An excerpt of the very interesting interview of the Albanian prize winner writer to Yannis Kontos.
Rudi Erebara is the author of The Epic of the Morning Stars, (European Union’s Literature prize) that was translated in Greek by Elson Zguri and released in Greece last December from Strange Days Books -thanks to Creative Europe Translation Program.
Your novel unfolds in 1978, when the rupture between Enver Hoxha’s regime and Maoist China takes place. Why is this year so crucial in recent Albanian history?
1978 has a tremendous historic importance for Albania, because it marked the end of a wave of a soft liberalism characterized by a plethora of imprisonments of artists, musicians, actors and singers. Even one minister of Culture ended up in jail for almost 10 years. His son is the public intellectual Fatos Lubonja, a great human being who survived 18 years of prison once risking execution, while serving a 10-year sentence in a forced labor camp. That was the year when Albania entered its darkest period since the Ottoman occupation. Total isolation. It started the “made in Albania” communist dictatorship, under the same old Marxist- Leninist ideology, yet outside the Soviet or Chinese payroll. The whole of Albania was transformed overnight into a natural prison. Like those old Soviet Babushka dolls, several of the novel’s characters, and especially the protagonist/alter ego of Edison Gjergo Edmond/Suleiman, are in conversation with/fighting against a secret self. Why?
After 1978, in absence of the help from the big communist economies, only propaganda was abundant in Albania, because it came for free. The regime resorted to unlimited propaganda to justify the absence of the most elementary goods such as food. 80% of population ate corn bread for most of the year, as its everyday meal. The government started picking on the healthy people as possible enemies to imprison just to make the wheels of economy turn, so they could be forced to work under terrible conditions in the chrome and iron mines. In one way, the Albania we inherit to this day is the Albania that was left from 1978. After the breakup with China, the economy declined with no return. Everything was destroyed.
By the end of the ‘80s, there was food shortage as in Germany after Second World War. I have queued for long hours, from 2 o’clock in the morning until 6:30 just to get 100 gr of ground meat, because the available stock did not last until 7. Only the first bunch of people could buy some. The rest had to return and wait another day. By the end of the ‘80s, we were back to the restrictions after the Second World War: 1 kg of meat every two weeks per family of five. There was no milk, except for babies. I have grown old and still experience this problem with milk, like most people. I just cannot drink milk. My body will not accept it 30 years from that time. The washed-off red, a highly imaginative literary device, sets the narrative -and the characters’ problems- in motion. Is this a hint at the decomposition of an imposed political ideal? The washed off red actually happened that day. It is a story that took place for real during the May Day parade because of the sweat, or just after a light May rain. The fact is that the only thing that the dictatorship offered in abundance was violence. Hundreds of thousands of people got paid to live the same shitty life like their victims, but what they got paid for was to use violence. And this was a political duty. It had little else to do with life in progress. There was no ration in violence. Somehow, people started recalling as the good old times the era of Russian rule over Albania, and later on they created an idyll about the abundance of what they called the “Chinese times”. Communism in Albania never came to the point to become something to be idolized. It was just a propaganda that justified killing in the name of progress. By 1978, all educated members of the Albanian elite were ether killed, imprisoned – sometimes for life-, or just crushed to inexistence. As an example, I have to recall what happened in February 19, 1951. A small device exploded inside the courtyard of the embassy of the Soviet Union in Tirana. For this incident, resulting in just one broken glass, 21 males and one female were shot. They were all innocent. They had nothing to do with the incident. They were killed, buried and in the next day they were judged. Now, we have proof that the list for this genocide was prepared in the beginning of February. That was at least 12 days before the incident. All the victims were from elite Albanian families. The woman was the first Albanian female scientist.
In The Epic of the Morning Stars Kafka “meets” Kundera on Albanian ground. Would you cite them among your literary influences?
Well, Kafka was prohibited, just as was Dostoevsky and hundreds of others from the top list of the greatest writes of humankind. We all read these authors after 1992. Have you personally faced prejudice or underestimation with regard to your work both from Western European literary critics and/or readers just because you happen to come from the literary “periphery”? My book was just published and, unfortunately, this has happened under the unfavorable conditions of COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to Greek, it is available in Bulgarian and Italian, and will hopefully be published in Spanish too.
It was hard to make it work, because of the shortage of translators from Albanian to languages other than those of neighboring countries. How it is going to do in the market, let’s see. Many thanks to the translators of my book in these languages. I have not had the chance to hold a copy of it in other translations yet, with the exception of the one in Italian, a language that I can read and write. Yes, it is such a tremendous achievement for me, exactly because I come from this literary periphery. So far, there are Albanian writers published in other languages, but no one so far got any close to the success of Ismail Kadare, our most famous writer, from 1960’s up to now.
Your novel The Epic of the Morning Stars is available in Greek by Strange Days Books, a small peripheral social co-operative enterprise functioning in a pretty much “communist” spirit within a capitalist economy.
I want to thank Strange Days Books, the translator Elson Zguri and his friend Almir Hoxhaj, who brought my book into Greek. The truth is that for most, or maybe all of the contracts I have signed with publishing houses, I barely believed that my book was going to make it. But it did, thanks to the help of the European Union. Without their help, I still believe that it was never going to make it, to be published as it did. Now, as I said, let’s see how it does with the foreign readers. Here, at home, it has been a success. As for Strange Days Books, I wish them the best for the future, feeling grateful.
You can read all the text of the interview here: