by Emily Packer

With thanks to Miranda Dawkins for interpreting the interview.

Though his name may not yet be familiar to Anglophone audiences, Albanian Fatos Kongoli is one of Eastern Europe’s most celebrated literary exports. His books, seven in all, have been translated into French, German, Italian, Greek, and Slovak. His novel The Loser (I Humburi) earned a Writers in Translation award from the International PEN Foundation this year. In the article ‘A Literature Review – Borderland,’ authors Jens Becker and Achim Engelberg report: ‘Whoever wants to improve their understanding of Albania will be unable to avoid Fatos Kongoli’ (South-East Europe Review, 1/2004).

With the help of a student translator – St. Hilda’s linguist Miranda Dawkins – I spoke to Mr. Kongoli at the Maison Francaise, where he was preparing for a reading from The Loser, the first of his novels to be translated into English. (Mr. Kongoli speaks French but not English, and I English but not French, so regrettably I shall be unable to render many direct quotations). Mr. Kongoli is a thoughtful, unpretentious man who values precision and individualism. Asked about the greatest problems facing Albania’s youth today, he comments that the question is too broad to be answered adequately; an inquiry about the country’s literary culture meets with much the same result.

Though Mr. Kongoli is hesitant to make sweeping statements about his countrymen, his personal history provides us with material for discussion enough. Kongoli hails from one of the most interesting nations in Eastern Europe. Ruled by hardline communist Enver Hoxha from the 1950s to the 1980s, Albania broke early from the Soviet Union and allied itself, alone, with China, where Mr. Kongoli studied between 1961 and 1964. Indeed, Mr. Kongoli singles out this period as one of the most important of his life;. He was shocked by the poverty endemic there, but deeply moved by the welcome he received from the ‘magical’ people. Yet in time the alliance with China crumbled too, and throughout much of the seventies and eighties Albanians endured frequent penury and political isolation. Mr. Kongoli protested against the dictatorship, and ensured his own safety, by refusing to publish seriously until the end of Communist rule, instead whiling away his spare time in extensive reading and pursuing a career as a mathematician, because ‘there was no Marxist strategy for mathematicians.’ His father, a violinist and Communist, impressed upon him the precarious position of artists in a dogmatic state.

Mr. Kongoli’s virtual silence under the Hoxha regime is all the more poignant because he is careful to stress that he is not solely or primarily a political writer. The Loser never mentions Hoxha or the communists by name, though the protagonist eventually falls victim to the skewed justice system of the Party. Regarding more recent political issues, I ask Kongoli whether he intends to write anything about Kosovo, a subject which has preoccupied notable Albanian authors such as Ismail Kadaré. ‘Leave it to the historians,’ he replies, adding that he has other fish to fry. Mr. Kongoli is happiest instead when talking about his characters and his literary technique.

Though Kongoli describes writing as the process of forgetting everything but ‘you and the white page,’ The Loser is deeply influenced by the French existentialists Camus and Sartre as well as by similarly bleak literary greats like Kafka and Dostoevsky. The novel, set half in the seventies and half in the nineties, follows the travails of a young Albanian by the name of Thesar Lumi. Bound for a freer Italy aboard a refugee boat, he chooses instead, almost inexplicably, to disembark and return to his dreary and stagnant homeland. The remainder of the novel recounts his motives and his past, in which the communist elite persecuted him at every turn and put an end to his forbidden affair with a prominent widow. Thesar Lumi is a curious creation, more a witness or accomplice to the actions of others than an active agent in himself. Mr. Kongoli confirms that his choice of protagonist was deliberate; Lumi is ‘neither a hero nor a revolutionary,’ distinguished chiefly by his capacity to think, reflect, and suffer. Lumi’s sense of the futility and absurdity of life elevates him from a mere product of his place and time to an emblem for all young people robbed of their potential by a repressive environment.

Translated from Albanian by Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck, The Loser is now available on amazon.co.uk and scheduled for a full international release in April 2008. Mr. Kongoli says that he would love to see more of his books in English editions, but for the moment he is at the mercy of the public and of his publisher. For now, he offers an earnest thanks to the people of Oxford and of the other English institutions which have welcomed him.