Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Blood Feud

L'Homme au canon by Dritero Agolli

Dritero Agolli is primarily a poet who writes in Albanian and whose works are available in a few English and French translations.  Educated in Leningrad, Agolli was for many years the head of the Albanian League of Writers and Artists--apparently a member of the nomenklatura and, after 1990, an important political figure, a member of the Albanian Socialist Party in that nation's parliament.  I have been digging around and trying to learn more about this important and prolific writer--a man of peasant stock, born in 1931 in Menkulas, one of those writers who, like Andre Malraux or Vaclav Havel, successfully combined a life of public service with a life of writing.  Agolli served two masters for many years--the Communist Party of Albania and his own poetic muse--an interesting and difficult terrain to negotiate in any milieu, but especially so, one would imagine, in the isolated Stalinist enclave that was Albania. I haven't been able to find much of his poetry in English (there's a bit more in French but see the link below)--here's one:

Ah, ditët e qeta
U tretën aq larg
Të djegura shkrumb!
Ah, quiet days
vanished in distance
burnt to ashes! ...
Hëna e ftohtë në pellg,
Korbi çlodhet në shelg
buzën e gjelbër të lumit
cool moon in the pond,
raven resting on a willow
on the green river bank
Kur humb një grua,
Shter një krua
Dhe vdes në zall nga etja
when a woman is lost,
a spring dries up
and dies of thirst on the sand
Albanian is an Indo-European language, a solitary branch of that great ocean of tongues that exists apart from all others.  The look of it on the page is extraordinary-- rich and impenetrable.  I'm far too old to take it on, despite my interest in the country and its literature; we have lots of Ismail Kadare in English, but when it comes to the more obscure Albanian writers like Anton Harapi, Mustafa Greblleshi, Rexjep Qosja and others we must make do with translations or second-hand accounts.


L'Homme au canon, is set at the end of World War II,  in the tense period when Albania was caught between fascists and communists, nationalists and those whose lives were defined by highly localized and atavistic vendettas.  Agolli tells the story of Mato Gruda, a peasant who is involved in a blood feud with the Fizis clan--a feud of the sort that can never be resolved as each  shedding of blood requires that yet more blood be shed.  The village is dominated by a handful of families, and many of those have been decimated by internecine violence (as in Corleone, the village of Don Corleone in The Godfather). One day Mato discovers an abandoned Italian canon in the forest outside the village and decides that he will use it as a weapon to appease the hatred that consumes his life.  However, as he prepares to blow his enemies to bits, risking an end to his own life's purpose, his village becomes the object of a greater struggle between fascists and communist partisans.  The moral dilemma at the center of the novel places an ancestral and primitive desire for vengeance against the geopolitical realities of the crucial period right after the War, the period when Albania's fate as an isolated and insular nation would be sealed. Mato, caught in a web of conflicting loyalties, must decide on a course of action that promises no ultimate resolution.  L'Homme au canon is bereft of heroes or of nobility; its narrow world is defined by history and fate more than any form of human agency. In these regards it feels very much like the situations described by Kadare in his great novels.

The canon (a pun?) acquires a magical status--destructive to be sure, but also a source of power and domination that can be deployed in many ways; Mato's own status and identify are defined in terms of the technological marvel uncovered in the most primitive of forests, like a genie run to ground in some Balkan fairy tale.  A genie that can be unleashed on an age-old enemy:

"Pourtant, ces temps derniers, quelques chose chiffonnait Mato dans le comportement de son ami [Mourad]. Il s’était mis a frequenter la maison des Fiz, ennemie de la sienne. Mato détestait les Fiz, le vieux Mere, surtout. Ce clan lui faisait l'effet d'un puits de tenebre's ou s'agitait l'esprit du mal, ce que Mourad, semblait-il, ne voyait pas."

One cannot help but read this semi-allegorical tale of war and generational hatred in the context of the events in the Balkans in the early 1990's, the genocidal settling of scores that trumped every humane concern, including self-interest and national survival.  Agolli is adept at portraying the insular lives of peasants whose contact with the world outside of their tiny villages has been minimal but who are, suddenly, thrust into the midst of a great geopolitical struggle at the outset of the Cold War.  
The Moon Over the Meadow

Like a title the moon hovers over the meadow,
Like a title that rises from a poem of love,
And in such a fair meadow did I once stand waiting,
I patiently hoped that you'd come with me, too...
This evening I watch it in that tranquil meadow,
Observe as it sets in the wet dewy grass,
And ask myself, plunged both in thought and in wonder
How oft has that title been penned and erased.
How oft's it been written and razed do I ponder,
Much as the titles have changed in my verse.
And through my grey hair does the wind blow and skitter,
As love, now departed, is flitting elsewhere.
Trans. by Robert Elsie

L'Homme au canon, translated into French by Alexandre Zotos, is available as volume 54 in the Motifs series, published by La Serpent a Plumes in Paris.  
Dr. Robert Elsie has translated a great deal of Albanian literature, including poems by Dritero Agolli, and made it available on line at
George Ovitt (9/19/13) 

No comments:

Post a Comment