Zija Çela, (born in Shkodër, 25 March 1946), is an Albanian prose writer. He graduated in Albanian Language and Literature (1968). In the period between 1984 -1990, he worked as the editor-in-chief of “Drita” literary newspaper and as the director of Letrat Publishing House, established in 1990, the first private publishing house. From 1997 until 2002 he was an editorialist of “Albania” newspaper as well as the editor–in-chief of its literary supplement. Through the years, he has been awarded numerous literary prizes. Some of these prizes are: Best Novel of the Year Prize Monedha e dashurisë (The Currency of Love), awarded from the Albanian Ministry of Culture, 1996; Velija Prize for the Best Novel of the Year Banketi i hijeve (Shadow’s Banquet), 1998; Buzuku Prize for the Best Novel of the Year Lëngata e hënës (Languor of the Moon), 2002; Best Novel of the Year Prize Las Varrezas (Las Varrezas), awarded from the Albanian Ministry of Culture, 2006; Petro Marko Prize for the Best Novel of the Year Apokalipsi sipas Shën Tiranës (The Apocalypse According to St. Tirana), 2011; At Zef Pllumi Prize for Best Prose Writing of the Year Buza e kuqe dhe Gjaku i errët (The Red Lip and Dark Blood), 2012, and many other prizes.
Title: Las Varrezas
Place of publication: Tirana
Year of Publication: 2005
© all rights reserved to the author and “Ideart” Publishing House
The plot: In Kukunam city people were living longer, because every time somebody was dying, the beautiful Dinosha, wife of the post office employee, came to him, held him tight and could take him away from death, although she had to suffer. But one day Dinosha was lying on her bed, ill. Somebody should suffer for her, in order to heal her. But nobody wanted to sacrifice; life’s formula couldn’t work anymore. A curse fell over Kukunam, death’s formula started to work. Each time somebody was dying, he didn’t want to go alone. So he named somebody who he wanted to take with him in the other world. While Kukunam was promoting life, it was an unknown city. After starting to promote death, it became famous all over the world. The international associations immediately came to provide support to the city. They even proposed to add Kukunam to the list of cultural heritage protected by UNESCO.
As indicated in the local registers and general state statistics, it had been years since someone had last died in that town among mountains. High central government officials, encouraged by specialists of the Ministry of Public Health, observing the miracle at a distance, explicated the wonder of this life reservation as an outcome of the air, the water and the natural isolation from polluted urban environment. But the town’s inhabitants themselves related it to Dinosha, the wife of Harap Habitari – the virtuous post office clerk.
It was Dinosha’s first year of marriage when her husband had almost cashed in his chips; a sudden illness had sent him flat on his back, puffed him up, and rot his bowels. The doctors could find neither a name, nor a cure for this illness. When Harap went into the torpor of death, his pretty wife, who had never left his bedside, was weeping, caressing his hair and holding him tight, as if she had resolved to keep him in life at any cost, or to follow him in death. And as she was bowing over him, sobbing, she feverishly muttered something; these compassionate words, which no one could hear, were the ones that made the miracle happen: Harap opened his ashen eyes, he yawned, and got up. Later, they all said that Dinosha’s beauty had kept him from dying. Actually, when her husband got up, she went through a horrific alteration; her skin was scarred, her face went pale and she could barely breathe. But everyone around was surprised to see her in three hours’ time: she was three times more beautiful than she had ever been.
From that day, whenever death approached anyone, they would send for Dinosha. Little by little, as her fame spread, she also received requests from nearby regions, and she did not oppose to that. She tried a couple of times, but it didn’t work. Apparently, the beautiful woman could only use the mysterious formula that she had discovered in feverish pain to heal her fellow townsfolk. Naturally, the doctors there did not quit their job. The people continued to go to the polyclinic, they would be hospitalized at the rural hospital, they would get medicated and they would heal. But if it happened that the patient’s situation went downhill with no improvement, they would get him out of hospital and take him right to Dinosha. Those in need would knock at her door day and night, as if her home were the temple of a goddess. It once occurred that Dinosha was put to test. That happened when she received two simultaneous requests. Bert Miluka and Afrim Prati had lethally wounded each other with firearms. When people from both families came to take her where she was needed, Dinosha reasonably chose to enter the house that was first on her way. In his dying bed, still able to think and speak, Bert Miluka welcomed her, gun in his hand.
Have a seat, Dinosha, – he invited her calmly, probably so as not to frighten her. Mother has put the coffeepot on fire. Sit on that chair, let us have coffee first, then we decide what to do next. Stuck on the chair, Dinosha could not tell how much time had passed when a member of Prataj family, in whose house she had been eagerly awaited, appeared crestfallen on the doorway. At that, the wounded man’s feeble voice was heard:
You can leave now, Dinosha, you gave me the help I needed. I didn’t keep you here for my own life, but so that my nemesis would go belly up. – And in the blink of an eye, Bert Miluka turned the gun to himself, pointing its tip to his chin, and then boldly pulling the trigger.
Anyhow, this gruesome incident was forgotten in a couple of years. As always, Dinosha could not bring back the dead, but she had the capacity to keep the living from passing.
Dinosha was always at the bedside of every old person, child, man, woman, boy or girl when their time came to give up their ghost. She performed the same rite she did with her husband, and, being afraid she might not succeed, she couldn’t afford making even the slightest change. Hence, when someone went close to the end, she would wait for them to go through that last stage of torpidity and to lose all connections with this world. Right in that moment, she would hold them devotedly against her body, caressing them, twisting in pain, and as she bowed sobbing, she would whisper those mystery words. What the words that Dinosha would say to the dying were, no one could tell, but as the latter would come back to life, the saviour would find it hard to breathe, her body would shake and her skin would always wrinkle. And her horrible fatigue did no longer last for three hours. With time, it had continued to last for eighteen, then thirty-four hours, and then it went on for three days and three nights and the duration no longer changed. Only after that tormenting ordeal was finished, her beauty would radiate again and with such refreshed bloom that, although age was leaving its marks upon her features, almost everyone believed that blood in her veins was constantly renewed.
However, on a sleety winter’s day, Dinosha showed signs that she herself was taking ill; languidness possessed her entire body, and not having a choice, she became bedridden without more ado. Harap Habitari, the virtuous office clerk, raised the alarm. The town went into frenzy, everyone lost their peace and quiet; the doctors rushed to her with their medicine, but they could not defeat her illness. The townsfolk became miserable, they thought and thought about it, and they reached the conclusion that maybe there was no other way other than for someone to do for Dinosha what she had generously done for them earlier. Kids were obviously excluded from the scheme, none of them would be able to face the tribulation that followed; they also left the elderly aside, not just for the reasons they brought for the kids, but because most people thought that it was indecent to expect the temporary sacrifice for the Saviour, to whom they were all indebted, to come from the frail. Thus, the first volunteers came forward. Yet, strangely enough, none of those who had had the chance to be saved by Dinosha and who were thought to already possess the secret that got the dying back on their feet was volunteering. Inexplicably, when asked about the secret words, each of them swore that in the moment in which they had heard those words, their state had been so serious, that nothing at all had remained in their memories. At that point, a committee of respectable townsfolk decided that the person to make the sacrifice was to be selected by a lottery. But before the lottery was drawn, they needed the formula. Assembled together, the committee members went to Dinosha, begging her to trust them with the life-giving spell. The generous woman, worn out by languidness, thanked them wholeheartedly, but told them that saving her was impossible, as the words were not enough; in order for the power of the formula to transit from her to someone else, the circle was required to close there where it had started. Instinctively, everyone’s eyes turned to Harap Habitari, who had been the starting point. The members of the committee, some of which were still above ground only thanks to that formula, felt relieved and gave him a meaningful pat on the shoulder because, as they all said with one voice, for maximum certainty of the effectiveness of the rite, it was required that the pain was the deepest possible, and, understandably, nobody could feel such pain for Dinosha other than her own husband.
The wife revealed her secret to him shortly before passing out. When she went into a death torpor, Harap almost lost his senses; he started to shriek and bawl like a madman. He did, however, do everything that his wife had revealed to him: he held her tightly against his body, he hang on to her, embraced her, clasped her, sobbed convulsively and, in the end, bowing upon her head, he murmured the miraculous words. But beautiful Dinosha was nonetheless dead and gone.
The extract is translated from the Albanian by Manjola Nasi