn.
And when they secure the corn, they set off one by one along the narrow path through the mountains and through their lives. It happens on occasion that grains of corn fall onto the ground through a little hole in one man's sack. The fellow behind him takes no notice and treads on them. The third man curses him savagely: "Don't step on them, or the wicked fairies will get you!" For the twentieth century is ten decades for the glorification of corn in the aeries of the Mountain Eagles.
[Legjenda e misrit, first published in Bota e re on 15 October 1936. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 167-170.Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 152-154.]
The moon stares down from the vaults of heaven with a face as pale as death. It stares at the mountain world powdered in sugary crystals. It stares at the sparkling, snow-covered huts of the village, with hardly a trace of life. All are covered in a white blanket of snow. And this wan beauty can kill you. It snuffs out the soul of the highlanders just as the cold, pallid figure of a naked woman snuffs out the soul of an artist.
In a hut groaning under the weight of the snow, there are but two colours: red and black. Red is the glow of the hearth in the middle, and black is the colour all around it. Veiled in the black of night are the recesses of the hut, from which the faint bleating of a lamb or the bell of a cow can be heard. The steam rising from their mouths falls onto their fell in frosty flakes. Silence. Everything is crystallized. An arm stretches out and grasps a piece of wood, poking it in the fire. Sparks fly about and flames lick the darkness. Up to the beams and around the faces at the hearth soar the sparks. Bodies shiver. The cold air from the dark corners of the hut claws into their backs. Brrrr. The chill gapes behind them.
"Go and make sure that Laro is not freezing."
They rise and give their cow Laro a place by the fire. These family members need warmth, too, in the crystal-cold hut. Laro knows how to position herself next to the fireplace, but with her huge body, she almost squeezes two of the children to death, who are sleeping at the hearth.
The animals become uneasy as the temperature drops to its lowest around midnight. Yes, there is a commotion. One after the other they approach the humans with pleading eyes: "Give us a place beside the fire so that we can warm ourselves, too. We are freezing..." Humans may show no pity on humans, but they do take pity on animals. Thus they make way and give the animals a place by the fire, receding themselves into the gaping darkness.
Dawn breaks with its white and lethal beauty. The humans awaken with stiff, near-frozen limbs, stinging from the horrors of the night. They rise, but one little child does not move. Its mother stretches out to touch it and a terrible scream rends the hearts in the hut. The agony of the mother melts these hearts, but revives not the frozen heart of the little child.
Yes, the mother's favourite child froze to death. Its red and purple blood congealed in its veins and heart, turned into crystal like the glasses in the tea service of a millionaire. No, its blood has transformed into rubies for the necklace of a lady. The body of the little child, his mother's favourite, was as stiff as a stone statue. A stone statue plucked from his mother's breast.
Get rid of the statue, take it into town. Set it up in some square. Let it serve as a monument to someone. Dedicate it to the worthiest person in the land! To a minister, a member of parliament, or another... And if you don't find anyone of sufficient merit, then dedicate it to a less-worthy figure: to some traditional god.
[Bukuria që vret, first published in Bota e re on 15 December 1936. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 171-173.Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 155-156.]
The sun rose day after day, larger and more splendid, only to sink in radiant satisfaction with the people far below.
Early up on these crystal-clear mornings were the farmers who thanked the rising sun and, when the rosy rays of evening came, they begged it, entreated it, not to come back the next day, but to send rain, because their newly-sown fields in the verdant valley needed two days of rain a week.
The sun heard their prayers, as would a beaming mother those of her beloved child. It smiled blithely and went down in a glorious magenta. The next morning it did not rise. Instead, accompanied by all the hues of a rainbow, there came a soft and priceless rain shower which tenderly moistened the earth and gently watered the plants, not even hurting the poppies.
The same happened on the second day.
On the third day, a splendid sun appeared again. Its golden rays quivered as if they were the limbs of some profound and delicate spirit.
How the people were looking forward to the coming harvest! From the hillside over the village they observed the fields of grain, like a green sea, as it was caressed by a gentle breeze from the west. The farmers could not only see it; they could feel the grain growing, and with the grain, they, too, were growing, reaching to the heavens, becoming titans. At last! rose the satisfaction from their breasts as they dreamt of the coming harvest.
The children, seeing their parents satisfied, were all the happier. They wove garlands of flowers in the meadows and set them on their little heads, took one another's hands, sang and danced. Ah! Ah! Cries of joy rose from their little breasts, inspired by a blithe future.
And the day of the harvest arrived.
The farmers got up early on that crystal-clear morning. They seized their sickles, sharpened them, and set off down the valley. The sun ascended large and splendid, causing the farmers to squint. The sickles in their hands shone and glittered. Once again the farmers thanked the sun from the bottom of their hearts and proceeded, hand in hand, down to the fields.
When the farmers got there, they rubbed their eyes. They looked at the fields in front of them and rubbed their eyes again in disbelief. Cannon barrels threatened to devour them. They were positioned in the direction of the village. For the farmers, these cannons were like monsters from the fairy tales they had heard from their forefathers. They shook in their boots.
"What are those?" they asked, approaching in confusion. When they placed their hands on the cannons, the coldness of the metal penetrated their hearts. They looked at the wheels planted firmly in the soil and felt as if those wheels had been planted in their bodies. They were in pain.
"What are they? We never sowed this kind of seed." Doesn't the saying go: 'As ye sow, so ye shall reap?' We planted grain and now we've got plants of iron."
"What are they?" the poor farmers asked one another. But no one replied. They stood there shaking, their fingers stroking the cannons and the cannonballs, as if to appease some apocalyptic beast. But the cannons were built of cold iron and the beast was not to be appeased.
"What are they?" each of them asked himself, all with tears of frustration in their eyes. They frowned. Wrinkles appeared on their foreheads. They did not even notice the sun shining above them. The poor farmers, their hopes dashed, returned to their village in undescribable sorrow. When they got home, half-crazed with worry and pain, they exclaimed to the children who were singing and dancing:
"You will have to learn to eat iron!"
"Ho! ho! ho! we're going to eat iron!" sang and danced the unsuspecting children.
[Të korrunat, first published in Përpjekja shqiptare on 16 April 1938. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 179-181.Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 157-159.]
Zenel was like the fertile soil in which seed, wherever it is cast, sprouts, grows, and bears more fruit than one would expect.
I said to him:
"Zenel, tell me something that the other children don't know."
His large chestnut eyes stared pensively at mine as he stood up with his white teeth, his tanned face, his smooth and well-shaped brow, and his oblong skull. He gave his reply, quite confident in himself. It was confidence which had often been put to the test, for he was always the one to reply when the others did not know the answer. He spoke, with a frown between his eyebrows.
Sometimes when he talked, Zenel was overcome by childish fantasy. He would mount the winged horse of his imagination and soar from one cloud to the next, but when he noticed me smiling, he realized his mistake, fell into an embarrassed silence, sat down without asking permission, and, out of shame, hid his face in his hands. I laughed, and the children laughed, too, looking back and forth at Zenel and at me.
Very occasionally, Zenel would get bored and reply:
"I don't know, teacher."
I knew then that something in the lesson had gone wrong. He was not interested.
Equally rare are the moments in which Zenel bubbled with childish mirth. He laughed out loud for no reason at all, jumped up and down, could not sit still, and disturbed the other children. Neither a warning nor an interesting lesson would help. It even happened that Zenel began to complain and make fun of me, saying: "Come on, teacher. Enough is enough. You've taught us how to live. Fine. You've taught us all things bright and beautiful. But we are subsisting in the same life our forefathers did, with the same joys and the same sorrows they had in these isolated mountain valleys. Look for yourself. You can see that boy's pale shoulder through his torn shirt, and the other boy's bloated belly. He's dying of hunger, and this boy cannot even keep his teeth from clattering with fever."
I noticed an ironic reproach in Zenel's features when he laughed, as if he were to say: "Let's laugh and have some fun as long as we are at school. Long live school! Long live education! How often have we sung songs although there is neither joy nor laughter here. Long live school! Long live education, which teaches us to read and write, although this will not help us much in our lives, but at least we will have found a stick, if nothing more, and can write in the sky with it: Long live school! Long live education!"
Letting the children have their fun, I went over to the window and looked out at the mountain pastures, above which stretched a seemingly endless forest. We had hiked up there once and it was indescribably majestic. I studied the slopes and mountains, the meadows in the distance, the trees, the red earth, and the green and yellow leaves. Closer were the cottages stamped into the earth and covered with nothing but straw. I fell into morose contemplation and sensed my lips talking to themselves automatically. I soon realized that the children were looking in my direction. Turning around, I saw Zenel:
"Teacher, are we not having a lesson today?"
"Alright, geography then." I got out the globe and addressed them.
"Where is Albania?" two or three of them inquired, leaning forward to get a better look.
I showed them the spot, a little red dot among the other colours, and could sense their displeasure, hear their disconcerted reactions:
"Look how tiny it is! You can hardly see it."
"Is Albania really that small, teacher?" asked one of the boys, gesticulating angrily.
They murmured among themselves in a disillusioned manner, as if Albania had recently shrunk and they would have to fight to preserve the rest. Zenel, for his part, said nothing. He looked up at me with his sparkling eyes as if to say, "Teacher, do something. You've saved us in many other situations. Remember when you taught us about agricultural equipment and why we don't have any, and when we talked about all the commodities of modern life, all the things we don't have, and when we talked about rich countries, which we are not? You always saved the situation. Save us this time, too."
I noticed the little souls worrying about the country which had seemed so big to them, but now appeared as a little dot on the globe. They thought there was some mistake. I had a feeling that by the next day one of the little sons of the eagle would redraw the country on the globe as much larger.
To raise their spirits, I said to them:
"What? Albania is not small! It is large. If you divide the country up by all the people living in it, there is more space per person here than in the other countries of Europe."
"Well, why did they draw it so small, then?" asked one little advocate of the rights of his nation indignantly, supporting his intervention with a gesture of his hand.
I could hardly resist laughing, and replied:
"Because we are smaller than the other countries. But that doesn't mean anything. To live happy lives, all we need is the land that we have. We just need to work, and..." At this moment, the bell rang and the children lost interest in the theory of happiness which I was projecting. Irritated, they stomped out of the classroom, one by one, still discussing the matter with one another. Zenel remained behind, unnoticed by the others. When they had all left, he said to me with a bitter smile:
"We have nothing at all, teacher, neither new equipment to work the land, nor clean, modern houses like they do in other countries. We are small..."
I interrupted. Zenel's conclusion was both depressing and true. I talked to him and endeavoured to pacify him. I don't know if he believed me.
I had often thought about Zenel's future. But what could I do? Good will on my part was not enough to allow Zenel to climb the lofty peaks in order to glimpse the light shining on the horizon. There was something fatalistic within me which said: Let Zenel grow up to live the primitive life his parents did. It is better for him. There is no sense in my dragging him up the dizzying aeries where he will only despair and break his neck when he looks down at his loved ones and realizes he cannot help them.
Thus, when the time came, I handed Zenel his graduation certificate and wished him well. When he departed, I was disconsolate, knowing we would never see one another again.
[Zeneli, first published in Përpjekja shqiptare in December 1938. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 183-187.Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 160-164.]
THE ROBBER'S KISS
Another spring has come. It is the seventeenth spring for Dila who is lying in the grass and feels exactly as if seventeen springs have passed, no more and no less.
"Mother, how old am I?" she had inquired at home.
"You have just turned seventeen, daughter!" responded the mother, resting on one arm and holding the other arm over her eyes to protect herself against the rays of the sun.
And Dila, stretched out in the grass, feels exactly seventeen years old. There she lies, looking up at the blue sky and listening to the bells of the herd. The bell with the higher tone belongs to the bellwether, whereas the louder bell belongs to the cow. She gets up from time to time to take a look at the herd and then lies down again, with an undefined longing in her breast. How strongly Dila senses the seventeen years within her! A prisoner of desire, she folds her hands behind her head and lies back, feeling the blood beating hard in her temples. Now the longing within her has become all the stronger. Dila closes her eyes and waits for something to happen. A warm breath of air passes over her moist, half-open lips.
A hard winter had preceded that spring. The snow, which was now confined to the high mountain ridges, had covered all the land. A violent storm had driven the drifts right into the mountain caves and hollows of the tree trunks. In the course of that frosty winter, the wild animals had come down into the valley, to the humans who had not made them welcome. Together with the animals arrived a robber, the terror of all those who had heard of him but had never seen him. Having received a promise of good conduct, Dila's father took the robber in and gave him bread and salt. During the month he stayed with them, Dila realized that this robber could not possibly be the person accused of murder, theft, and rape. That was the reputation he had, but he was not really like that. Her mother smiled at their twenty-four-year-old guest, and so did Prenda, her brother's young wife. He conversed with her father, and he sang songs with her brother. Their robber guest was a good man and they all thought highly of him. Dila, willingly or unwillingly, stared at him from time to time and blushed, willingly or unwillingly. On occasion, willingly or unwillingly, she touched his arm while passing, to do her household chores. The contact made her breasts swell.
Dila was not even afraid of his weapons - his cartridge belt, his rifle, his revolver. A long-suppressed sensation blossomed in Dila's heart and burgeoned from day to day. The feeling turned into a yearning which left her awake at night.
But one morning, when the sun rose like a gold coin in the sky, the robber was gone. Dila was left alone with her love for him.
Dila's desire had transformed into passion on that bright spring day as she lay in the grass. She could feel the blood throbbing in her veins. Her passion increased all the more when she closed her eyes and dreamed of what she had never had. She had never known ... She never saw the robber again. Her seventeen springs were seventeen silent, but passionate calls to this man.
There she lay dreaming and refused to look even when she felt a weight on her body, when she heard the heavy breathing of a man, and when she tasted the moisture of his lips. She would not open her eyes. Perhaps she was afraid of destroying the moment of rapture which had taken possession of her... Only when the weight was gone from her body did she open her eyes. She stood up, but there was no one there. She looked around and saw only the traces of footsteps in the grass to her left. Dila quivered. "It was him," she cried, " the robber!" and set off after him, following the footprints. She ran in her ecstasy, as if intoxicated, and did not even notice the smirk on the face of a nearby shepherd. Dila hastened down the hillside, still in rapture, though no more traces of his steps were to be found. She had left the herd behind her, not even realizing why she was following the robber, and ran until she reached the edge of a cliff. She called out his name. Her footsteps echoed from stone to stone, but her call went unanswered.
In the twilight, agonized voices could be heard on the high mountain pastures and in the ravines: "Dila!, Dila!, Dila!"
[Puthja e cubit, first published in Tirana in 1954. From the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 188-191.Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in the volume Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories, Peja: Dukagjini 2004, p. 164-166.]