Author: Bashkim Shehu
Place of publication: Tirana
Year of publication: 2009
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The plot: The social and historical context of the events narrated in this novel is Albania under the totalitarian regime, more specifically at a time where the great crack and detachment between The People’s Socialist Republic of Albania and the Eastern Block had happened. This novel is built around the staging of Mozart’s opera Cosí Fan Tutte (Every Woman does the same), in the 1960s. The staging triggers a chain reaction that overcomes the limits of the stage, affecting and entwining the characters’ fate, involving them in obscene sexual affairs, causing to some of them major trouble involving persecution and punishments.
In the heart of the story there are many people’s destinies, strongly linked to one another by Mozart. In the general tableau of characters, the spotlight falls on a high-ranking principal, the wife of a candidate of the Political Bureau and a member of the Central Committee of the Party of Labour of Albania. Then, we see: the director of the National Opera and Ballet Theatre of Albania, the tenor, the soprano, the baritone, the scene painter and other people, artists or not, who undertook the stage setting of the opera and took part in it.
Slaughters, victims, culprits, sinful souls, as well as those who try hard to keep some truthfulness deep down inside, make the variety of characters that dwell in the spheres of art and power, as if it were a big stage on which life during dictatorship is acted out.
The time frame comprises the 1960s, where the novel starts, an earlier time when the central character, Margarita, was a student, a come-back to the sixties, with return trips to the future in order to explain a character or a work of the new century, and re-entries to the principal events of the sixties. This novel paints the shades of the past which stretch towards the present.
It is the year 1959. One of the protagonists of the event, or rather, of the series of events we shall be recounting, is the wife of one of the most powerful men in the country – a candidate of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Labour Party of Albania – while she herself has an important position in the apparatus of the Central Committee, in the propaganda sector, where literature and fine arts fall into, among others. This character must have a usual Christian Orthodox name, her grandfather was a priest somewhere in a village of south-eastern Albania and we could thus name her, let’s say – Dhimitra – which was her alias during the war years, if it weren’t for the fact that the name of the Ancient Greek Goddess of Fertility and Motherhood could be seen as mockery to the character, since she could not bear children, an unfortunate condition that is connected, as we shall see, directly to such alias. We shall thus call her Margarita, a name just as usual for the time and place where she was born. Her father was an honest tradesman, not particularly rich, running his trade in a southern town where he had moved a long time ago; her mother was a language teacher in an elementary school. From her youth, Margarita has been passionate about lyrical opera, her strongest spiritual bond with arts in the framework of the sector she works in; she is even recognized as a patron and supporter of Albanian opera artists. This musical passion goes back to the period of her Italian schooling, around the end of 1930s. Before she had finished high school, she went to attend a female institute in Rome, and one would think Rome was not part of this world, beautiful to the point of enchantment, mysterious as it was, like a vision of love on the borders of the unachievable. There she met the famous Italian opera, there she met, almost at the same time, Giancarlo, an Italian young man. One could say he was her close friend, or even more than just a friend, because she adored him silently, secretly, without having the courage to admit to herself that there was something more in that, as if she had a superstitious fear that the spell could break, and neither did she know what Giancarlo’s feelings were, shyer even than her as he was. This is what was written in 1993 by a friend of Margarita’s, an old communist militant that had newly become rehabilitated, as she had been expelled from the Party decades earlier. In her memoir, she also mentioned a dream that Margarita had shared with her, in which she had seen how Giancarlo had suddenly become courageous and had stolen a kiss from her and how Margarita had then awoken happy and at the same time sad that it was just a dream. In spite of that, they were good friends; he invited her to spend a weekend in his parent’s home in Florence, another enchanting city for her, especially in Giancarlo’s company. And it was halfway to Milan, and they spoke, contemplating the city from the Fiesolean Hills at dusk, they thus spoke about going to Milan too one day, where they could stay with cousins of Giancarlo’s and go to La Scala, which was her dream, to see whatever opera would be would be showing at the time. For that, Margarita would have to save money, and she failed to give up going to the opera in Rome from time to time, so she didn’t get a chance to travel, with the exception of a small school excursion to nearby Tivoli. In the meantime, days, weeks, months passed, and the more she got acquainted with Rome, the more it became a part of her soul. Only one thing spoiled, appearing here and there, the miracle of this city, just like the repeated dissonances in an orchestra or a choir that one could feel would recur again, or like a handful of black stains in the white sculpture block of a fountain, resembling the suffering of living people. These black stains seemed to be getting larger, like a gruesome disease. They should not be there, they should be nowhere at all; such was the feeling of Margarita, more or less, and they often became implausible, like it happens in the first moments after a difficult awakening; the Blackshirts, DVX writings on walls and Mussolini’s busts and the pomposity of military – athletic statues and the booming megaphones should not be there. They seemed so out of place against the architectonic grace of Rinascimento and Barrocco styles, against the Bel Canto, the sweet sound of Italian language, the mannerly and refined people, and so many other things, that she preferred to believe that they were part of a carnival with its props and masks, good as the girl was at seeing things from an amusing angle. Or, probably, this is how she thinks of it now, at a distance of twenty years. Anyhow, her friend of the time recounted in an interview she gave in the year 2005 – when several newspapers of Tirana suddenly turned their attention to Margarita, dead and forgotten for over a quarter-century – her “constant sarcasm” towards these fascist symbols, adding that “this sarcasm was an expression of her suffering”, as these symbols “hurt her eyes and sounded fiercely in Margarita’s ears” due to her particular sensitivity, in addition to her ideas. She was the daughter of an Albanian new bourgeois family, as we said, while her father was a man who tried to keep up with his time and his parental authority was suppressant no more than or as much as it takes to enable or even encourage rebellion. In addition to that, Margarita was an only child. During the time in-between her childhood and youth, she tended to embrace everything that ran contrary with the old ways, including – as it was the case with many of her fellow students and the people of her age – Bolshevik ideas, being in constant contact with one of the communist groupings that had begun to sprout in the Albania of those years. On the other hand, in the memoir mentioned above, her friend accounts that Margarita took pride in the fact that her mother – the teacher – and her father, whose father – the priest – had been one of the supporters of the first Albanian language schools, “had instilled in her the devotion towards her homeland”. This was something that, in the Albania of those years, did not go against Bolshevik ideas; on the contrary, it was often intertwined with them. And, as she saw that Italy’s patronization towards her country was aiming towards annexation, considering that Italy did not want to be left behind Germany, which had just annexed Austria, and as the Duce’s intentions in the conversations among Albanian students were interpreted, to Margarita, it became increasingly clearer that she was living in an enemy country, although she sometimes wondered why there had to be animosity between the people. But for her, Giancarlo stood apart from all that. In her eyes, Giancarlo was stranger to these contemptible atrocities of the world. Like the music from the opera, he was above all separation and hate. She never discussed such concerns with him. Not even that evening when they went to see Bellini’s opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi, based on Romeo and Juliette tragedy. He was the one to invite her, while she, Margarita, held her breath in excitement, devoting her attention not to the scene, but to the young man near her. She did the same after they went out, but Giancarlo started a very different conversation: apparently, no comparisons could be made. If something was in their way, it was different from the fatal obstacle between the two characters of Shakespeare’s tragedy and Bellini’s opera. And this was one of the last times they met. Somewhere in early spring of 1939, when Albania’s invasion appeared unavoidably imminent, part of the Albanian students in Italy were asked by their communist groupings to return home, but Margarita did not receive such summon. She probably felt bad about it, as if they had underestimated her. In spite of that, she made the decision to return in a hurry, leaving Giancarlo a note explaining that she was forced to leave due to foces majeures and that she would write to him. But she would not keep her word, as if she had thus conclusively parted ways with that period of her life. As if she had been a different person.
From that time, many and many things happened in the life of this character. And all we recounted seem to her now as the decor of the scene of an opera, the monuments of distant epochs, the bas-reliefs of the porticos, a dimly lit alley, maybe the alley in which she saw Giancarlo stealing a kiss from her in her dream, the esplanade by the river in autumn with the fallen leaves swirling in the wind and the river itself stretching in this decor, like the time and the secrecy of wooden shutters left slightly open, and even people, herself included, seem transformed into components of the scene of an opera, while an invisible choir, perfectly in tune, without a single discordance, can be heard.
The extract is translated from the Albanian by Manjola Nasi