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the complete review - anthology
Balkan Beauty, Balkan Blood
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- Modern Albanian Short Stories
- Edited by Robert Elsie
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B+ : varied, interesting collection
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
Given how little Albanian literature is available in English translation one has to be thrilled by the appearance of almost any additional material.
A short story anthology only gives glimpses of authors' work, but in at least introducing a number of different authors can serve a useful purpose.
In a way, it is a reflection of how little exposure to Albanian literature English-reading audiences have that even at barely 140 pages, Balkan Beauty, Balkan Blood multiplies any previous conception on Albanian fiction writing they may have had -- but it's also testament to editor Robert Elsie's well-chosen selection, as well as the talents of the authors.
Ismail Kadare is the one Albanian novelist who has found a larger audience in translation; three of his stories were to be included in this collection, but Elsie notes that: "Mr. Kadare chose at the last moment not to authorize publication".
While it would have been interesting to also have those pieces included here, the loss is perhaps a blessing in disguise: much of Kadare's work is readily accessible in English, and inclusion of any work by him might have made the collection appear (or be seen) too much as stories by 'Kadare and others', distracting from the quality of the other authors' efforts.
In fact, the remaining stories, and the collection as a whole, stand easily on their own merits.
Elsie offers a fairly broad spectrum of writing: of the fourteen stories there is one first published in the 1970s and two in the 1980s (i.e. before the fall of the Hoxha regime), and the writers represented include some from the old guard (Dritëro Agolli was head of the Albanian Union of Writers and Artists (1973-1992)) as well as some voices that only came to the fore after the fall of the Stalinist regime (though all lived under its yoke; the youngest author is Lindita Arapi, born in 1972).
They are also truly local: according tothe brief author-biographies provided only Arapi and Elvira Dones live outside the region, while two of the writers are from the former Yugoslavian areas.
Elsie avoids the traditional (and stifling) socialist realist school that dominated Albanian writing for so long.
Nevertheless, it comes as something of a surprise how good many of these stories are: one perhaps expects that even when politics and social messages are set aside the writing would remain somewhat plodding and forced, looking for a message.
Instead, one finds well-crafted and well-written fiction that easily stands up to any international standards.
Agolli's The Appassionata, the earliest story in the collection (published in Albamnia in 1972), and one of the longer ones (and the one Elsie leaves for last), is among those that deals most clearly with life under the peculiar totalitarian regime, an interesting picture of personal desires and ambitions that manages to cover a large amount of ground (from the role of women in society to the role of the arts to the politicization of university-life and more).
Arthur is studying musical composition at the National Institute of the Arts, but he knows he's not cut out for it, attending only because he allowed his father -- who wanted an artist-son -- to pressure him into it.
He's resolved to drop out and pursue studies more suited to him, but his actions affect others -- including the supportive and talented Mira, a fellow student whom he is close to.
The consequences of the actions by Arthur (and his father) are far-reaching, and Agolli spins it very well, making for a story that is both revealing about the society as well as compelling on the personal level.
Among the stand-out stories is Ylljet Aliçka's The Slogans in Stone, the story of a young schoolteacher sent to a remote region.
One of the duties of teachers there is the upkeep of a slogan, usually formed with stones on the ground so that it can be seen and admired from far away; 'Chromium breaks through the blockade' is the first slogan he gets assigned.
These slogans-set-in-stone are like gardens the teachers and their classes tend, and Aliçka uses the idea for an effective and fairly devastating political commentary that also works on a personal level.
(Aliçka is the one author represented by three stories in the collection; there are two by Teodor Laço but all the others are only represented by single stories.
Two of the pieces are also novel excerpts.)
Lindita Arapi's The Mute Maiden offers one of the most compelling characters, a description of childhood and a relationship to a strong but distant father figure ("Whenever Father entered the room, we girls would stand up and drop whatever we happened to have in our hands on the bed") that is very impressive.
The story is, however, undermined by its beginning and end, the girl having "resolved never to speak again" because of what happened to her (which is revealed at the end).
Too obvious, especially in how it is described, Arapi there relies on sheer horror and outrage, as if that were enough -- a surprisingly weak turn, especially given the strength of the story (and the telling) elsewhere.
Among the surprises in the collection (though this obviously is due in part to the selection) is the absence of much to do with the outside world.
In Stefan Çapaliku's An American Dream the narrator does travel to Washington D.C., but the locale is almost irrelevant and what is important to him there could be set almost anywhere (even in the next Albanian village).
The distance and the dream of America do help add to the atmosphere, but he can't even bring himself to mention that he'd gone there to the other central character in the story (to avoid shattering his American dream).
Elvira Dones' Stars Don't Dress Up Like That deals with the Albanian emigrant experience, though this -- only an excerpt from a novel -- only begins to touch on some of it.
But it's a powerful piece -- and offers a nice opening for the entire collection, beginning: "If I were not so depressed, I might even be happy.""
Other stories offers glimpses of a variety of Albanian everyday life, from a couple going into the big city for a wedding (another Aliçka story) to glimpses of prison life.
Balkan Beauty, Balkan Blood introduces several very talented voices, and also offers some interesting scenes from recent and contemporary Albanian life.
It makes for an excellent country profile, especially in its focus on aspects of life that aren't often conveyed in the rare news or other reports from Albania.
And it offers some very good stories.
A good anthology, certainly recommended.
And one hopes to be able to read more by many of the authors soon.
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