Author: Lindita Arapi
Place of publication: Tirana
Year of publication: 2010
ISBN: ISBN 978-99956-29-57-1
© all rights reserved to the author: email@example.com
The plot: “The girls with the key around their neck” is a novel about the suppression and surviving. It reflects Albanian history of women, their fragility and silence over the centuries in a world dominated by the men. A young woman, Lodja Lemani search its roots in a journey into the past, not only to look after dark unuttered stories of the family, but also to define her identity. The novel is a literary dispute with communist dictatorship in Albania and a try to give a voice to the victims of the communist era.
Extract: The town of D.
D. was not one of those places which could be proud of their history and the exploits of their ancestors. As a town, one could say it was still an infant; anyone delving into its history would soon encounter a hamlet, a cluster of clay huts on the edge of a muddy swamp. Hardly anyone knew its name. The history of the town of D. was written by mosquitos, the only
creatures which had always lived a healthy life there. That malaria was the main cause of death of the inhabitants was the only certain historical fact.
And they died young. It was an established tradition that women bore ten, eleven children, trusting that at least half would survive so that their physical labour could keep the family going. Anyone in the area who lived longer than fifty years was honoured and admired for his good blood. If it was a man, he was allocated the place of honour at the stove.
Someone climbing a hill nearby on a clear day would see the sea spread out below, infinite, peaceful and, above all, untouched by malaria. It is hard to believe that, just a few hundred metres from the shore, foul water and death ruled. The old men said that, over there in the West, beyond the Adriatic Sea, lay the great empire of Europe. Here on the eastern shore, the belief was that when God created His kingdom, He must have overlooked this area. Now people were trapped here, with no contact with the outside world, the ship had run aground and the accursed people had no choice but to lament their fate.
On the opposite coast, people pointed towards the east and claimed that, on the other side of the sea, in the realm of death, people still had tails.
During the Great Misfortune, as elderly people still called the First World War, the swamp claimed the lives of many warriors from a mighty kingdom. Hordes of Austro-Hungarian soldiers, sent to reinforce the companies in the south, were swallowed up by the evil morass.
Work did not begin on drying out the swamp until the fifties; it was carried out partly by volunteers and partly with an army of political prisoners, of classless and dispossessed, enemies of the people, whose numbers had grown steadily at that time. Land was won, fertile farmland, the granary of the fatherland.
The party raised the hamlet of D. to the status of youngest socialist town. A town in which the handful of inhabitants passed each other by several times a day. In a short time, D. even developed into a model community, where people spied on one another particularly energetically. That was not so much because of the poor nature of their characters. The new citizens felt it was their duty to contribute to the construction of the equally new society. To be a spy was in no way a disgrace. No one took offence at being called such, as spying was as normal a job as that of a shoemaker, the only difference being that it was performed by a large majority. In this way, with energetic spying and the resulting high number of sentences passed, D. achieved its desired goal of being a model town within just a few years. A town without secrets.
Whatever someone discovered about the neighbours was passed on to the city council and, in serious cases, to the Department for Internal Affairs. Anyone who kept a secret to themselves became an object of suspicion and did not have to wait long before being counted among the enemies of the people.
D. was the first town in the immediate vicinity of which former political detainees were settled in special camps, with roll call every morning and every evening after work. Anyone whose misdemeanours were considered to be less serious was permitted to live in the town after serving their time, but under continuous observance.
But the town D. had one secret – or, better, a collective agreement to remain silent – sealed by shared poverty. Everyone knew it but no one spoke about it. It concerned the goods which were sold under the counter. Whoever had a role to play here, belonged in some way to those in power.
After the chairmen and secretaries of the party organizations, who by virtue of their office enjoyed all privileges, it was the salesmen and warehouse keepers whose reputations were the highest. Anyone who worked where material, foodstuffs or television sets were stored or sold had friends everywhere.
Such a person was greeted in the street with special respect. His state of health, even the health of his relatives – close or distant – was a matter of interest to everyone; if he fell ill, everyone was concerned and brought the most wonderful gifts, each trying to outdo the other.
Anyone who needed a new suit or dress had to wait months until a piece of decent cloth could be had. And when it was finally delivered, one first had to queue for hours before the shop opened. But if one was well acquainted with the lady behind the counter, everything went much faster. The shop employees knew how to handle perfectly the little bit of power they had. They always had secret reserves which they would bring out at just the right moment. In food stores one only had a chance of buying more flour or oil than the permitted amount if one knew the shop assistant. Absolute power was wielded by those selling television sets.
Ordinary citizens saved for years for a TV, and once they had the money, they wasted huge amounts of time over years in queuing until it was finally their turn. A friend who could put you on top of the list could save you the exhausting process of waiting, and that was no small thing, as the average waiting time for a television was ten years. Seen from the perspective of time spent, the acquisition of a TV was a major success in life. The gossips ranked such people among the district’s “rich population” and this verdict was often accompanied by undesired consequences. “Rich” meant that one was a head taller than others, which brought one in conflict with the principle of equality. It was sometimes with respect and sometimes with envy that citizens regarded those who had understood better than themselves how to acquire something. If one were feeling well disposed towards a certain person, then one would not call that person “rich” or “well-off”, as this was an attribute of the Kulaks but expressed it in a more roundabout way: “He is one of those who have something in their hand.” More narrow-minded, nasty people who wanted to harm someone, would spread the rumour that one was “rich” and then things took on their own momentum.
The class of those who had something in their hands was also the class of those who had you in their hands as they had the option of bestowing favours in return for bribes. People spoke of the grease which kept the wheels of the cart – meaning the state – running. This service, this greasing, was performed with great enthusiasm by the wage earners who were paid every two weeks and who, at the end of this period, had to turn every coin over twice.
The extract is translated from the Albanian by Susan Houlton