New Books from Elsie and ‘Dukagjini’


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By Stephen Schwartz *)

The estimable Dukagjini publishing house in Peja, Kosova, 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: Free Verse, by Migjeni, and Gjergj Fishia’s Highland Lute, Cantos I-V. Both are presented bìlingually, with the Albanian original and the English translation on facing pages. Both are edited by the greatest Albanologist of non-Albanian origin alive today, Robert Elsie. Unfortunately, however, these editions as yet lack an American distributor.

I will begin with the volume of Migjeni because it includes so many remarkable gifts for the English reader. Migjeni (1911-1938) was the founder of the modernist style in Albanian, a worthy contemporary, in the regional context of Srecko Kosovel (1904-1926), the most daring experitnentalist among the South Slavic poets. 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 the phenomenon as a global literary revolution.

Young poets like Migjeni, Kosovel, the Italian Giuseppe Ungaretti (teacher of our great Martin Camaj, who was my good friend), 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 fist world war with an entirely new 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, Mallarmd, and Lautrémont, the poets of radical linguistic transformation who appeared in France in the late 19th century and who redefined world literature.

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 lanpuages 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 shtick 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 Migjeni (1911-1938) 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 enorinous 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 Mtgjeni 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 his readers among the sons and daughters of the eagle.

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 the young son of Shkodra in gorgeous English rendition:

“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.”

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 nust maneuver 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. B

ut 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 often, in this context, of the special relationship of Guillaume Apollinaire, the patron saint of modemists who emerged after the first world war, and our Faik Konica. The companionship of Apollinaire and Faik was a harbinger for me, of the acceptance of Albanian into European literature, on equal terms and with equal rights. That entry will he facilitated by these volumes produced under Elsie’s loving care.

*) Stephen Schwartz is senior policy analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC.

— taken from “Illyria