Romeo Çollaku (b. 1973, Saranda, southern Albania) is a poet, prose writer, playwright, and translator. He has published five books of poetry, a novel, and a book of short stories, and has translated a wide range of nineteenth- and twentieth- century European writers into Albanian and Modern Greek, among whom Villon, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Claudel, Seferis, Kavafis, Ricos, Elitis and Rilke. He has received both the Albanian National Award for Translation and the Albanian National Award for Fiction. The work of Romeo Çollaku has also been published in anthologies and literary magazines in English, Bulgarian, French, Greek and German.
Title: Varrezat e Vendlindjes (Hometown Cemetery)
Place of publication: Tirana
Year of Publication: 2002
ISBN : 99927-766-3-3
© all rights reserved to the author and to ‘Aleph’ publishing house: email@example.com
The plot: In centre of the novel is a grave robber, who, after having practiced this illegal profession for years, decides to rob the graves of his own city, which he left at a very young age. This act, which he tries to commit together with his old strict mentor, will not be easy at all; the confrontation to his childhood will lead him to some dramatic surprises.
Even the characters of this book are not able to distinguish where reality ends and where the tale begins. The characters move from the tale to reality and from reality to the tale, from terrestrial life to life after death, from one epoch to the other. All these things have only one purpose: to manifest the big dilemmas of the human soul.
The hole had been dug enough and Master jumped inside it. From above, Prentice pointed the torchlight towards him.
- She was pretty, – Master said, turning the skull aside, but Prentice did not hear that.
After having rummaged around in mud, bones and water for almost twenty minutes, Master came out of the hole and, grim in his face, he showed Prentice a golden ring.
- Just the ring, – the latter said. – Very little for a young bride, isn’t it?
- This is how much her people were willing to give, – Master said in irony. – That’s true, very little for a young bride, but this isn’t something that you didn’t know, Prentice. You knew this before we set off. I knew that too, but I still paid heed to you. Tell me, you knew it, didn’t you?
- I did, – Prentice said.
Master shook his head in rebuke.
- Keep going further on, – he said, putting the ring in a small bag.
Prentice read two or three gravestones without saying a word. What could he say about them? What other than silence could describe best the economic condition of a person who is born, lives and reaches the end of his life in utter poverty?
- Were these like the rest of them? – Master asked.
- They were completely broke, – Prentice said.
- How about this one here?
- The same. I feel sorry for him. He was alive when I left.
- People die, Prentice.
- Yes, Master. They die. All of them.
- They die.
An epitaph carved on one of the headstones attracted Prentice’s attention: “You should be happier than us.” He read that to Master.
- What was he?
After racking his brain for a little while, he said:
- This name doesn’t ring a bell.
- Happy! – said Master in surprise.
Prentice started looking for the pickaxe.
In the meantime, hope made Master’s eyes sparkle like flint stone. A happy man! A happy dead man! They couldn’t have written the epitaph in vain. “The deceased, – thought Master, – must have enjoyed life in wealth and prosperity, like we all dreamed, so he passed being contented. Happy. They must have given him something to take with him of all that opulence, to remind him here, where he lies, of the years he lived in lavish splendour”.
Prentice dug the soil persistently, removed it with the spade, then dug again and again asked Master to give him the spade.
At some point, he froze, pickaxe in hand.
- Can you hear footsteps?
- I can only hear the rain. – said Master.
Nobody was coming. Prentice could clearly hear the footsteps of the person that would come to dig his grave one day.
– Stop! Stop digging! – yelled Master sometime. – Where is your mind wandering? Come on up. There’s the coffin plank. Climb out and hold the light for me, quick!
They switched sides. Master went down, and after a while, he shouted:
– Damn! What is this?
He threw a tall plank out of the grave. He had mistaken it for a coffin plank. Prentice pointed the torchlight at the muddied wood, and he saw it was an oar.
- I need light here, – yelled Master again, enraged. He had buried his arms elbow-deep in the wet soil and was persistently and anxiously searching.
- Stop searching in there, it’s useless. – said Prentice from above.
- There is no dead body in there.
- There is no grave without a dead body in it.
Master did not believe in symbolic graves, in cenotaphs, although he had heard about them numerous times. He did not believe in them, because he had never seen one. But, in half an hour, he climbed out of the hole, fuming with anger.
- I didn’t find a single bone in there.
Prentice didn’t speak.
- Why did you bring us here?
Prentice kept reading the names on the headstones of other graves, without uttering a single word. His silence made Master angrier. Nevertheless, he kept following him without losing the last ray of hope that Prentice would speak and ask for the pickaxe. They were walking through the fourth row of graves.
– My childhood friend is dead, too, – said Prentice and read his name out loud on a headstone. – When they evicted me from here, he didn’t even come to shake hands with me.
Master grabbed him by the shoulder.
– Prentice, did you bring us here out of longing for your wretched hometown?
– Yes, – said Prentice.
The extract is translated from the Albanian by Manjola Nasi