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Like a Prisoner - Stories of Endurance by Fatos Lubonja

Review by Joanna Hanson

‘Prison was an underground domain where the concept of a grave had no meaning for it was itself a sort of grave that separated prisoners from the world of the living.’

This is an incredible book because it is not a personal record of Fatos Lubonja’s endurance in that grave but of those of his other fellow prisoners whom he met in his odyssey through Albania’s hellish prisons under the Enver Hoxha regime. Stories of survival, confrontation and horrendous, inhumane abuse. Ones which likewise narrate his fate and experience in this cauldron, as he describes it, ‘created by devils intentionally to destroy souls’.

The pages were not scripted in one writing but developed, noted, adjusted, and edited over years. Putting them together was also a journey for Lubonja with a revealing denouement which he had not anticipated.

At the end of these seemingly surreal stories which compose the book, Fatos says he has no clear reason as to why he chose to write the story of these fellow inmates. His writing, however, had a final conclusion for him which touches on the development of human character and provided him with a specific realization. Throughout their sentences, these men thought continually about their freedom, about the day when they would pass through the door ‘to walk with body and soul at ease with a meaning to life and death in our hearts (…) and return to our true selves’. Prison became a normalcy ‘but few ever managed to consider these things as an authentic part of themselves’. Lubonja has realized, however, that the ordeals which he originally was determined to refuse were a part of his ‘true’ self and that self can only be found ‘by taking stock of the shackles we have left behind’.

I ask myself two questions: what did the book convey to me? Why would I recommend others read it? It was an uncomfortable, difficult but compelling read, one I hadn’t wanted to undertake. For me, there are three strands which stand out: a narrative of unbelievable inhumanity and human behaviour, Albanian history and the ever-present question, Where was God?

Fatos has written the stories of individuals and their confrontations and coping. They are mainly political prisoners on trumped-up charges or ones seen as enemies of the Party although the distinction between these two is difficult to separate. Some had tried to escape from the country and the inhumane rigours of the communist system there and been caught. This included a couple who managed to flee their incarceration in seemingly escape-tight Spaç prison with a plan to desert their homeland. They succeeded the first stage but were caught on the second and given another 25 years, including solitary confinement.

Initially, Fatos himself, at the age of 23, had been sentenced to seven years imprisonment on the grounds of ‘agitation and propaganda’ after the police found his diaries criticizing Enver Hoxha. A few years later he was sentenced to a further 20 years on trumped up charges of trying to organize a putsch. In total, he spent 17 years in prison, the door to his freedom being opened only because of the fall of communism in 1991.

Each chapter in the book is the story of an individual’s, often surreal, approach to survival. One is a kleptomaniac, another a poet who memorizes all the poetry he writes, another an unquestioning and obsessive believer in the delivery of amnesties, a doctor prisoner performing medical work in the penitentiary system. Someone claiming to be an Australian and not Albanian is carefully portrayed but not deciphered. There is the famous dying political thinker Zef Mala, who had thrice gone through prison under King Zog, under the Italian occupation and twice under the communist system.

There are another two men who have many pages devoted to their religious views, Franjo and Josif. Franjo was a Roman Catholic priest and Josif a Protestant whose religion had few followers in Albania, an area which had never gone through a reformation. Their different faiths gave them different views. The latter believed in a God who would have a place waiting for men in heaven whom he chose. The former saw salvation in repentance and confession regardless of the degree of evil in their lives.

The question which Fatos would debate with them was the continually recurring one in these situations, Where is God for us? As I write this review a priest in Ukraine has been reported as asking the very same question. It is for that reason that these two people’s role in the book are significant. Franjo also had a theory of his own, that God had given the earth to the devil but had left a few of his people on it, and this was the reason why there were so few good people on this earth. Fatos in his search for an understanding would ask what good God extracted from their sufferings but he never got a satisfactory answer, nothing beyond the devil. Although at one moment Franjo did quote St Paul to him: Jesus ‘was put into your power by deliberate intention and foreknowledge of God, you took and had crucified outside the law’.

The book was translated into English by John Hodgson. A sublime translation where nothing is lost and ingenuity is displayed. Both Hodgson and Lubonja were present at the book launch in September last year in London. The intrepid Fatos turned up at the Paddington venue in a suave-looking straw trilby as if he had always spent every day of his life sitting in coffee shops on the Adriatic coast.

Lubonja has learnt that the individual portraits and experiences which he had sketched and penned over the decades since his release are so inherent to those characters that they cannot be removed from even one’s self. These are stories repeated throughout history and always have a relevance, in particular today as Europe goes through yet another war and all the inhumanity which is conflict’s fifth column and companion. I think, that is why the book should be read.

Translator John Hodgson adds:

I first met Fatos Lubonja in the mid-‘90s in Tirana. Albania was in the first flush of hope for its democratic renewal and Lubonja was not long out of the communist prisons where he had spent seventeen years. At that time the Tirana intelligentsia congregated in a cohesive circle in the Café ‘Fideli’ opposite the Hotel Dajti. Lubonja had launched his journal Përpjekja (Endeavour), which aimed to provide a forum for critical thinking about Albanian society. He and I worked together to publish an English-language anthology from Përpjekja, and Fatos has continued to publish this journal ever since.

Meanwhile he has become well known throughout Albania as a combative and principled journalist and television commentator, the scourge of every establishment. Recently he has taken particular aim against the rash of skyscrapers that have sprung up in Tirana, dwarfing the historical proportions of Scanderbeg Square. But he has always regarded his journalism as subsidiary to his vocation in literature.

Several of his books depict life in prison. Second Sentence (1996, in English 2009) describes the re-arrest and trial of a group of prisoners alleged to have formed a ‘counter-revolutionary organisation’ within a labour camp. Three are executed, and Lubonja narrowly escapes the same fate. False Apocalypse (2010, in English 2014) describes Albania’s period of anarchy following the collapse of the pyramid schemes in 1997.

Now Like a Prisoner brings together eleven stories of prison life, written over thirty years. The book appeared in Tirana last year, and has been published in English by Istros Books, which has done so much to bring the literature of Balkan countries to English readers.

Each of the stories is a character sketch of one of Lubonja’s fellow-prisoners: the author himself is a discreet presence, companiable and observant. Many of the stories describe the extraordinary and often perverse strategies that the prisoners adopt in order to survive the brutal conditions of prison, although some do not survive and meet violent ends, or are worn down by illness. The prisoners range from ordinary peasants, such as ‘Ferit the Cow’, whose helpless bulimia and compulsive thefts of food provoke the hatred of the other prisoners, to former communists who have fallen victim to purges, such as the veteran Zef Mala. Almost all the Catholic clergy were imprisoned in atheist Albania, and we meet the priest Franjo and a rare Protestant prisoner Josif in a story that is a profound meditation on the capacity of religion to cope, or not, with extreme suffering. One prisoner, in a strange conversion reminiscent of Stockholm syndrome, becomes a passionate supporter of the regime. Another, known as ‘the Don’ keeps alive an eternal flame of hope, and is convinced, all evidence to the contrary, that the prisoners’ liberation is imminent. The signs are all around! ‘Çuci’ is the moving story of a cat adopted by the prisoners, and who answers to their needs for affection and physical tenderness. But other stories, such as ‘Eqerem’ and ‘Kujtim’ record the fearsome forms thwarted sexuality may take in prison. At the age of sixteen, Kujtim murdered a man, but during his forty years in prison writes exquisite poetry and translates Sophocles. Each in their own way, the prisoners fashion some kind of meaning to their lives that helps them through their adversities. ‘John Smith’ distances himself from his fellow-prisoners by insisting that he isn’t Albanian at all, but Australian. Nuri remains faithful to the memory of his beloved Vlasta, from his student life in Prague.

It is sometimes said that to understand a society, you should look at its prisons, and the labour camps of communist Albania were also a microcosm of totalitarian life as a whole. The stories take place in the pressure-cooker of confinement behind barbed wire and watch towers, a true miniature of Albania itself in its long years of communist isolation. But the prisoners in their imagination and memory range freely over the world as they tell the stories of their lives, and the effect of this book is far from claustrophobic. The prisoners’ experiences stretch from the salons of the political leadership in Tirana to collective farms, and from China to the Soviet Union, for their fate depends on global geopolitics and the machinations of power.

During their long gestation, these stories have undergone continual reconsideration and revision, as the author’s view of his experiences in prison and its aftermath has evolved and deepened. It has become apparent to Lubonja the prisoners’ longed-for liberation did not mark a closure. Former prisoners still bear the psychological scars of their incarceration, and have found it hard to adapt to life outside. Their trauma remains unhealed, in a way that is perhaps true of Albanian society as a whole.

Lubonja writes with lucidity and power, without literary conceit. These stories are often shocking, sometimes grotesque and even comic, but always moving and informed by a humanity that endures through the most appalling ordeals.

'Like a Prisoner - Stories of Endurance' is published by Istros Books and costs £9.99


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