The Albanian language has a tense for surprise. That is, the verb-ending changes if one says “You speak Albanian” or “You speak Albanian!” The physical landscape of the country is punctuated with periods: 200,000 tiny dome-shaped concrete bunkers, scattered everywhere, meant to hold one or two snipers each, and built by Enver Hoxha in the delusion that it would repel an imagined Soviet invasion. But, even more, the psychic landscape is a forest of exclamation marks entangled with question marks: surprise and bewilderment.
Albanian did not have its own written language until the 20th century, and 95% of the women couldn’t read it. Fishermen on the coast, farmers in the hills, shepherds in the mountains, the blood feuds of continually warring clans: Albania was always an agricultural colony or the backwater of an empire or occupied territory on the way to somewhere else for the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Italo-Normans, the Serbs, the Venetians, the Bulgarians, the Ottomans, the Italian Fascists, the Nazis. In its first years after World War II, the new People’s Republic of Albania under Hoxha—who was prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister, and the commander-in-chief of the army—became a client state of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Breaking with Yugoslavia, it became a client state of Stalin’s Soviet Union, copying the Stalinist economic system of state enterprise and collectivized farming and the Stalinist political system of mass imprisonments and executions. The penalization of “enemies of the people” extended to their grandchildren.
Breaking with the Soviet Union over the “treacherous revisionism” of Khrushchev’s support for “different roads to socialism” and his denunciation of Stalin’s iniquities, it renounced the Warsaw Pact of Eastern European nations and became a client state of Mao’s China, copying the Maoist Cultural Revolution with its own Cultural and Ideological Revolution, abolishing all mosques and churches, sending bureaucrats to the factories and the fields, suppressing “foreign influences.” Breaking with China after the treacherous revisionism that had allowed Nixon to visit Beijing, Albania became essentially alone in the world—through Hoxha’s death after a forty-year reign, through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact nations—until its People’s Republic itself collapsed in 1992. Factories and collective farms were then abandoned, and capitalism brought its own treacheries, as most of the people lost most of their savings, caught up in the hysteria of a pyramid scheme. For years it survived on the money sent home by Albanians who, after the decades of strict national confinement, were now working abroad.
In the Communist countries, photographic documentation was an essential tool of propaganda, for Marxist-Leninism considered itself scientific, and the assumed objectivity of photography was inextricable from the social realism, however glorified, it promoted in the arts and the supposed realism, however implacable, it enacted in daily life. But these photos were not only an unreal realist kitsch of happy workers in the factories and bountiful harvests and valiant soldiers: Reality and therefore its documentation were subject to continual revision in the struggles against revisionism. New-found enemies had to be cut out of negatives, events forgotten, archives destroyed. (It is one of the ironies of this book that the photos of China by one of the photographers survived only because he was in prison at the time the orders were given to burn them.) An authoritarian state depends not only on force, but on the absolute control of information, the creation of its own reality. (Whether this is still possible in the internet era, when even the democracies are dazed by the near-total democratization of information and pseudo-information, remains to be seen.)
The New Society needed to reinvent every aspect of life, including things as seemingly neutral as the technology of photography. Thus, Albanian photographers were sent to China to learn the new Socialist tri-chrome printing method that would replace decadent capitalist Kodak film; they were given Chinese Red Flag cameras to dislodge dependency on their Western European models. Equally surprising, Albanian photo studios were shut down as a bourgeois indulgence, or used only for the inevitable purposes of identification documents. This is exactly opposite to the current taste for studio photographs from everywhere in the world, which sees them, within the strict genre of their poses, as unfiltered representations of the people, highborn and low, of a given culture. It is a People’s Art, but its works are the aspirational images of individuals from the masses. In the People’s Republic, there was only the masses, and the only permitted images of its people were those manipulated to serve the aspirations of the republic.
World history tends to remember the hegemonies of the great powers, though the world itself is a more complex net of unlikely correspondences, one where Bollywood movies and Brazilian telenovelas enter the dreams of far-flung villagers abroad, and one where—in this book—the Eternal Friendship of Albania and China oddly intersects with the personal friendship of two photographers, a Muslim who hid a Jew during the war, and who never met again.
Small and largely ignored, Albania has a way of appearing in unexpected places. As the final state beacon of Stalinism, it still remains inspirational for the true believers of the Voltaic Revolutionary Communist Party in Burkina Faso or the Group of Popular Combatants in Ecuador or the Communist Party of Labor in the Dominican Republic or the Communist Party of Togo. The Australian writer Lloyd Jones wrote a novel about Enver Hoxha’s official double, which, since it was about Albania, was assumed to be non-fiction. In the U.S., one African-American poet, Amiri Baraka, wrote essays in praise of Hoxha; another, Will Alexander, has a long poem on his death:
the expiring Enver Hoxha
like a skull on a slab of Marxist invectives
with a glut of crushed worms slipping from his forehead
[. . .]
his dictatorial mutterings
like a spurt of unseasonable frog gills
like a grotesque insecticidal frenzy calling out
from tormented histamine gardens
And the short-lived Eternal Friendship lingers on: A few years ago, on a boat trip around Hong Kong harbor during a poetry festival, the Chinese poets of a certain age serenaded the Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku with stirring martial songs they still remembered from Albanian movies: During the Cultural Revolution, those were the only foreign films allowed to be shown. (Slightly earlier, in yet another unlikely correspondence, China mainly screened old Mexican movies, which were neither Soviet nor American, and cheap to rent. The Mexican film stars of the 1940s continue to have a nostalgic fandom on the mainland.) Albania officially erased most of the traces of the Eternal Friendship, but those traces remain not only in the neglected archives amazingly uncovered here, but in random memories. This book calls itself “semi-fictional,” but perhaps it’s best considered as one of those memories, partially reconstructed.
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