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In Conversation: Ag Apolloni talks with Robert Wilton

Ag Apolloni

Ag Apolloni is one of the most significant and distinctive Albanian-language writers of his generation, admired for his contemporary yet elegant prose and for the rich diversity of references that inform it. His acclaimed novels - The Howl of the Wolf, Zazen, Red Riding-Hood: a fairytale for grown-ups - have been translated into various languages and won many prizes. A Professor at the University of Prishtina, Ag is also the author of plays, poetry and criticism, and editor of the Symbol literary review. His documentary novel of the anguish of war and motherhood, Glimmer of Hope, Glimmer of Flame, was declared Kosovo’s Novel of the Year 2020 - and has just become the first of his works to be published in English (available in different formats via Amazon). Here he talks exclusively to Robert Wilton for the Anglo-Albanian Gazette.


What’s the significance for you of being published in English?


To be published in English - the language of everyone, the international language - is a good way of broadening one’s network of readers; it’s also a stern test of whether literature, in this case the novel, can function even when uprooted from the language in which it was written. Because language remains bound up with nation, while literature strives to overcome the national restrictions of language, I think that each translation is an ally for literature in its battle with language. Authors of smaller languages need translators to reach out to them. So I see being translated into English as a great help in surmounting some not inconsiderable obstacles. I’m rather struck by the fact of a writer such as myself, raised and shaped by reading English-language authors, both classic and modern, sometimes in their language and sometimes in mine, speaking to English-language readers in their language. So many great authors have written and are writing in English that I feel rather humbled in presenting my offering to readers who have such a diversity of choice. I cannot enter - I dare not imagine entering - an assembly of such worthies without the assistance of a translator. In this way, the fears of the translated author are assuaged by the reassurance the translator offers.


The novel of yours that’s just been translated describes two true and painful stories from the Kosovo War, and how they echo classical tragedy. What led you to explore this theme, and in this way?


Yes, the novel presents two tragic Kosovo Albanian mothers who lost their children in the war. One of them, Ferdonija, who lost four sons and her husband, is still finding the strength today - clinging to a glimmer of hope - to live in anticipation of welcoming back at least one of her missing children - or at least the strength to continue to tell their story. The other, Pashka, had the remains of her two missing sons returned to her, and then committed a mighty and tragic gesture, setting herself on fire with a glimmer of flame. So these two women seem to me to be two sublime figures in the Kosovo tragedy: one a symbol of endurance, the other a symbol of revolt.


As for the style: two years before this book I wrote a play entitled Skanderbeg - a manuscript by Marlowe, in the foreword to which I said that I’d translated it from English. More than a few readers complimented me on the translation. In fact I hadn’t translated it, but created it in the style of Christopher Marlowe on the basis of certain references I’d found to the effect that this contemporary of Shakespeare’s had written a play, now lost, about our Albanian national hero. Having produced that play, I wanted to ‘uncover’ another, something from Aeschylus, the father of tragedy. Among his lost plays is that of Niobe, all of whose children are killed, and who in her great grief cries out day and night to Zeus that he show himself ‘merciful’ and turn her to stone. Even after she’s turned to stone, she continues to weep. So, it’s the tragedy of a mother who loses everything in one blow from fate. This reminded me of so many Kosovan mothers who lost their children - sometimes their whole families - in a war that inflicted on them a pain that has not eased even now. War and the consequences of war are different chapters in the same tragedy. In a way, war is physical and its consequences are psychological. I wanted to address the consequences in my novel; it could equally have been titled Crime and Unpunishment.


It seems there’s renewed interest in the war and its consequences, in novels and on stage and screen. Why do you think that is?


It’s a conscious appeal that the victims not be forgotten. The interest naturally changes with the time that has elapsed since the war. The best works about war are usually produced once such a gap of time has been established. A satisfactory work about war, a great novel, cannot be written immediately afterwards by someone who has experienced it, because they have yet to be liberated from the hatred, the trauma and the ‘pathetic’ approach. War is a catastrophe, and it takes years to get  a hold of yourself after such a blow. We might say that in recent years we’ve started to get a hold of ourselves.


Your novels tend to draw on personal perspectives (research into war, the life of a writer, the death of a friend); is it possible to talk of a distinctively Kosovan literature? - or Albanian?


Glimmer of Hope, Glimmer of Flame is a documentary novel, and my subsequent novel, Red Riding-Hood: a fairytale for grown-ups, is semi-documentary. In both cases this implies a kind of writing that investigates and selects facts with great care. Because my novels bridge auto-fiction and documentary, they depend unavoidably on my personal experiences and testimony. I do believe that within the framework of Albanian-language writing it is possible to speak of a truly Kosovan literature, which maintains a relationship with the literature of Albania because of language but not because of the models it follows. But the two literatures nevertheless complement one another, and are blended in the one language. The differences become more apparent when they’re translated, because to a foreign reader they appear to be defined as literature and not by their original language. For political and historical reasons, and because of aesthetic models, Albanian language literature has two literary identities and one linguistic identity.


 How vibrant would you say the atmosphere is in Kosovo’s intellectual and literary world at the moment?


There’s a relatively healthy cultural atmosphere. When it comes to books, people are mostly reading foreign literature - or local authors whom they know have been translated. Because we’re a small country, we need that kind of affirmation externally to be appreciated internally. Most are lacking that, but literature endures - perhaps because art is born of lack.


You’re also a professor of literature; how is English-language literature seen and studied in Kosovo?


Anglophone literature undoubtedly has the greatest currency in the University of Prishtina, where I studied and where since 2008 I’ve been teaching. It’s variously studied in the Departments of English Literature, Albanian Literature and Dramaturgy. Myself I’ve studied and taught in all three, and the principal focus is on the well-known names: Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Blake, Poe, Byron, Shelley, Austen, Dickens, Yeats, Pound, T. S. Eliot, Joyce, Woolf, Kipling, Conrad, Frost, Beckett, Vonnegut, Roth… I could in fact go on listing them all day. English literature isn’t only studied a good deal; it has also exerted a powerful influence in Albanian literature, from Romanticism through to Post-Modernism.


Who’s your favourite English language author?


It’s difficult to highlight one name among so many whom I appreciate. Besides Shakespeare, whom the whole world loves - I too, of course - in poetry I award the laurel palm to T. S. Eliot. I admire several contemporary prose writers, but for me Julian Barnes stands out: I’m always struck by his acuity - a fineness of style like our Kosovan filigree. 

Ag Apolloni’s Glimmer of Hope, Glimmer of Flame, is translated by Robert Wilton.

The book is published by Elbow and costs £6.50.


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