Title: Parullat me gurë (Stone slogans)
Author: Ylljet Aliçka
Place of publication: Tirana
Year of publication: 2009
ISBN : 978 – 99943 – 1 – 480 – 5
Genre: Short Stories
© all rights reserved to ‘Toena’ Publishing House
Description: Albania is the real main character of this collection. Meant as the final frontier between Western and Eastern Europe, squeezed by History, it is a place of division: north and south, rich and poor, Catholics and Muslims. It is also a fascinating and complex web of cultures where tolerance and sectarianism blend, as do religion and superstition, and people helplessly look for happiness, ineluctably bound with suffering. Short stories often close with a bitter and unpredictable end, as it is the case with the one after which the collection is titled, which focuses on the absurd ritual of making big communist slogans in stones, a practice schools were obliged to perform.
“I read these short stories with highest interest and emotion. It is a great piece of literature, highly moving and insightful.” (Ryszard Kapuscinski)
The authenticity of these short stories comes from their tone, domestic, realistic, and apparently distant, but actually prudent: the tone of a friendly talk in a totalitarian regime. A virile and reassuring kindness outside, but if you listen carefully to Aliçka’s words, you can hear value judgments that could mean years of reeducation.
Jean Soublin, Le Monde des Livres
It was immediately after Andrea had finished his studies that he received an appointment as a school teacher in an isolated mountain village in the North.
His father accompanied him in silence to the railway station. At the moment they were to part, hardly holding back his tears, he said to him: “Work hard, take good care of yourself, and pay attention, because life’s not easy.”
He arrived at the mountain village that evening. The school was small, a mere ten teachers, six of whom were from the nearby town. One of them was from the capital.
The next day, the oldest of the school teachers, Pashk, willingly accepted the task of explaining to him “how to work and live so as not to get into conflict with anyone else.”
Pashk began by depicting the hierarchy of the village authorities. First of all, there was the Party Secretary, the teacher Sabaf, and then the chairman of the agricultural cooperative. When he finally got around to mentioning the school principal, he characterized him as follows: “He’s not a bad guy. He doesn’t beat the pupils very often, but when he does, he beats them until he’s out of breath. Try to keep on good terms with him because everything is in his hands… everything from your teaching schedule to the slogans.”
“What slogans?” interrupted Andrea.
“What do you mean, what slogans?” uttered Pashk, astonished. “Every teacher and his class are assigned a slogan in stone for which he is responsible all the time.”
“I see,” said Andrea.
“You think it’s no great matter at all, do you?” he asked.
“No, no, not in the least,” responded Andrea, attentively.
The surprised expression on Andrea’s face forced Pashk to explain a few things which he would never have imagined that people did not know.
“Well, since you’re new here as a teacher and have your career ahead of you, let me be frank with you. If you want to be respected by the Party and the authorities, roll up your sleeves and take good care of your slogan.”
“To take care of your slogan, you have to be systematic,” he continued. “and never neglect it. What I mean is, you have to go out and check on it at least once a week. If it rains, the slogan’s appearance will suffer. The rain cuts furrows into the soil and can cover the letters over with mud. It dilutes the whitewash and the stones look blotched. You know what happened here recently?”
“No,” replied Andrea.
“Well, how could you?” Pashk recalled. “It took a full six months to find out beyond any doubt how Baft’s slogan became damaged. To tell you the truth, the teacher Baft had been reputed for his excellent slogans. But a few months ago, all of a sudden, his slogan began to deteriorate. If you were looking for Baft, you knew where to find him. He was always out at his slogan fixing the letters. He spent more and more time there, even in the evenings.
The truth is that when a shepherd from the cooperative, one descended from one of the most bourgeois déclassé families in the village, took his sheep out to pasture early in the morning, he cast a spell on that teacher’s slogan (Pashk’s eyes took on the air of an investigator). Poor Baft was exhausted, going out every day to fix his slogan. He was constantly moaning and groaning: ‘Why am I having all this bad luck? Why do the sheep keep grazing on my slogan?’ He could not imagine that it was the neglect of the words of his slogan THE MOST DANGEROUS ENEMY IS AN ENEMY FORGOTTEN that had attracted the sheep in the first place and caused them to destroy it.
Baft asked the principal several times to change his slogan, ‘just because I’m superstitious,’ but the principal was in no mood to do so.
In fact, Baft himself was the first person to cast doubts on the ‘guilt’ of the sheep. After having studied the terrain, he expressed his doubts to the Party Secretary. ‘It’s odd,’ he had explained, ‘there are lots of other sheep paths in the whereabouts of my slogan, much easier ones and, after all, sheep are not particularly well known for their bravery, as goats are, for example, who will scamper up any steep hillside, like the one where my slogan is located, despite the danger.’
Then another clue assisted them in their investigation of the case, when it became known that the village shepherd had recently been buying particularly large amounts of salt at the shop.
The shepherd was obviously up to something. With handfuls of salt he got the sheep to lick off the word ENEMY. You know, of course, that sheep go mad for salt. So his suspicions turned out to be true. The local secret police officer was informed immediately. A whole group of volunteers was then called up to guard Baft’s slogan day and night. Just imagine, the villagers hid among the bushes and waited for hours for the shepherd’s sheep to pass by. In the end, the whole affair was uncovered. It was early in the morning when the guards, or rather the villagers, observed the sheep of the cooperative destroying the very letters which Baft and his pupils had arranged with such great effort. Having ascertained themselves of the facts, the villagers pounced, probably upon a signal given by the secret police officer.
When he was detained, the shepherd of course denied everything. It was only two or three days later that he revealed his true colors and was arrested for hostile activities. He tried to defend himself up to the very last moment, claiming that he was innocent because there were only hoof prints there and because sheep were not responsible before the law or any other such nonsense.
The principal later changed Baft’s slogan and gave him another hill. He assigned him one of those slogans with a GLORY TO or a PRAISE BE which require less maintenance and are always in fashion.
In the final analysis, what matters to a teacher is not what the slogan says, but the number of letters. From the moment he gets it, he instinctively starts counting the letters…”
It was with the history of Baft that Pashk terminated his account of Andrea’s coming teaching career.
Two days later, Andrea was called to the principal’s office to be given his class, his teaching schedule and other matters. When it came to the slogan, the principal pondered: “Because you are new here, I’ll give you a site not too far from the school building and for your slogan, well…” The director opened his red notebook, hesitated and then added: “Actually, you can have your choice. There are two left over at the moment. One is THE PARTY IS THE TIP OF THE SWORD OF THE WORKING CLASS and the other one is… is CHROMIUM BREAKS THROUGH THE BLOCKADE. Andrea, who now knew all about the slogans, replied with a note of hesitation in his voice: “I’ll take the one about chromium.”
The extract is translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie