A Personal Survey of Modern Verse in Ex-Yugoslavia and Albania (Part II)
As Reviewed By: Stephen Schwartz
Modern Bosnian literature
As should be seen throughout the present essay, translation is a difficult art, especially when dealing with poets from a cultural context so different from ours, as North Americans. The challenge of translation was recently illustrated by the publication of an English version of Kameni Spavac, or Stone Sleeper, a major volume by the Bosnian poet Mehmedalija Dizdar (1917-71), known exclusively as “Mak,” a name he took during the Partisan movement in World War II. Mak is considered the greatest Bosnian versifier of the 20th century and an outstanding patriotic figure, in that he enunciated a modern national myth about the forebears of the Muslim Bosniaks.
Bosnia has always followed a separate Balkan path. A borderland between Croatia and Serbia, Bosnia has resisted the pretensions of both to conquer it. The Bosnians themselves may have been a separate Slav “tribe,” who arrived in the region contemporaneously with the Croats and Serbs, in the sixth century, or they may have been a remnant of the pre-Slavic Illyrians, ancestors of the Albanians. Unlike the Albanians, the Bosnians may have become Slavized in language. But it is clear they always considered themselves Bosnians first. They even produced their own mysterious, independent Christian sect, the “Bosnian Church,” sometimes mislabeled “Bogomils” after a Bulgarian apocalyptic cult with a very different character. The main characteristic of the Bosnian Church seems to have been that, as Bosnians wished to be neither Croats nor Serbs, their faith was neither Catholic nor Orthodox. With the conquest of Bosnia by the Ottomans in 1463, thousands of former adherents of the separatist church converted to Islam, with their descendants remaining Muslims until the present.
The pre-Islamic Bosnians left the landscape strewn with a remarkable type of above-ground burial monument, stone sarcophagi known as stečci, carved in high relief and apparently depicting the dead, their professions, their wealth, and their religious affiliations. Mak used the stečci as the basis for an epic. Francis R. Jones has rendered Mak’s verse in English, in a luxurious volume produced in Sarajevo in 1999. But Mak was a dedicated and inspired reinventor of language, whose work often draws on alliteration and archaic forms that elude effective translation.[private]
A sample of Jones’ reworking of Mak’s unique diction demonstrates why a judgement on the success of the project is difficult. The original of the following text begins “Koliko kola od dola od dola.” “Kolo” is a circle, as well as a Balkan traditional dance; in Bosnian, “dol” is a valley or hollow, and pain or suffering (i.e. sorrow) is “bol”:
How long the kolo from hollow to hollow
How long the sorrow from kolo to kolo
How long the dread from stead to stead
How long the tombs from coomb to coomb
How long the blood we are judged to pay
How long the deaths till the judgement day
How long the kolo from hollow to hollow
How long the sorrow from kolo to kolo
Kolo to kolo from sorrow to sorrow
However much of the original brilliance of his innovation is lost, nobody can understand Bosnia without reading Mak; and recognition as a great and enjoyable versifier is due him.[xxvi]
Global attention to the Bosnian war has brought a number of other useful volumes into print in English. Perhaps the most important among such titles is The Scar On the Stone, edited by Chris Agee, which includes an excellent and representative selection of recent Bosnian poetry, much of it directly influenced by the 1992-95 war. I would recommend the book, which includes excerpts and commentaries by Mak and by Francis R. Jones, without qualification, and will only indicate two writers I believe deserve special attention, in that they represent two sides of Sarajevo literary life.
The first is Abdulah Sidran (1944-) whom I, along with thousands of his own fellow-citizens, consider the best poet writing in Bosnia today. Avdo is also a successful screenwriter, and author of the script for the 1997 film Perfect Circle, the first postwar Bosnian film, directed by Ademir Kenović, and shown throughout the West (although it never gained an American distributor). Sidran was quite famous for his patriotic activities during the war, but he is also a great stylist with a marvellous, if modest, sense of the history of his own country. His Bosnia is less mythical than that of Mak, and his language is more straightforward, but his work has great richness. A well-translated bilingual volume of his verse with a clunky English title (The Blindman Sings to His City) has appeared (and sold out) in Sarajevo, and should find a British or American publisher. In it, we find this version of one of Sidran’s best poems, “The Nightmare,” written long before the war, but incorporated with immense effect into the script of Perfect Circle:
What are you doing, son?
I’m dreaming, mother. I’m dreaming, mother, that I’m singing
And you ask me, in my dream, what are you doing, son?
What are you singing about, in your dream, son?
I’m singing, mother, that once I had a house.
And now I have none. That’s what I’m singing about.
How I had a voice, mother, a voice and a tongue.
And now I have neither the voice nor the tongue.
With the voice I have not, in the tongue I have not,
I’m singing a song, mother, about the house I have not.
A second author appearing in The Scar On the Stone is a counter-example to Sidran: Izet Sarajlić (1930-2002). While Sidran is authentically associated with Sarajevo, Sarajlić, an individual of extraordinary vanity, went to great lengths to seek to identify himself with the city. However, his path was crooked. He was born in Doboj, in central Bosnia, a town brutally “cleansed” of Muslims by its Serbs. Before the war began in 1992, Sarajlić, although of Muslim origin, wrote in normative Serbian dialect and was so aggressive in his identification with Russia and Soviet poetry that he was thrown out of the Tito-era Writers’ Union for a time. Since the recent war, he republished his verse in the more popular Bosnian dialect, and in reissuing his work he was also careful to excise certain embarrassing items. For example, Sarajlić had published a poem dedicated to his friend, the poet Radovan Karadžić, written, of course, before the latter attained fame as an indicted war criminal responsible for the shelling of Sarajevo and the massacre of 12,000 of its citizens, including 1,100 children. The poem was reportedly composed on the occasion of Karadžić’s departure for a fellowship in the U.S., where he studied Walt Whitman. Sarajlić’s homage to his friend included the line, “U tom veku napisan je Pasternak i potučen Hitler,” meaning, “In this century Pasternak wrote and Hitler was beaten.” The Soviet patriot Sarajlić went on to praise our century and denigrate the 17th century and Shakespeare.
A certain amount of nonsense has been written suggesting that Karadžić led the attack on Sarajevo because he was frustrated at his lack of recognition as a poet, but in reality the homage of Sarajlić shows that Karadžić was not without status in the hall of mirrors that constitutes the Sarajevo literary establishment. As the war was about to begin, Karadžić was once even shielded from a beating in the Writers’ Club in Sarajevo by Sidran, on grounds of club hospitality rather than friendship, let it be said. The book in which the Sarajlić “letter” to Karadžić appears includes an encomium by an associate of Karadžić in the assault on Sarajevo, the former literature professor Nikolai Koljević. (Koljević returned to Sarajevo after the war and committed suicide. Karadžić awaits arrest and trial.)
Sarajlić remained an admirer of the former Soviet Union and the extreme left. Told that his poem “Sarajevo,” a rather mediocre but popular work that many locals have committed to memory, should be translated into English, he replied “Arkan govori engleski” (i.e. Arkan, the notorious war criminal assassinated early in 2000, spoke English). Well, in fact, Arkan spoke the same Serbian dialect in which Sarajlić once wrote, while the American diplomats who saved Sarajevo from collective martyrdom at the hands of Sarajlić’s friends spoke English. One could even paraphrase his poem about Karadžić to say that “Sarajlić wrote and Karadžić was beaten,” except that one would hesitate to honor the former by comparing with Pasternak. But Sarajlić benefited from the forgetfulness of his neighbors, who preferred to treat him as a picturesque old man. On the same occasion in which he delivered his opinion about Arkan, Sarajlić went on to make fun of the sound of the English language, and to say contemptuously that he would prefer that his poetry be translated into Czech, Polish, or Russian. A few days later, he called in the press for Sarajevans to celebrate the release from jail, in Italy, of an ultraleftist terrorist, who had done nothing discernible to save Sarajevo, but whose liberation filled Sarajlić with happiness. Predictably, Sarajlić was nauseatingly idolized in Italy and elsewhere by leftist authors who wanted to “say something” about the horrors of the Bosnian war while maintaining a defense of Titoite Communism.
In The Scar On the Stone, it is perhaps predictable that the meretricious Sarajlić appears in a translation by Charles Simic. The inclusion of this old fake in the collection is not an error, for he did represent a certain darker side of Sarajevo. (I have written about this elsewhere.) One of the truly quintessential Sarajlić items therein is a short verse in which the author described a young man during the siege of the city, playing the guitar while a rocket flies over his head, and then asks, “Is he Sarajevo’s future Bulat Okudzhava?” This apparent non sequitur introduces into Sarajevo’s tragedy the figure of a Soviet poet of the 1960s. One could with equal justification equate the young man with Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Paco de Lucía or a traditional Muslim musician, but that would not involve lip service to the Russians, which was always Sarajlić’s main interest. The poem ends on a distinctly sour note that is characteristic of Sarajlić, in which he proclaims the worthlessness of art. Strangely, Sidran drew exactly the opposite conclusion from his experiences in the siege of Sarajevo, which is why Sidran is the city’s hero, while Sarajlić, at the end of his life, still clawed for adulation.
As for the identification of young war victims with future geniuses; it is a banal formula, but the poet and fiction writer Nedžad Ibrišimović (b. 1940) offered a sharper version of it in his short novel The Book of Adem Kahriman, which is a little classic of modern Bosnian literature, and almost a prose poem. There he writes, describing a Serb massacre of Muslims burned alive in a mosque, “If an Inquisitor burns a child in a mosque, how does he know he has not burned a Newton, and if in effect he has consigned a Newton to the flames, when will the četnik [Serb terrorist] realize Newton was Muslim?”[xxvii]
Other, and like Ibrišimović, better personalities, are represented in The Scar on the Stone, although he is absent from it. They include the Islamic poet Hadžem Hajdarević (b. 1956), who has also edited a textbook, although it is jarring to find Gottfried Benn, to whom one of Hadžem’s poems refers, identified as an “18th century German poet” in a footnote in The Scar on the Stone. The volume includes a substantial selection of work by Semezdin Mehmedinović (b. 1960), whose Sarajevo Blues has been published in the U.S., and who presently lives in Washington, DC, where he works for the Voice of America Bosnian service, and several poems by the gifted Bosnian Croat poetess Aneta Benac-Krstić. Indeed, the Sarajevo scene boasts many more excellent poets, amounting to a roster too long to present here.[xxviii]
I have left to the last, in my survey of South Slavic poetry, the figure of the Slovene poet Tomaž Šalamun (b. 1941). Šalamun has had a success in the United States that separates him from the Slavic world; and indeed, this alienation is justified, because Šalamun’s style is slavishly derivative of the Anglo-American poets. He was assisted in remaking himself by the enemies of literature that inhabited the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, such as Robert Hass and Bob Perelman. Here one sees the post-modern equivalent of the Romantic influence on Prešeren and that of the European avant garde on Kosovel, except that in the latest case the influence has been unproductive if not negative, leading to a dead end.
Šalamun’s 1988 Selected Poems presents a marvellous exemplar of everything wrong with the present Anglo-American attitude toward poetry in smaller and lesser-known languages. Edited, of course, by Simic, it includes a really offensive introduction by Hass. The latter sneers at the very idea of Slovene literature, as well as at American cultural attaches during what happened to be the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Hass knows nothing of Prešeren and Kosovel, and, incredibly enough, admits to never having heard, as late as 1982, of the Russian futurist poet and theoretician Velimir Khlebnikov.
But of course Hass knows about Popa, and he is glad to find that Šalamun has read Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery with appreciation, so that the whole encounter is really about a reaffirmation that, after all, it is American verse and its adopted token foreigners that count the most. When Hass tries to situate Šalamun in Europe he has recourse only to those other “honorary American” and even Americanized poets whose names are seen as standing in for whole traditions going back centuries: Brodsky, Zbigniew Herbert, Miroslav Holub, Popa (naturally), etc.
That Brodsky should have attained success in this manner in no way reflects on him; but it reveals everything about Hass and those like him that, to emphasize something that cannot be repeated too many times, while he could discourse on Brodsky at length, he had never heard of Khlebnikov. Hass’s introduction to Šalamun also commits the notable gaffe of romanticizing an individual named Gojko Djogo, who played the dissident poet under Titoism but then went on, within three years of Hass’s reminiscence of him, to become, like Karadžić, a leader of the most extreme and terroristic Serb nationalist militias in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Hass’s valentine to Djogo was reprinted without emendation in 1997, which is unsurprising; why should Hass, occupied with the destruction of poetry in America, have bothered to keep up with such details as the attempted destruction of Sarajevo? Fortunately, Hass has only murdered sensibilities, while Djogo is responsible for real deaths.
But the real problem is that the time of benevolent innovations from the West passed, with the end of the epoch of fruitful modernism in the United States. Šalamun, promoted by the Simics, Hasses, and Perelmans of the American academy, has the same fate in mind for Balkan poetry that Sarajlić seeks to realize by his Russophilia: to distance it from its soul. It seems almost impossible to get the American poetry bureaucracy to grasp that young American poets might have more to learn from Branko Miljković than Balkan poets have to learn from Robert Hass. The second edition of Šalamun’s first book, Poker, included a preface linking his name to that of Julian Schnabel, for God’s sake! Nothing could better exemplify the rot that has spread abroad from New York.[xxix]
The whole matter is reminiscent of the American media treatment of the Kosovo war, which, as far as the punditocracy was concerned, wasn’t about the Albanians and Serbs, but about us; about our military forces, our possible use of ground troops, our political differences, and the scandals of our president. To the guests on political talk shows, the Albanians driven from their homes—and the Serbs then driven from their homes after the intervention ended—were extras in a movie, objects rather than subjects.
Modern Albanian poetry
Although I began this survey with an Albanian author, Faik Konica, I have also chosen to leave a discussion of Albanian poetry, both in Kosovo and in Albania proper, for the end. There are two reasons for this: first, Albanian is not a South Slav language and the Kosovar writers were never considered part of Yugoslav literature. They were not even included in the most general anthologies, which may say more about the status of the Kosovar Albanians in the country of which they were subjects (many were denied citizenship under Yugoslav rule) than almost anything else. Second, Albanian poetry is utterly unknown outside the Albanian community worldwide.
And yet, Albanian literature has produced some of the most powerful, eloquent, concise, and lyrical poets of our time. Only the barest glimpse of this glory is available to English readers in less than a handful of books. These are An Elusive Eagle Soars, an anthology compiled by the greatest Albanologist of non-Albanian origin alive today, Robert Elsie; the translated works of the very great Martin Camaj, who was my good friend, and volumes, also translated by Elsie, issued by the Dukagjini publishing house in Peja, Kosovo, which are unfortunately not distributed in the U.S. In particular, Dukagjini has issued two books that will bring immense joy to all Albanians and all friends of Albanians, among whom I count myself. These pathways of delight are slender volumes, but are rich with illumination: The Highland Lute, Cantos I-V by Gjergj Fishta, translated from Lahuta e Malcís, the Albanian original, and Free Verse, by the poet known as Migjeni. Both are presented bilingually, with the Albanian original and the English translation on facing pages.
I will begin with the volume of Migjeni because it includes so many remarkable gifts for the English reader, although Fishta preceded him chronologically. Migjeni (1911-1938) was the founder of the modernist style in Albanian, a worthy contemporary, in the regional context, of Srečko Kosovel. Both died young. But these two have much more in common, and share much as well, in biographic and literary terms, with other avant-garde poets who appeared around the world at that time. One might even describe them as participants in a global literary revolution.
Young poets like Migjeni, Kosovel, the Italian Giuseppe Ungaretti (teacher of Martin Camaj, and a major influence on Viktor Vida), the French surrealists, the Russian futurists, the Spanish “generation of 1927,” and the Catalan Joan Salvat-Papasseit, emerged from the horrors and disillusion of the first world war with a fresh and novel literary sensibility. They sought to overturn all existing values; to write against every existing literary canon and convention; to break down the barriers between thought and language, between dream and reality. They were revolutionaries of the word, and worthy grandchildren of Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Lautréamont.
The values and achievements of the French pioneers of literary modernism, it might be said, took two generations to penetrate the minds of ambitious young poets in languages like Albanian, Slovenian, Catalan, and even Italian and Russian—and to produce the entirely new conception represented by the surrealist style. But this process of saturation of more distant cultures and later generations was given an immense impetus by the shock of the first world war. In that vast machinery of bloodshed, a war carried out without recourse to any appeal but those of militarism and brutalization, young intellectuals were shattered. Taking up their pens, they confronted a morality in ruins, and responded to it with rebellion. This new sensibility even touched nations and literatures, such as those in Spain, that had been left outside the actual combat.
Migjeni and Kosovel stand apart from others, in my view, for two reasons. First, they introduced modernism to their literary cultures quite abruptly; neither Albanian nor Slovenian had passed through the intervening phases of symbolism and other, more genteel varieties of aesthetic experiment. Second, they had an enormous and somewhat mysterious success in merging the avant-garde with a refined sense of language, which both Albanians and Slovenes may have gained from the influence of nearby Italy. But Migjeni is distinctive from all the rest of them, in another way: by the human immediacy of his work. Although poets like Kosovel expressed the postwar revolt through formal experimentation, the verse of Migjeni shows endearing, Albanian qualities absent from the works of most of his foreign contemporaries: tragedy, candor, and sympathy for the oppressed. He comes to us, in effect, as the first writer in Albanian addressing the rest of the world, as well as readers in his language.
Elsie’s magisterial talent as a translator is magnificently displayed in this volume. How touching it is to read the stirring and serpentine lines of Migjeni in English:
Song of the West, song of man drunk with self-confidence,
Song of another faith, with other temples and solemn rites,
In which from morn to night human brains and feelings melt,
In an apotheosis of iron: the souls pass through smokestacks.
The story of Migjeni is known to all Albanian readers. He was born Millosh Gjergj Nikolla, of Serbian heritage. Indeed, as the outstanding Albanian scholar and mentor Arshi Pipa pointed out, Albanian was Migjeni’s second language, and “he did not know Albanian well. His texts swarm with spelling mistakes, even elementary ones, and his syntax is far from being typically Albanian.” And yet, he speaks powerfully to all Albanians. Elsie praises him as “not confined by narrow nationalist perspectives” and “one of the few… to bridge the cultural chasm separating the Albanians and Serbs.” Linguists will, correctly enough, condemn me for ascribing subjective qualities to differing tongues, but may we dare to imagine the young Slav found in the Albanian idiom a specially lyrical, musical, and free spirit more conducive to his insurgent temperament?
And no mistake should be made: Migjeni was a revolutionary, but in art rather than politics—and that is the only kind of revolution that remains defensible. Elsie quotes a conversation between the poet and a “Trotskyite” friend, in which Migjeni said, “My work has a combative character, but for practical reasons, and taking into account our particular conditions, I must manoeuvre in disguise.” Migjeni’s heart remained that of a protestor and a defender of human vitality and raw truth: it was thus that he introduced into Albanian literature a number of previously-unknown topics, including anticlericalism and sexuality. But the universal tone and relevance of his work are shared by other Albanian modernists, including the Kosovar classics Esad Mekuli, Beqir Mysliu, and Ali Podrimja. I think again, in this context, of the special relationship of Apollinaire and Faik Konica. The companionship of Apollinaire and Faiku is a harbinger, for me, of the acceptance of Albanian into European literature, on equal terms and with equal rights. That entry will be facilitated by these volumes produced under Elsie’s loving care.
The Albanians seem to be unique in Europe, in possessing two distinct, autonomous, and truly vigorous literary languages: Gheg, spoken and written in northern Albania, Kosovo, and western Macedonia, and Letrarë, a “unified” national idiom. Migjeni wrote in Gheg, and Gjergj Fishta (1871-1940), a Franciscan priest, whose Highland Lute, Cantos I-V, is the second bilingual offering from Elsie and Dukagjini, is the greatest of the pre-modernist Gheg poets. Fishta is also one of two Albanian national poets—the other being Naim Frashëri, a Bektashi Sufi Muslim who wrote in Tosk, the dialect of central and southern Albania, which has been subsumed into Letrarë. The Highland Lute is an epic of national resistance to Serbian aggression. Fishta has accompanied me, so to speak, throughout my journey into Albanian letters, which commenced when I was introduced to the poet Gjon Sinishta in San Francisco in 1990, and began collaborating with the Albanian Catholic Bulletin, which Sinishta published. Sinishta was the “Albanian Solzhenitsyn,” as the standard-bearer of Albanian Catholic traditions in exile; he died in the United States at 65.
The legacy of Fishta is symbolized for me by two moments I can never forget. In 1999, while fighting continued in Kosovo, I went briefly to Peru, where I was alone and depressed, but where, for the first time, I dialed into an internet site that included a recording of Fishta’s own voice, reading from The Highland Lute. In the dark, poor, and silent city of Lima, where the Indian masses seemed to have lost the brilliant creativity I know so well from Mexico and Central America, the voice of Fishta came as if from within my own heart, and I was moved to tears.
Then, in Kosovo in 2000, while working toward the organization of an interreligious council, I brought together Baba Mumin Lama of the Bektashi Sufi order and Pater Ambroz Ukaj of the Franciscan order. Both were heroes of the national defense against Serbian terror, and both had seen immense suffering inflicted on their communities. Baba Mumin took Pater Ambroz’s hand and said, “You have Fishta; we have Naimi.”
I must necessarily, then, become much more personal in discussing The Highland Lute. I have waited a long time for this publication. Is it too much to hope that the whole work may appear in English? Fishta was a genius in his use of the epic meters of northern Albanian oral verse, as described by Elsie, and his work reminds us of Longfellow, as well as Homer and Virgil. But above all, this volume is precious for its evocation of Albanian heroes. Fishta sings of his main hero, in a beautiful English rendition,
Oso Kuka, man from Shkodra,
Left in Shkodra none his equal,
None in keeping faith and courage
As is custom in Albania.
A hirsute man with eyes all bloodshot,
Whiskers drooping to his gun belt,
When he speaks, the mountains echo,
When he calls, the flatlands tremble,
When he seizes his grim sabre,
Such the whiz when it is brandished,
Lightning you’d think flashed beside you!
About Fishta we all, Albanians and their friends, have our tales to tell—how the Communists dug up his corpse and threw it into a river; how his memory remained alive among the people of Shkodra, so that when the first reading of his work was held in the sacred city of Albanian Catholics, and a young actor faltered in his recitation, the verse was picked up by elder folk in the audience. Copies of The Highland Lute were kept hidden, under mattresses and in closets, in Kosovo under Serbian rule. Today there are only two words to say about Fishta: read him.
I will conclude these remarks with some comments more personal than any other. Throughout my career as a writer I have dedicated myself to investigating the lost, forgotten, obscured, censored, and suppressed traditions of men and women struggling for freedom. I wrote “secret histories” of an American labor union that fought against Soviet infiltration; of the Nicaraguan contras and their battle against Leninist domination; of Spanish anarchists and other independent leftists who also held out for a radical proletarian vision free of the psychosis of Stalinist power; of the libertarian culture of my own territory, California; of Kosovo in its unparalleled fight for dignity and liberty. Lately I have published a book on the war for the soul of Islam, between traditional believers and Wahhabi extremism. And I will see published a volume on my own effort to preserve and protect the last traces of Spanish Jewish culture in the Balkans.
In all these projects I have dealt with the “mysteries of text.” I researched histories that did not appear in books, but which were preserved, in the most fragile form, in forgotten files and archives, susceptible at any moment to being thrown into the trash, and some of which I rescued from dumpsters where they had been cast aside. Other sources included pamphlets distributed to a few individuals, overlooked and neglected; books that presented the truth in the face of lies and dissimulations, as in the case of the Spanish civil war; and “texts” I lived myself, in my California. When I visited Bosnia-Hercegovina in the aftermath of the Serbian attempt at genocide there, I confronted the fearsome reality of books burned wholesale, and I paced the streets of Sarajevo seeking one, just one, copy of certain lost classics. There, also, I learned in the most poignant way that songs, epitaphs on tombstones, newspapers, and other ephemera may be all that remains of a great and pure tradition. The Catholic poet Gjon Sinishta, whom I came to see as my second father, taught me more than anyone else what it means to rescue a culture deemed lost; in his case, that of the Gheg-speaking Albanian Catholics.
When I went to the Balkans to live in 1999, by a curious set of circumstances, I had to sell most of the vast collection of books I had left in California, and which covered such subjects as labor history, Marxism, the Spanish civil war, Latin American politics, and much in the way of Judaica and Islamica. Yet I somehow felt liberated. In Sarajevo I learned that I needed to keep only books that could not be replaced, in terms of wisdom as well as accessibility. In the first category I place the Torah and Ketuvim in Judeo-Spanish or Ladino, the idiom of the Iberian Jewish exiles, with a few other rare volumes of Sephardica, the Gospels, Qur’an, and a book left to me by Sinishta: the Albanian Sufi Baba Rexheb’s classic, The Mysticism of Islam and Bektashism. Books I could not read had I not myself saved them from Serbian vandalism in Sarajevo include the great scholarly works on Sephardic culture by the Bosnian scholar Muhamed Nezirović, who succeeded Gjon Sinishta as my greatest mentor.
And of course, as I shall here elucidate, I could never part with Martin Camaj’s limpid, inimitable works. I remember my poor, sick father reading Martin’s poem “Shiu mbi lume” (Rain on the River), in my adaptation, and telling me quietly, “it’s so beautiful.” Both my father and Martin died too soon after that, to be followed, too closely, by Baba Rexheb and by Gjon Sinishta.
I have long pondered this paradox—why a man who loves writing as much as I do should feel oppressed to have too many books in his possession. In the end so many are useless, when we realize, faced with a great moral challenge, how little of value has been said about war, terror, genocide, survival, and freedom. And then, of course, there is the practical fact that virtually any book may be had today through websites.
Recently, I came to understand another reason I no longer feel a need to surround myself with books. In the Albanian language, free publishing is still, a decade after the fall of Communism, only beginning. A steady stream of translations into Albanian from other languages pours across the mountains from Shkodra and Tirana into Prishtina, the Kosovar capital, and elsewhere up and down the Albanian lands. Meanwhile, Robert Elsie must continue his great work of translating the classics of Albanian into English. The books I need most, then, are books aborning, and books to come—soon, I should hope. One such will be, God willing, an ample translation into English of the works of Naim Frashëri, the model of enlightenment and progressive thought for Muslims in our time. Books are no longer inert for me; they are now existential. How curious it is to write these words! The Albanians stand at the threshold of glory—of the definitive recognition of their culture in the family of European nations, and in the great cultures of the planet. I am greatly privileged to witness this epoch, and for that, I extend my humble thanks to my friends, the translator Robert Elsie and the poet and publisher Eqrem Basha (of the Dukagjini publishing house), among so many others.[xxx]
In Kosovo, during the period of resistance to Serbia, writers and especially poets played a major role in galvanizing the national movement. Ibrahim Rugova has already been mentioned, but many other such figures came to prominence as representatives of Albanian aspirations. The Albanian-American scholar Sami Repishti has described this as “the coming of age of the intellectuals,” in which the mass education created by Titoism made possible the “shedding [of] the overbearing complex of inferiority, the image of an ‘an uneducated and uneducable populace’… created by vicious and persistent Serbian propaganda for over a century.”
Thanks to the general neglect of Albanian literature in the outer world, the poets and other authors who were read by Kosovar Albanians in those years have yet to become known outside their own community, except in a fragmentary way in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. But their work is generally distinguished by delicacy, wit, insight, and an incisive style. Not for them the crafting of pseudo-populist or ideological verses; rather, they seemed to follow the example of such dissident intellectuals as the Czech Vaclav Havel, who, of course, went from artistic modernism to the presidency of his country.
Migjeni and Fishta were northern Albanians, but are associated with the whole Albanian literary tradition. Of the leading Albanian-language authors who rose to prominence in the former Yugoslavia, including Kosovo, the poet, critic, and translator Esad Mekuli (1916-1993) was born in the town of Plava, in the Gusinje region of Montenegro, which lies within the Albanian culture area. Mekuli has been called “the father of modern Albanian poetry in what was once Yugoslavia” by Elsie, and his influence in Kosovo remains immense. He studied veterinary medicine at the University of Belgrade, before serving as a Partisan in the second world war.
After the war, he was the founding editor of Jeta e Re (New Life), which became the leading literary journal in Kosovo, and was its guiding personality until 1973. Interestingly enough, he was commissioned to translate a violently anti-Muslim Montenegrin epic, The Mountain Wreath, into Albanian, in cooperation with the writer Zef Nekaj, who later emigrated as a political exile to the U.S. Mekuli also produced Serbian translations of many Albanian works. One of Mekuli’s most famous verses, as translated by Elsie, asks:
Is it the Albanian’s fault that he lives under this sky
Under this sky, in the land of his ancestors?
But Mekuli’s best work is psychological and even somewhat surrealist, rather than political. A favorite of many Kosovars is his 1935 poem “Longing for the Unattainable,” which begins (in my translation),
Clouds play high above like lambs on the hills,
while longing for the unattainable is held within me.
(A possible alternative title, Nostalgia for the Infinite, may be derived from a painting by Giorgio de Chirico.) Here it must be stipulated that Albanian authors, no less than other literary personalities in socialist Yugoslavia, benefited from the absence of a strict canon of socialist realism under the Tito regime. Those who lived in Hoxha’s Albania were, of course, by no means so lucky. On the other side of the mountains, writers were held to the standard articulated by the court novelist Kadare: “In their spirit, in their content, even in their style and intonation, many of the works of the present day decadent bourgeois literature are reminiscent of the Bible, the New Testament, Qur’an, the Talmud, and other tattered remnants of the Dark Ages.” Given such attitudes in Tirana, it is no wonder that Kosovar Albanians preferred to consider themselves “Titoists,” as in the case of Rugova, rather than “Enverists.”
Indeed, Kosovo produced a far more developed modern literature in Albanian than Albania proper, at least until the end of Communism in the latter territory, in 1991. Elsie notes that in the closing decades of the century up to 70 percent of book publication in Kosovo was poetry. Outstanding younger poets included four whose first books appeared in 1961: Din Mehmeti (1932-), Fahredin Gunga (1936-), Adem Gajtani (1935-), and Ali Podrimja (1942-). Podrimja, in particular, became well-known in Yugoslavia, and even internationally; Elsie described him as “the most typical representative of modern Albanian verse in Kosovo.” If Esad Mekuli was the T.S. Eliot of the Kosovars, Podrimja was their Allen Ginsberg. With biting sarcasm, he answered the question posed a generation before him by Mekuli:
It is the Albanian’s fault
Who sketches his own face under
And breaks windows and stirs up muddy water
Who speaks Albanian, who eats Albanian, who shits Albanian
It is the Albanian’s fault
The Albanian is the one at fault
For all my undoings
And for my broken tooth
And for my frozen laugh
So therefore: BULLET
Podrimja’s language tends to be hard, terse, and economical. He allows us extraordinary insight into the difficulty of being Albanian, of belonging to a culture surrounded by enemies, of speaking an isolated language, as here in “Our Names:”
stumbles over them
looks for them with torches
(Modified from Elsie’s version)
And here again in “Ballad of Man:”
I know a man
wandering naked through the world
instead of a tie
he knots a snake around his neck
instead of a shirt
he wears a wolf’s skin
he spends all his time
undressing and undressing
in a public place
nobody sees him
he wanders naked through the world
a Man who lost everything
(Modified from Elsie’s version)
Podrimja also writes beautifully about the archaic nature and ancient legacy of Albanian culture:
Return to the verses of Homer,
return to where you came from
now is not your time, return,
free men from themselves
and shadows, free them from masks
and flights, free them from insomnia
and silence, free them from fever
and rain. Now is not your time!
Return to the verses of Homer!
Troy has fallen and the Marseillaise
has long been unsung by men.
(Modified from Elsie’s version)
The list of major poets could be extended to include Azem Shkreli (1938-1997), Rrahman Dedaj (b. 1939), Mirko Gashi (b. 1939), and Sabri Hamiti (b. 1950), as well as the writer considered by many of his contemporaries the most talented and significant, Beqir Musliu (1945-1996). Musliu followed a rigorously surrealist line, with such works as “The Hidden Pagoda,” beginning, “Someone has built a pagoda at the top of the Accursed Mountains,” a reference to the starkly beautiful but underpopulated and intimidating range that delineates the border of Montenegro, Albania, and Kosovo. Like these mountains, the aforementioned poet Eqrem Basha (b. 1948), spans borders; author of short poems characterized by a dry wit as well as lyricism, he was born in the Macedonian town of Dibra, which has an Albanian majority, and is viewed as a participant in the literature of both Macedonia and Kosovo.
The greatest modern Albanian poet, Lazar Gusho (1899-1987), who called himself Lasgush Poradeci, lived in Albania proper but is revered by all Albanians. I include “Lasgushi” among the half dozen or so greatest poets of this century in any language. His sensitivity, his understanding of nature, his music are unparalleled in Albanian. It is interesting to note that his early education was in Romanian, a language with certain characteristics in common with the otherwise isolated Albanian, and that he spent his much of his youth in Romania, which at one time was a center of the Albanian intellectual diaspora, and where he was strongly influenced by Latin modernism. One of his finest poems, “Mbarim Vjeshte” (“End of Autumn”) which could refer to him, reads (as I translate it, with necessary help from my friend and colleague, the Albanian-American journalist Ruben Avxhiu):
He’s flown off, the last stork, magnificently, with a sad heart,
Looking old at dawn over the snowy mountains…
Gone and dissatisfied, and with his strong beak
He abandoned his nest to his master, rapping at the gate…
Thus it won’t seem that the fated one often returns to fields after plowing,
Back to furrows turned and turned again by cattle from the mountains,
And the fallow soil is silent, with the gray mouse gone,
While the spotted viper died by the desert swamp.
Swept by cold winds, the earth lies under frost,
In the dry forest the north wind blows, nervous and wild,
But singing more and more… there! somewhere, sly and tiny
Over fences and briers a wren flies gladly!…
Oh, such grace the stork had, so noble in his sad height,
As he paced back and forth, like a bridegroom with a crown!…
And with him the crane, marching at his side,
Eyes uplifted, with prudent step, as if his bride!…
Lasgushi’s work was of incalculable importance to the later generations of Albanian youth. As Ruben Avxhiu recently commented to me, “When I was in high school I learned that he died; I was so surprised! In all the textbooks it was implied that he died sometime before the Communists came to power. He was very important for us, the last generation under Communism. We grew up in a world where all the past great poets had disappeared, even from the black market in books.”
The anthology An Elusive Eagle Soars includes Elsie’s rendition of an amazing poem by the Hoxhaite author Kadare—amazing in its bold badness. It is titled What Are the Albanian Mountains Thinking? and its essential message is antireligious. According to Kadare, the mountains are thinking about Albanian nationalist symbols such as rifles and children, but they are also thinking evil thoughts about priests and mullahs who allegedly oppressed the people, decadent authors who did not write populist verse, rifles and more rifles, more nasty religious symbols, rulers, priests, and traitors who also happened to be priests, another bunch of decadent poets who did not notice the poverty of the masses, more rifles and more children, and more bad churches, rulers, monasteries, and priests who wanted to preserve the original forms of the Albanian language. Finally, rifles, rifles, and rifles again, with the summary declaration: “Albania was waiting / For the Communist Party.” Meanwhile, the chorus of acclamation for Kadare continues in the West; Noel Malcolm, a political writer whom I believe knows better, described him in The New York Review of Books as “as the most innovative of Albanian writers,” thereby, doubtless unintentionally, consigning Lasgushi, Faik Konica, and many other Albanian authors to the Orwellian memory hole.
Martin Camaj, whom I consider the second of the two greatest 20th century Albanian poets, after Lasgushi, and also among the finest modern poets in any language, was a gifted linguist and textual analyst, who taught Albanology at the University of München. But more importantly for me, he was a mentor in poetry and in Albanian studies, and a friend.
Martin was the successor to a number of the men execrated by Kadare—prominent Albanian Catholic authors who, like Martin, wrote in the Gheg dialect of Albanian. They included Lazër Shantoja (1892-1945), a great poet of faith as well as physical passion (and its voluntary renunciation), Dom Ndre Zadeja (1891-1945), and Mons. Vinçenc Prennushi (1885-1949). Martin’s exile, first in Yugoslavia, then in Italy, and finally in Germany, was by no means unrelated to this stylistic datum: the Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha had sought to suppress the Gheg literary tradition, first by executing all of these Catholic writers and more, including the aged author of the first novel in Albanian, Ndoc Nikaj (1864-1946), and two outstanding folklorists, Bernardin Palaj (d. 1946, also an important poet) and Donat Kurti (1903-1983). These men, a mere handful among a long list of martyred Catholic clerics and laity in Hoxhaite Albania, had laid the foundation for Albanian literature as we know it, and after the fall of Communism in Albania proper they were granted the recognition and republication they deserved, although much of their work had already been revived in Kosovo.
But Hoxha, supported by the novelist Kadare, also acted to impose Letrarë as the sole, standard literary idiom. Hoxha’s fanaticism on this subject had effects among Albanians everywhere. For example, although Kosovars continue to identify themselves as Ghegs, and to speak Gheg, most today publish in Letrarë. The adoption of this form by Kosovars was perceived by them as an expression of nationalist affirmation in the face of Slavic cultural pressure.
Martin was proud of his Albanian roots and his Albanian speech but he was unwilling to surrender, as a poet and scholar, to the chauvinist propaganda of Enverism. For him, the role of the poet was to defend and maintain literary style as a repository of collective cultural memory, not as an ideological vocabulary suitable for placards to be carried in party demonstrations. And as a scholar in linguistics, he saw as his first duty to record and analyze the origins and transmutations of language, not to promote a set of prescriptive canons.
In addition, Martin was a Catholic believer who completely rejected the postures of the Communist elite. For these reasons, he is barely known to the Albanian reading public today, except as a name, and when he is read, his fondness for the alleged archaisms of the pre-Hoxha Gheg dialect are alienating for many.
Nevertheless, Martin Camaj drew upon a very pure and personal stream of poetic music. His verse transforms the remembered rural landscape of his childhood, in a style characterized by brevity, compactness, intensity, and ecstatic insight. He is, indeed, a Christian mystical poet of a kind rare in Balkan modernism. Summarizing his personal outlook on literature, as well as his defiance of the party-state, he wrote, “in my poems and prose I side spontaneously with the individual rather than with the collective…my interest remains the destiny of the human being.”
Martin was born in Temal, in the remote Dukagjin region of the north Albanian Alps, near the Drin River whose severe flooding isolated the area each winter. As a child herding sheep, Martin was discovered by the village priest. The priest told Martin’s father the child was more suited to intellectual than physical work, and the reaction of the rural family was predictable: Martin’s elder brother angrily told him it was better to learn “the language of snakes” and to forget about studying Latin. But after overcoming his family’s opposition, he was educated in Shkodra at the Xaverianum College.
The Jesuit Xaverianum schooled many other north Albanian intellectuals, including Gjon Sinishta. Martin was extremely close to Gjon, as well as to another outstanding Albanian emigre in America, the poet Arshi Pipa (1920-97). Pipa’s poetry is classical in form and wrenchingly eloquent in its condemnation of Communism and its description of the suffering of religious and other dissidents. His most important verse collection is Libri i Burgut (The Prison Book), printed in Albanian in Rome in 1959 and reprinted in Tirana in 1994.
After the second world war Martin witnessed the closing of the Xaverianum by the Hoxha regime and the mass trials and executions of Albanian Jesuits. He fled to Yugoslavia and entered the University of Belgrade, but later pursued postgraduate studies in Italy. He gained his doctorate in linguistics at the University of Rome, in 1960, under another exile scholar and poet, Ernest Koliqi, with whom he also worked on the leading Albanian émigré literary journal Shejzat (Pleiadi). His doctoral dissertation was a study of the early Albanian Catholic author, Gjon Buzuku, whose Missal is the first printed Albanian book. Further, he studied at Rome under Giuseppe Ungaretti, whose “hermeticism” left a permanent impress on him. Martin Camaj served as professor of Albanian studies at München from 1970 until 1990, and died in a Bavarian mountain village, Lenggries.
Significantly, Martin published his first collections, written in classical forms, in Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo: Nji fyëll ndër male (A Flute in the Mountains) in 1953, and Kânga e vërrimit (Song of the Lowlands) the following year. These books were reviewed in the Prishtina daily Rilindja by Gjon Sinishta, who then edited the paper’s literary section (and who also discovered the work of the Kosovar Albanian dissident writer Adem Demaçi at that time). Martin’s first books were considered the beginning of a new style of poetry in Kosovo. This was possible in Kosovo because, to repeat, notwithstanding the difficulties of the Slav-Albanian relationship, particularly in the 1950s, Yugoslav publishing imposed no bans or guidelines in areas of literary form. But both books were already suffused with nostalgia for the north Albanian mountain landscape which Martin was certain that could never see again. In 1958 he published his first novel, Djella, in Italy. He produced several more volumes of fiction and verse in Germany, Italy, and the U.S., including his selected poems (Poezi 1953-1967), which appeared in Munich in 1981. Bilingual anthologies of his work have appeared in English, German, and Italian. His last book, Palimpsest, was published in Albanian and English in the U.S. in 1991.
As a scholar, Martin Camaj worked to the highest standards. He authored several studies in Albanian linguistics, along with a well-known foreword to the Albanian-English bilingual edition of the Kanun of Lek Dukagjini, the great compendium of highland Albanian customary law, first printed in the U.S. in 1989. Martin wrote that the heart of the Kanun is besa, the “sacred promise and obligation to keep one’s given word,” which he described as “a term rich in meaning and use.” Besa further encompasses “word of honor, faith, trust, protection, truce” and “hospitality, which involves uncompromising protection of a guest, even one with whom the host is in a state of blood-feud,” as Martin commented.
Martin pointed out, “the permanence of the Kanun may be seen in its influence on Albanian folk literature—not only in a simple documentary form, but far more in terms of ethical and esthetic expression. Albanian customary law appears in a specific way primarily in epics and legends – in both form and content, the oldest types of Albanian folk literature.” He went on to cite a characteristic stanza from a classic poem about the extraordinary Balkan culture hero Gjergj Elez Alia, an epical personality beloved to Muslim Bosnians (who know him as a Muslim warrior, Djerzelez Alija, particularly identified with Sarajevo) as well as Albanians. In this text, which like Albanian verse in general is of a clarity and beauty that cannot be easily rendered in other tongues, Gjergj Elez Alia, ill from injuries incurred in battle, must fight an “Arab” or other invader over honor:
For nine years I have taken the path to the grave.
But your arrival, giant, has made me turn aside.
You demanded my sister before the duel,
You demanded the herdsmen surrender their herds,
And I come to this duelling field to show you
That our forefathers a Kanun gave us:
Arms are first tested, before property is given,
And sisters are never surrendered
Until I am dead on the field of combat.[xxxi]
While such masculine sentiments may seem both appropriate and disquieting in view of the present chaotic state of Kosovo, I do not believe Martin Camaj could ever have blindly defended the ultranationalist excesses occurring there today. He was too much of a humanist, too kind, and too generous. For him besa meant mercy, not revenge, and in this he was truly a Christian poet.
I moved from Sarajevo to Kosovo while completing the first draft of this essay, and in pondering the brutalities that have occurred in the latter territory, I offer an anecdote of my own. I thought not to hang a photo of Branko Miljković on the wall of my rented apartment in Prishtina, for fear the Albanian landlady or cleaning lady would misinterpret its significance—or gossip about it. Finally, loving his work as I do, I put up the picture, but cut off the caption with his name. In Kosovo today, Serbian poetry is better left in anonymity, even by an American visitor. As Macbeth murdered sleep, pushed by his evil spouse, so Milošević has murdered the prestige of his people’s greatest writers; and the Serb dictator was also urged on by his sinister wife. Here is one of my favorite works of Martin:
Rain on the River (Shiu Mbi Lum)
The mist descends slowly from the mountains
And raindrops fall upon the river;
Against the clouded sky a pine tree sways;
The soul craves easement, the limbs seek slumber.
Leaves and the cloak of the shepherdess merge into water
And raindrops fall upon the river;
Ripened desire drops from a branch;
The soul craves easement, the limbs seek slumber.
Flames spring from twigs in the hearth
And raindrops fall upon the river;
My ears are weary of voices;
The soul craves easement, the limbs seek slumber.
(Adapted from translation by Leonard Fox.)
Martin never saw post-Communist Albania; his exile lasted until his death. I gave a eulogy for Martin when he died. I learned more from him about poetry than from anybody else I ever knew. He had my besa; I will mourn him until the end of my life. It was in search of the sources of the wisdom imparted to me by Martin and by Gjon Sinishta, who also became my teacher, that finally, in 1999, I went to the Balkans to live, and to learn the lessons I have tried to impart here.[xxxii]
[xxvi] Dizdar, Mak, Kameni Spavac/Stone Sleeper, Tr. By Francis R. Jones, Sarajevo, Did, 1999.
[xxvii] I had the honor of cotranslating this work into Spanish for publication in Mexico; see, Ibrišimović, Nedžad, El Libro de Adem Kahriman, Tr. into Spanish with Antonio Saborit, Mexico City, Breve Fondo Editorial, 2000. It was named Book of the Year in Translation by the leading daily Reforma. This was, amazingly and perhaps somewhat disgracefully, its first publication outside Bosnia-Hercegovina. [xxviii] Agee, Chris, ed., The Scar on the Stone, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Bloodaxe Books, 1988. Sidran, Abdulah, The Blindman Sings to His City, Sarajevo, International Center for Peace, 1997. Mehmedinović, Semezdin, Sarajevo Blues, San Francisco, City Lights Books, 1998. I have previously written on Sidran, the two sides of Sarajevo, Ibrišimović, Mehmedinović, and such other and fine Sarajevo poets as Amir Talić, Ismet Bekrić, Admiral Mahić and Hazim Akmadžić in my essay “Muddling Through in Bosnia,” The New Criterion, February 2000, also to be incorporated in my to be reprinted in my Sarajevo Rose: A Balkan Jewish Notebook (see note 16). Sarajlić’s poem on Karadžič appears in Sarajlić, Izet, Rođeni 23, Streljani 42, Sarajevo, Veselin Masleša, 1988, along with the commentary by Koljević.
[xxix] Šalamun, Tomaž, Homage to Hat and Uncle Guido and Eliot: Selected Poems, ed. By Charles Simic with an introduction by Robert Hass, Todmorden, Lancs, Arc Publications, 1997 (second edition of Selected Poems, 1988.) Šalamun, Tomaž, Poker, Ljubljana, Cankarjeva Založba, 2000.
[xxx] Migjeni, Free Verse, Pejë, Dukagjini, 2001, and Fishta, Gjergj, The Highland Lute, Cantos I-V, Pejë, Dukagjini, 2003. My comments on these volumes first appeared in the New York Albanian-American newspaper Illyria, in a two-part text, “New Books from Else and ‘Dukagjini,’” March 4/6 and 7/10, 2003.
[xxxi] Adapted from translation by Leonard Fox and from Fatos Arapi, Ancient Albanian Songs, Tirana, Shtepia Botuese Enciclopedike, 1996.
[xxxii] Elsie, Robert, Ed. and Tr., An Elusive Eagle Soars: Anthology of Albanian Modern Poetry, London and Boston, Forest Books/UNESCO, 1993, includes works, among those cited here, of Camaj, Mekuli, Mehmeti, Gunga, Podrimja, Shkreli, Dedaj, Hamiti, Basha, Kadare, and Poradeci. All of the same poets, along with Gajtani, Gashi and Musliu, but excepting Poradeci, Camaj, and Kadare, are also included in Podrimja, Ali, and Hamiti, Sabri, The Sad Branch, Prishtina, Rilindja, 1984, an excellent, if short, bilingual collection unavailable in the U.S. Another important volume is Ali Podrimja, Who Will Slay the Wolf, Tr. by Robert Elsie, New York, Gjonlekaj Publishing Co., 2000. For the original of Poradeci’s poem see Poradeci, Lasgush, Ylli i Zemrës, Prishtina, Rilindja, 1990. Also see Camaj, Martin, Selected Poetry, Tr. By Leonard Fox, New York, NYU Press, 1990, and Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit/The Code of Lekë Dukagjini, ed. by Shtjefën Gjeçov, Tr. with an introduction by Leonard Fox, New York, Gjonlekaj Publishing Co., n.d. On the attempted destruction of Albanian Catholic culture, as well as on Pipa and Koliqi, see Sinishta, Gjon, The Fulfilled Promise, Santa Clara, n.p., 1976. Pipa published several works of political history in English. Also see my article, “A Certain Exhaustion,” The New Criterion, October 2000, to be incorporated also in my Sarajevo Rose: A Balkan Jewish Notebook (see note 16). For Malcolm on Kadare, see Malcolm, Noel, “The Palace of Nightmares,” The New York Review of Books, November 6, 1997; for Kadare on literature, see note 3.[/private]