Visar Zhiti was born in Durres in 1952. After graduating from the Higher Institute of Pedagogy in Shkodra, he started working as a teacher in the northern town of Kukës, where he started to write down his first poems that were published in the literary magazines of the time. His poems, characterized by a democratic spirit were the reason why he was sentenced by the communist regime to 18 years in prison. After the fall of the communist dictatorship in 1991, he has lived, studied and worked abroad for several years. Afterwards he came back to Albania where he first worked as a journalist and then he was appointed to various positions such as Director of a Publishing Company, Cultural Attaché to Rome, Minister of Culture, and more recently the Charge d’Affaires to the Vatican etc. Some of his most notable works are: Hedh një kafkë te këmbët tuaja (Throw a Skull at your Feet), Mbjellja e vetëtimave (Planting Lightnings), Dyert e gjalla (The Living Doors), Kohë e vrarë në sy (Time Killed in the Face), Si shkohet në Kosovë (How to get to Kosovo?), Ferri i care [The Cloven Hell (recollections of time in prison – a biographical novel) – prisonology ] etc. His books, both in poetry and prose, have been translated and published in different countries. He has been awarded many prizes, among them, the Major Prize in Literature.
Title: Ferri i çarë [The Cloven Hell, (recollections of time in prison) (A biographical novel) – Prisonology]
Place of publication: Tirana
Year of publication: 2012
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The plot: The Cloven Hell is a complex novel where the modern and the classical are intertwined, a shocking narration about the infamous Qafë-Bari prison. The events and the characters are real. The novel’s protagonists are prisoners and policemen, relatives, as well as present-day familiar political figures. The novel, which the author calls by neologism burgologji (prisonology – a biographical novel), consists of 9 chapters, as many as Dante’s circles of Hell.
It is built of fragmentations and cracks. It starts with the protagonist having been freed from prison and ends with him being present at a memorial conference held in the capital city after the fall of the dictatorship regime. Life in prison, unbelievable as it is, full of infernal scenes, sufferings, violence, hard work in the mine, escapes, deaths and killings, prisoners’ revolts, their oppression, prisoners’ release out of prison, their dreams, love, disappointments… These are all presented through retrospective.
This book is a living document, an evidence of violence exercised during the dictatorship, as well as an evidence of the resistance of those who confronted it; it is a rare and gruesome evidence, a stark mosaic, but with universal overtones, written in a hard language, but rich in metaphors, signifying the greatest strength of the word.
As much as being a continuation of The Streets of Hell novel or (prisonology) (a Biographical Novel) – Burgologji about Spaç, The Cloven Hell, (prisonology) (A Biographical Novel) – Burgologji About Qafë-Bari, is also a separate work, despite the fact that some of the characters are the same, but in a different setting as it happens in life, moving from one prison to another.
The Cloven Hell is not a work of hatred, but of love; it is a reminder for the future.
New prisoners kept coming before we old timers had had a chance to get to know each other, which, by the way, was forbidden. The lack of contact with others lessened one’s self-perception. That poor mass of humanity, seemingly dressed the same, with identical haircuts, equally famished, where another seemed to be you and you someone else; without individuality we were nothing if not empty transparencies, multiplied by a thousand, or two thousand, by a million, by millions. During the age of slavery, three thousand years ago, this setup would have reduced you to nothing more than a slave due to your long years of imprisonment We whispered among ourselves that cosmonauts could see our jails from afar, from the cosmos, perhaps from the moon, the prison caves, the rows of the condemned, the seemingly endless chain of them, stretching longer than the rivers. There were no prisons anywhere else.
Among the prisoners emerging one day from the police van was a young man with a face paler than those of others who had survived their interrogation period. Around his shoulders he wore a black jacket with a flap in the back. Perhaps that was the fashion outside. He was told to take it to the clothes depot; he would get it back the day he was discharged (or whatever was left of it). He was also to get rid of his shoes and pants and don the prison uniform.
When he was done, he emerged from among the new arrivals and silently, slowly, with the dignity of slow motion, he started climbing the path toward the barbed wire fence, disregarding the prisoners’ mounting tension. We had fixed our eyes on him. He walked sure-footed, his head held high. “Hey” – said some voices- “where are you going? There is no exit there. The guards will open fire. . .” These voices caught the attention of the guards inside the compound, where one of them, unexpectedly, rushed toward the newcomer screaming that he stop, as the guards would shoot: “Hey you, prisoneeer! You guards, don’t shoooot.” The prisoner, however, continued walking, without turning his head, with dignity. He entered the killing zone where signs marked “DO NOT ENTER” were buffeted by the wind like crosses in a graveyard. The soldier in the nearest guard tower, like from inside a wooden monster head and from between its teeth, was aiming his automatic rifle in our direction. “No,” yelled the guard from inside the compound, “soldier, don’t fire, I, too, am here.” He reached the recently sentenced man, grabbed him by his arms and pulled him back. “Turn around,” he yelled, “what’s the matter with you? Why are you crossing into the forbidden zone, or are you trying to get killed?” Look at the other inmates, be patient!” The former citizen did not open his mouth. “Are you insane?” He nodded in agreement. When he came close to us, he looked bewildered, more terrified of us than of the guns. He probably saw himself like one of us.
I was overcome by sorrow, I didn’t know whether for me or for him who wanted to get killed. I not only did not dare kill myself, but had given up thinking altogether. Besides, whom was I supposed to kill, we were no longer human beings. My sorrow turned completely toward the unknown newcomer. It would have been better for him had he been killed. It would have been over for him and a challenge to the status quo. My very thoughts terrified me, for being so merciless toward another’s life. I had no right to want someone else’s death, even though others felt that way toward me.
I doubt it that from the very beginning we had a psychologist among us. Had there been one, he would have been rejected as a Freudian. More likely, someone among us could have become a psychologist in prison. Chances were slim but psychological anomalies were all around us. A psychologist could have thought along these lines: “The inside guard, no more than a rubber truncheon for the regime, dares to save an enemy’s life. That must mean that the dictator is very ill, probably in his death throes; he may even be dead. They may be hiding it as in ancient Chinese dictatorships that were ‘led’ by dead emperors. Thus, the policeman of the ‘class warfare’, by saving the life of a prisoner may have been promoting his own future thus extending the life of an evil, even as he prevented death.”
Why, are you thinking that the policeman did not save the prisoner’s life, just out of human concern…?
“No, no, no way, he was trying to avoid being arrested. Time has come for us to trade places. How could I miss it if the policeman didn’t?”
Trading places is not necessarily a change. Can there be no society without condemned individuals, hence without judges, without jails, without prisoners?
The extract is translated from the Albanian by Genc Korça