Title: Fjala e fundit e Sokrat Bubës (The Last Word of Sokrat Buba)
Author: Thanas Medi
Place of publicatioin: Tirana
Year of Publication: 2013
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The plot: The novel speaks of the life of the mountain Vlachs, the last nomads of Balkan territories. It is the life of some tribes and a bunch of straw huts somewhere in South Albania in the years 1950-1970. The life of these people is always in movement, constantly adapting to the circumstances, suffering and all kind of complications. Their relationship and their life as a group is what builds the first subject line of this novel. By migrating alone or in groups, these people leave behind them a lifestyle and face a new and completely different one. We are dealing with a a group of people that lived in the same huts as their sheep and cows until the 1950s, and later they were forced to live in community with the locals. Right here starts the second subject line of the novel, that of the coexistence of the Vlach and the locals.
The intrigue and the main event starts with a baby boy and a baby girl promised for marriage to each other since childhood, the ignorance of the beginning and the later awareness about the reality they were living is the ground where the intrigue develops. It is a twenty-year-old story that starts with the decision of adults to pass their friendship from generation to generation, to preserve the early friendship between the two biggest families of a tribe. In the novel, the spiritual world, traditions, songs and ballads of an almost forgotten kind are described in details. The life of a young boy and girl, engaged without their knowledge, is described along with the effects of coexistence with the locals. A great community love for man is at the same time an individual love, embodied in the representatives of the new generation that face themselves with disadvantageous circumstances. The subject of this novel exceeds the dimensions that the last migration of a group of people and becomes a novel about human love.
– Wait here, – said grandmother, leaving him in the yard. – “They” had to come today of all days.
The yard in front of their hut was filled to the brim with people. Less men, more women. They had all quit their Easter chores in the hope of spending a little time with their loved ones. These things had taken place in that yard for quite some time, but recently, mother had been especially preferred by the departed. They had decided to take advantage of her more, probably due to her calm and reticent nature. He really feared the dead, but from the day he found himself alone with mother, grandmother and one of “them”, he became bolder. He didn’t exactly “find” himself alone. He had planned that for quite some time. Children were not allowed to hear a dead person chatting with a living one, but the rule had aroused his curiosity instead of quenching it. Without denying his terrible dread, he could not conceal that he was yearning to see how “they” came and spoke. He got the itch from grownups who’d tell stories around the fireplace about the new dead that had come to mother. So frequent were their visits and the grownups’ stories, that he knew the quirks of the long departed better than the hurdles of those who hadn’t kicked the bucket yet. The dead never gave away their name, which means that they never said “It’s so-and-so!”, as if they were feeling guilty for having ceased to exist. Grandmother identified them, asking them “Is it you, so-and-so?”. She’d recognize them from their voice, like the rustle of dry reeds, or their chronic cough, or a snicker like those which the deceased used to have in their life.
Another snag was that “they” would come in larger numbers during feast-days, as it was the case that Easter Sunday, when people were roasting meat. It was as if they became envious of the moments when the living were enjoying themselves the most. They also did not agree to speak when the living man or woman that they had summoned was wearing something that indicated joy – a sparkling pin in their hair, a flowery apron, a tilted hat, a golden necklace or a white headscarf. The only one with no such requirements was his maternal uncle, Vasil Plasari, the martyr. Every time he came, he begged grandmother to convince Nasta, his sister and his wife to discontinue their mourning of many years for him by sewing in their clothes at least a white button. He would speak in a very meek voice, due to a wound received in war, but grandmother could recognize him easily, because he’d come more frequently than anyone else. He differed a lot especially from Auntie Athina, who died of croup at an early age and who would show up very rarely, only when she needed to announce important predictions. Her predictions were so important that people in Owl wished to “ask Athina” every time they had a minor problem.
Auntie was the one to help him become bolder the day in which he achieved his goal and found himself alone with mother, grandmother and one of “them”. He soon understood that the invisible guest, that is to say “one of them” was auntie, since he heard grandmother ask in a concerned voice:
- Why do you come so rarely, Athina?
He hid like a mouse after the trunk filled with the good clothes as soon as grandmother closed the door of the hut and went close to Nasta, who was lying by the hearth on a rug and was covered by a thick woollen cover. On top of that, up to her chin, there was another cover, thinner and of light brown colour. Her forehead was tied with a black headscarf, her eyes shut tightly, her lips sealed and her face beyond white, as if there was no drop of blood left in it. He saw all that peeking his head from behind the trunk time after time. His heart sank at seeing his mother’s face with no blood in it, but his yearning to see how “they” came and talked was stronger. He almost peed on himself when from behind the trunk he saw his mother moving her lips and talking to grandmother like someone in a delirium, with a voice like the rustle of reeds that he could bet his right arm it wasn’t hers. It didn’t take long for him to learn that it was Auntie Athina’s voice. Grandmother mentioned her name when she said that “Why do you come so rarely, Athina?”
He barely remembered his aunt; she had passed a long time ago, before he had gotten engaged to Katerina. But he had heard from his elders that she had a heart of gold and loved children very much. This knowledge helped him feel less afraid, and he became even braver when his aunt, who saw him hiding behind the trunk, said:
- Sokrat is here too, tell the boy to come out of his hiding!
Only then did grandmother find out and she wanted to send him outside, but Auntie Athina defended him:
- Leave him be, – she told her mother, – let him listen! He’s a man now, love of his aunt. But pay attention to keep giving him his fish oil!
From that day on, he would stay with mother, grandmother and one of “them” every time he pleased. Grandmother found it convenient to use him as an aide, sending him door to door to notify people that this and that of the living should go to her, because this and that of the dead had requested their presence. Even on that Easter day, when the yard was filled to the brim with people, he was waiting for grandmother to come out and send him to call someone. She did come out, but not to ask him to go somewhere. She came out to drive out all those waiting in the yard. As he later learned, apart from Athena who came to announce that the Vlachs would leave Owl and things would happen to them that would make their head spin, she did not receive any of the other deceased people. She told them to go back where they came from, because Nasta was very busy with her chores on that Easter Sunday. She needed to dress her son for his visit to his future bride.
Mother was worn out when she dealt with the dead, but because she needed to prepare her son for his visit, she found the strength to stay on her feet. She dressed him like a little man, with woollen pants that were tighter and fastened with buttons at his ankles, a flannel shirt with velvet collar and sleeves, like big boys used to wear when they became bridegrooms, a waistcoat with an outer pocket, in which she put a garlic clove, so that nobody could give him the evil eye. Dressed in this fashion, with only an hour before the dusk would stretch its neck among Owl’s reeds, he took his father’s hand to leave their hut and to go to the huts on the opposite bank of the river.
As soon as they found themselves on the other bank, his father promised to buy him a sugar rooster at the Gypsies and told him:
- Today you’re singing “Motley eye”.
He immediately forgot about his sugar rooster and he started feeling weak at the knees. He started skipping stones to avoid showing that he was afraid of his future bride. This side of the river was softer and flat stones were easy to find. They looked like frantic blackbirds as they skipped on the water surface. They would sometime cross the thatched roofs of the huts on the other side and fall like small cannons before people’s feet, or on the hearths, kitchen shelves, trunk tops, saints’ icons, cheese containers and bowls of beans. Father did not allow him to throw more than two or three times, as he said:
- The sun went down.
When they entered the bride’s home, the sun needed to be still up at all costs. These were the strict orders of both mother and grandmother.
The extract is translated from the Albanian by Manjola Nasi