Shpina e burrit (The Man’s Back)

shpina-e-burritTitle: Shpina e burrit (The Man’s Back)

Author: Arian Leka
Place of publication: Tirana

Year of Publication: 2005

Publisher: Toena
Genre: Short stories

ISBN: 99943-1-026-7

© all rights reserved to the author:







“Arian Leka stuns us with an account of how family responsibility can weigh in Albania. But it would be just as heavy a burden in a dozen other European countries. It’s interesting that Hilary Mantel’s sensitive portrayal of anorexia observes a family from the UK at the ‘Western’ end of Europe. Family there was nuclear and meant ‘parenting’, whereas in Albania it meant ‘clan obligations’.” (Peter Byrne – from Nonstandard Tales From The Real Europe)

“The volume Best European Fiction ends with a short piece of incredible tension, Arian Leka’s exquisite Brothers of the Blade, in which the narrator is obligated to shave his brother’s bared neck on his wedding day—a tiny taut moment, fraught with anxieties and sublimated desires.” (Brandon Wicks – from Art & Literature)

“In the Albanian entry, Arian Leka’s Brothers of the Blade’, a man shaves his younger brother in a complicated act of devotion and resentment, with a violent undertone that recalls the shaving scene from Melville’s ‘Benito Cereno.’ The younger brother, a person of courage and common decency, has been the head of the family for many years, but is now leaving to get married. ‘And after this,’ the older brother thinks, ‘when my little brother is not our father anymore, what will our real father be? What will I myself be?’ As the older brother contemplates the younger’s face under the razor, the shaving takes us back into the family’s past: ‘Scars, welts, wens, and lines—a single careless pass would suffice to start a bloodbath. And meanwhile, their entire childhood, the time when they had been inseparable, was mapped right there in front of him, was there for him to touch; and in the space between two wounds he saw that day when they had rubbed each other with shoe polish, under their noses and on their cheeks, so as to look like men a little sooner.’” (Kevin Frazier – from A Map of Faces)



Brothers of the Blade

To my brother, Maks

No one knows out of what stuff we cook those few joys which sporadically transmute into poison and rancor; no one can say why we turn our skin inside out, why we stick the thorns which we reserve for the world deep into ourselves, to the bone; why we pay such an exorbitant price, pay at all costs, for the irrepressible desire to open up, to be together, the same as everyone else; why we bullshit; why we sing to those things in chorus which we had never believed in when we were in solitude; why we forgive; why we laugh; why do we give string to our kite in days of joy and then afterwards feel so empty, when we see that our soul is further away from our self than a ship from its anchor, that anchor which keeps the ship from crashing in the shallows on days of doldrums and on days of fierce winter winds? So too thinks the big brother, who has dressed in his black suit today, who has his hair shorn to a close crop, who is freshly shaven, he who has downed a couple of glasses of raki, no more, just enough to scent the insides of his lungs, as all men do, because he truly is a man, and he must bear burden throughout the night.

At least, he must do so more than his father, who only has to beam and raise toasts to the health of his sons with a drop of raki at the bottom of his glass.

At least, he must do so more than his mother, who considers herself to be the lucky one, what with two sons and all.

At least, he must do so more than his sister, who treads the double dance with her husband, and dreams of pregnancy with twins.

At least, he must do so more than his wife, who smirks at the fripperies of the tribe. At least, and most of all, he must do so more than all the incipient in-laws, who want to intoxicate him and pin him down on the fresh September evening when he is marrying off his little brother.

In truth, he has never been just the little brother. For many years, since the time when their father was no longer good for anything, he has been the man of the house: their mother’s helping hand, the cage for their sister and father. It is for this brother he is today wearing a black suit for pleasure all its own.

As the day broke on Sunday morning he was freshly shaven by the barber. When he returned, he reeked of eau de cologne and on his throat a small bloody weal had appeared over the scrap of newspaper with which the barber had tried to conceal the nick.

He also had a moment of overwhelming doubt, until he knocked on the door and woke up the little brother, who, in the meantime, had blanketed himself with white sheets in bed, still in a state of lassitude following the midnight visit to the future in-laws.

He doubted and dreaded lest perverse fate, the evil hour, had left the selection of rare food in the hands of the provincial barber, had reserved for his razor the blood vengeance against the clan’s generations of sinners, the punishment of them all on one single day, by taking the blood of the most exalted son, on the day of the bridegroom, just a few hours before his wedding.

He had had this fear, and thus had been knocking on the glass, summoning his brother to tell him that he must get up and prepare to become a bridegroom.

The little brother got up, collected his bones by stretching in bed, and, completely unaware of the incubus plaguing his big brother, said:

“It feels truly auspicious to be a bridegroom today. And for all that goes with it.”

And for all that goes with it, he had said. For the potent and viscous coffee that he requested from his mother with a bellow. For the home-made curd-cheese donut he demanded hot from his sister. For the impermeable rolled cigarette that he had solicited from his father while still supine. For the glass of water “that I want from you, my legally sororal one,” as he put it. And for that which makes a bridegroom.

“Beard, locks and moustache: for the first time it’ll be you styling them for me. What sort of goddamned bridegroom would I be, to have to trim my own beard on my wedding day,” he said to the big brother, after the latter had beseeched him, without alarm, not to shave at the provincial barber this day.


The big brother started to tremble in his hands. He had told him not to be put to the blade at the provincial barber’s, but nonetheless he had had no desire to carry out the task himself.

He felt like he was being engulfed in a vortex.  Then he saw himself surrounded by flame. It seemed to him as if someone else had wanted to avoid and undo with a gesture what he himself had augured, what was said and written forwards and backwards. He himself was no longer understanding anything. Did I want to save him from the barber where I myself was cut in the throat, thought the big brother, did I want to protect my brother from becoming a sacrificial offering on his wedding day, at a time when the bride is at her own home looking at the house walls down to the corners with anticipated longing, singing between gritted teeth the lyrics without the music “when you’ll come to your home, you’ll be coming as a guest”?

The big brother had wanted to light a match stick to shed a bit of light upon the path of fate, he had wanted to make a little flame, and had forgotten about those others who wait with bursting guts to fabricate the wind that extinguishes and smothers you into perpetuity even when it is not there. He had also wanted to return to his brother, in one single day, everything his little brother had done for them through his whole life. He had wanted to protect him, to conceal him.

But the reverse had happened. He had awoken the evil hour that slept, like his brother, under one sheet, at the exact moment when his brother asked to have his hair sheared, to be shaven and to be put together as a bridegroom, by that big brother who was reminded:

“You fulfill your duty by serving me one single day in return for that whole life that I sealed for you.”

Better he hadn’t said these words. And better still it would have had been if I hadn’t heard them at all, the big brother said to himself, all the while thinking that although they were weighty, as always but always was the case, the words of his little brother were true. Placing the round hand mirror, the bowl of hot water, the lather soap, and the brush on the well, the big brother raised his eyes towards the sky.

He had never before been in such circumstances, which is why he lowered his head somewhat, clenched his jaw, touched with his fingers the now dried weal that the barber had hidden under the scrap of newspaper, and started to forcefully hone the brand new razor blade on the whetstone.

Meanwhile, the little brother had emerged in the front yard and had approached. He had left the half slurped coffee on the throat of the well, taken his place in the chair dressed in a  snow white poplin shirt, stretched his neck out like a lamb, and was throwing barbs and gibes at everyone: to father, mother, sister and sister in-law, with a stiff neck.


The extract is translated from the Albanian by Sara Lynn Smith