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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Loser

Fatos Kongoli

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Loser

Title: The Loser
Author: Fatos Kongoli
Genre: Novel
Written: 1992 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 180 pages
Original in: Albanian
Availability: The Loser - US
The Loser - UK
The Loser - Canada
Le paumé - France
Die albanische Braut - Deutschland
  • Albanian title: I humburi
  • Translated by Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck

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Our Assessment:

A- : bleak but effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 28/11/2000 Shirin Sojitrawalla
The Independent A 6/12/2007 Amanda Hopkinson
World Lit. Today . Fall/1997 Robert Elsie

  From the Reviews:
  • "Fatos Kongoli gelingt die schonungslose Perspektive dank einer äußerst verknappten Sprache, die dennoch alles sagt. Seine klaren Sätze klirren wie Eis, doch der Nebel ist sein Leitmotiv und seine Lieblingsmetapher. (...) Fatos Kongolis Roman handelt vom Leben im Albanien der politischen Säuberungen. Er beschreibt und seziert die politischen Wucherungen aus der jüngsten Vergangenheit Albaniens erbarmungslos und drastisch. Doch es geht in diesem Roman um mehr als nur ein System, in dem der Terror staatlich verabreicht wird. Kongoli hat mit Thesar einen Archetypus des Verlorenen erschaffen, der schon sterben wollte, bevor sein Leben begann" - Shirin Sojitrawalla, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The Loser is among the best new novels published this year. (...) The Loser is not only bleak and bald but unexpectedly humorous and humble: not an easy tone to achieve, and one that emanates from a fresh and unique voice." - Amanda Hopkinson, The Independent

  • "Thesar, whose fate in Albania's hermetic and suffocating society has been sealed once and for all, returns to live a life of futility and despair in a universe with no heroes. Far from the active protagonist struggling to control his own destiny, or even from the staid positive hero of socialist realism, Thesar Lumi is incapable of action and incapable of living. He is the voice of all the "losers" who glimpse the silver-lined clouds on the horizon and know full well that they will never reach them: "My existence is that of the mediocre, setting out from nothing and going nowhere." The Loser marks a visible step forward in contemporary Albanian prose, which over the last decade has been dominated almost exclusively by the works of the exile writer Ismail Kadare." - Robert Elsie, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Loser is narrated by Thesar Lumi, and set in March, 1991, after the fall of the dictatorial Enver Hoxha regime in Albania. It begins with Lumi recounting that several months earlier he had been aboard a freighter, set to flee Albania -- but he couldn't go through with it. At the last minute he decided to stay behind, even as almost everyone he knows (who is still alive) was going, or had already made their way abroad -- anything to get away from their disappointing and devastated homeland.
       What's left for him at this point in his life ? "Nothing. Just a confession." But all he can confess to is a life wasted and crushed, yet another testament to the impossibility of any sort of normalcy or decent life under that particularly peculiar totalitarian regime. "Oh God, what a senseless life we lead", one of the women in his life writes to him, and, indeed, finding any sense in life is difficult for almost all the characters.
       Lumi recounts his loser life-story, but from the first it's clear that his particular hell is everyone's: the nightmare he lives only differs from the national nightmare on some small, personal level. Among the people he encounters (and hopes to avoid) in the present is Xhoda the Lunatic, who turns out to have been the hated headmaster at Lumi's school, one of the first authoritarian figures who made a (nasty) impression on Lumi -- and who helped set the cycle of future disasters into motion (though given the greater circumstances disaster on the individual and mass scale seems inevitable, the only question being what forms it might take). Xhoda's daughter, Vilma, remains a constant in Lumi's life, yet from the beginning their relationship is tainted by ugliness; Xhoda's over-protectiveness ultimately is also useless, as there are greater forces at work than any lowly individual can deal with.
       Lumi -- or rather his family -- has a skeleton in the closet, an uncle who fled the country, the sort of black mark that could prevent Lumi from being allowed to study at university. It's covered up well for a while -- but, of course, not forever. But Lumi also gets a taste of the privileged life, befriended and taken under the very usefully protective wing of Ladi (Vladimir, actually), the son of a highly-placed government figure. It doesn't make him untouchable, but it certainly makes things somewhat easier.
       Lumi also has an affair with Ladi's cousin, Sonia, a widow some ten years older than he is. It's a hot and heavy affair -- "Sonia seemed to be using me to prove to herself that there was no limit to human passions" -- but Sonia is also of a different class and background, and Lumi is something of a boy-toy for her ("I was nothing but her lapdog"). Like old nobility, she thinks in a way that Lumi, who is a small-town boy of humble origins, can barely fathom:

"This guy , though, is an upstart, just like his father the minister. Do you know what I mean by an upstart ? The whole government has fallen into their hands. Our whole, apparently so monolithic society, is rotten to the core because it's being run by upstarts. They're the great tragedy of the nation. It'll be difficult ever getting rid of them."
       Hers are the delusions of the privileged , as she seems oblivious to her own (and her family's) part as the rotten core of this society. But as Lumi recognises in Ladi's nervousness when his affair with Sonia begins to cause some consternation:
It was clear to me that no one was safe. Everyone lived in fear, no matter how powerful they were.
       And, indeed, the mighty fall and are crushed on a regular basis here, much like in -- but in an even more claustrophobic setting than -- Stalinist Russia.
       Lumi feels tremendous guilt about his incapacity to act and react; it's one of the main reasons he acknowledges he's a loser. But action was almost impossible in this society: passivity, as one is buffeted around by the arbitrariness of the powers that be, is almost the only means of survival. Beyond occasionally taking it out on someone with violence -- base brutality always simmering in the air -- there is almost nothing one can do that won't, as likely, come back to haunt one. At one point he's reduced to where: "My only objective was survival, in any form and under any conditions." But even those who seem better off -- the privileged, those who are at some point in power -- have only a tenuous hold on their positions and power: Xhoda the Lunatic is, surely, the representative of what can become of them.
       Lumi may feel impotent at what is so often his inability to act, but the actions others take hardly seem much more impressive -- indeed, several are even driven to suicide (and, while Lumi drinks himself senseless, he does avoid at least that).
       The Loser may sound terribly bleak and there certainly is a great deal of bleakness in it, but in recounting Lumi's life-story Kongoli does offer a rich (if dusty and drunken) picture of Albania in the later Hoxha-years. For a loser Lumi does pretty well with the ladies, and if sex remains dangerous he still finds more of an outlet in it than one might have expected. Without trying too hard to offer great detail Kongoli also manages to convey a great deal about different strata of Albanian life, from Lumi's quiet parents to the privileged classes to the lowest working class (as Lumi works in the local cement factory for a while) to the post-Hoxha businesses (like the dubious Riverside Snack Bar).
       Well-written, The Loser is a thoroughly engaging personal story, and also offers a vivid picture of totalitarian Albania (and shows what that form of society can do to the individual, as all the individuals (not just Lumi) fare staggeringly poorly).
       A very good novel, and well worthwhile.

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The Loser: Reviews: Fatos Kongoli: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Albanian author Fatos Kongoli was born in 1944.

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