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An Orchid in a Land of Thorns

October 02, 1994|DENISE HAMILTON | Times staff writer Denise Hamilton was in the Balkans last year on a Fulbright Fellowship

TIRANA, Albania — Night had fallen and the power was out again so we got out the Coleman lantern and huddled around it. Outside, a torrential rain was transforming the dirt side streets into mud swamps. Inside, it was humid and smelled of bug spray. After much discussion, we decided not to visit the trendy club where Albanian nouveaux riches threw greenbacks at Russian girls who stripped on stage. When someone brought out a novel by Ismail Kadare, talk turned from the salacious to the sublime.

Kadare wasn't just famous in his small, impoverished, mountainous country. When I was in Albania last fall, the author, whose prose glimmers with the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the bleakness of Jean Paul Sartre--was up for a Nobel Prize in literature. I had even spotted him one night at the National Theater debut of "Waiting for Godot"--the first time such bleak but appropriate fare had been staged by Albanian actors in their own language.

Albania's most famous export looked like a 1960s European intellectual: thick, black horn-rimmed glasses, piercing hawk eyes and wavy gray hair, holding court in the theater lobby as well-wishers paid their respects.

When it comes to their nation's literary lion, Albanians remain deeply ambiguous. On one hand, they are proud because he is the only artist they have who commands the world stage. But they also feel betrayed, they will tell you, their hollow faces arching into grimaces, because Kadare abandoned them for a cushy berth in Paris in 1991, when his presence would have succored them after Communism fell and mobs destroyed factories, looted food warehouses and forced the closure of Tirana University.

And how to explain Kadare's long friendship with Enver Hoxha, Albania's Draconian leader until he died in 1985, who shielded the writer while most intellectuals were hounded--often to death. Was Kadare, who came from Hoxha's hometown in a country where clans are all-important, the dictator's alter ego, his pinprick of conscience, expressing universal truths that Hoxha knew in his bones but could not countenance from anyone else?

Albania has a long history of backwardness, obscurity, brigandry, gun worship and blood feuds. Despite small, elite clusters of Western-educated intellectuals prior to World War II, the country never experienced the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Age or, until after World War II, the age of literacy. In a Communist regime that subverted all art to the politics of socialist realism, Kadare's survival was even more enigmatic. He was a hothouse orchid blooming in a land of thorns.

I didn't bring any of this up that night. Instead, I picked up his autobiographical novel, "Chronicle in Stone."

Its narrator is an unnamed Albanian boy who recounts with childhood sobriety how the Italians, the Greeks and finally the Nazis conquered his "gray immortal city," which is also never named in the book, but is understood to be his hometown, Gjirocaster.

It was a city where you could "walk down the street, stretch out your arm and hang your hat on a minaret," Kadare wrote. "Everything in the city was old and made of stone, from the streets and foundations to the roofs of the sprawling age-old houses covered with grey slates like gigantic scales. It was hard to believe that under this powerful carapace the tender flesh of life survived and reproduced.

"It was a steep city, perhaps the steepest in the world, defying the laws of architecture and city planning. . . . It was surely the only place in the world where if you slipped and fell in the street, you might well land on the roof of a house--a peculiarity known most intimately to drunks."

Spurred by these descriptions-- and the knowledge that Albania gets more beautiful as one leaves Tirana--some friends and I hired a cab to visit Gjirocaster, which had writhed and moaned under the invaders' boots but survived the war, much like the Albanians themselves:

In Central Albania, we traversed steep mountain passes barren save for scrub and the occasional goat whose dun colors blended into a land deforested by poverty and deliberate environmental manipulation. It was a land and a mood that Kadare also evoked in "General of the Dead Army," which recounts the travails of an Italian officer who travels Albania to dig up and ship home the bodies of his fallen comrades during World War II.

Five hours later, we arrived, in air so pure and cold that it hurt to breathe. Kadare's city was severe and beautiful, perched on a mountain like an eagle's aerie. It looked unchanged since the Middle Ages, when a Crusade had passed through on the way to the Holy Land. Lyric Lord Byron had also graced these parts, passing through Tepolina on his way to die ignobly and too early in 1824 at Missolonghi, Greece, fighting for Greek independence.

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