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Robert Elsie

Migjeni (Millosh Gjergj Nikolla). Free Verse
A bilingual edition translated from the Albanian
and introduced by Robert Elsie

Dukagjini Balkan Books

Dukagjini, Peja 2001
143 pp.

Migjeni, the harbinger of modernity
in Albanian literature

AN INTRODUCTION

    Albanian literature was late in evolving. Indeed it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that a national literature consolidated in this Balkan nation struggling for freedom from a decaying Ottoman Empire. The spirit of romantic nationalism characteristic of nineteenth-century Albanian literature lingered on in the country even after it achieved independence in 1912. Indeed the genre survived unscathed up until the 1930s, at a time when the rest of Europe had forgotten its existence. It was a young teacher from the northern Albanian town of Shkodra who finally cast the lofty traditions of national culture aside and altered the course of Albanian literature. With Migjeni, contemporary Albanian poetry begins its course.
    Migjeni was born in Shkodra on 13 October 1911. His father, Gjergj Nikolla (1872-1924), came from an Orthodox family of Dibran origin and owned a bar there. In 1900, Gjergj Nikolla married Sofia Anastas Kokoshi (1881-1916) who bore him four daughters, Jelena (Lenka), Jovanka, Cvetka and Ollga, and two sons, Nikolla (1901-1925) and Millosh (Mirko).
    The young Mirko attended a Serbian Orthodox elementary school in Shkodra and from 1923 to 1925 a secondary school in Bar (Tivar) on the Montenegrin coast, where his eldest sister, Lenka, had moved. In the autumn of 1925, when he was fourteen, he obtained a scholarship to attend a secondary school in Monastir (Bitola) in southern Macedonia. This ethnically diverse town, not far from the Greek border, must have held a certain fascination for the young lad from distant Shkodra, since he came into contact there not only with Albanians from different parts of the Balkans, but also with Macedonian, Serb, Aromunian, Turkish and Greek students. Being of Slavic origin himself, he was not confined by narrow-minded nationalist perspectives and was to become one of the very few Albanian authors to bridge the cultural chasm separating the Albanians and Serbs. In Monastir he studied Old Church Slavonic, Russian, Greek, Latin and French. Graduating from school in 1927, he entered the Orthodox Seminary of St John the Theologian, also in Monastir, where, despite incipient health problems, he continued his training and studies until June 1932. Mirko read as many books as he could get his hands on: Russian, Serbian and French literature in particular, which were more to his tastes than theology. His years in Monastir confronted him with the dichotomy of East and West, with the Slavic soul of Holy Mother Russia and of the southern Slavs, which he encountered in the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ivan Turgenev, Lev Tolstoy, Nikolay Gogol' and Maksim Gor'ky, and with socially critical authors of the West from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Schiller, Stendhal and Emile Zola to Upton Sinclair, Jack London and Ben Traven.
    On his return to Shkodra in 1932, after failing to win a scholarship to study in the 'wonderful West,' Mirko decided to take up a teaching career rather than join the priesthood for which he had been trained. On 23 April 1933, he was appointed teacher of Albanian at a school in the Serb village of Vraka, seven kilometres from Shkodra. It was during this period that he also began writing prose sketches and verse which reflect the life and anguish of an intellectual in what certainly was and has remained the most backward region of Europe. In May 1934 his first short prose piece, Sokrat i vuejtun a po derr i kënaqun (Suffering Socrates or the satisfied pig), was published in the periodical Illyria, under his new pen name Migjeni, an acronym of Millosh Gjergj Nikolla. Soon though, in the summer of 1935, the twenty-three-year-old Migjeni fell seriously ill with tuberculosis, which he had contracted earlier. He journeyed to Athens in July of that year in hope of obtaining treatment for the disease which was endemic on the marshy coastal plains of Albania at the time, but returned to Shkodra a month later with no improvement in his condition. In the autumn of 1935, he transferred for a year to a school in Shkodra itself and, again in the periodical Illyria, began publishing his first epoch-making poems.
    In a letter of 12 January 1936 written to translator Skënder Luarasi (1900-1982) in Tirana, Migjeni announced, "I am about to send my songs to press. Since, while you were here, you promised that you would take charge of speaking to some publisher, 'Gutemberg' for instance, I would now like to remind you of this promise, informing you that I am ready." Two days later, Migjeni received the transfer he had earlier requested to the mountain village of Puka and on 18 April 1936 began his activities as the headmaster of the run-down school there.
    The clear mountain air did him some good, but the poverty and misery of the mountain tribes in and around Puka were even more overwhelming than that which he had experienced among the inhabitants of the coastal plain. Many of the children came to school barefoot and hungry, and teaching was interrupted for long periods of time because of outbreaks of contagious diseases, such as measles and mumps. After eighteen hard months in the mountains, the consumptive poet was obliged to put an end to his career as a teacher and as a writer, and to seek medical treatment in Turin in northern Italy where his sister Ollga was studying mathematics. He set out from Shkodra on 20 December 1937 and arrived in Turin before Christmas day. There he had hoped, after recovery, to register and study at the Faculty of Arts. The breakthrough in the treatment of tuberculosis, however, was to come a decade too late for Migjeni. After five months at San Luigi sanatorium near Turin, Migjeni was transferred to the Waldensian hospital in Torre Pellice where he died on 26 August 1938. His demise at the age of twenty-six was a tragic loss for modern Albanian letters.
    Migjeni made a promising start as a prose writer. He is the author of about twenty-four short prose sketches which he published in periodicals for the most part between the spring of 1933 and the spring of 1938. Ranging from one to five pages in length, these pieces are too short to constitute tales or short stories. Although he approached new themes with unprecedented cynicism and force, his sketches cannot all be considered great works of art from a literary point of view.
    It is thus far more as a poet that Migjeni made his mark on Albanian literature and culture, though he did so posthumously. He possessed all the prerequisites for being a great poet. He had an inquisitive mind, a depressive pessimistic nature and a repressed sexuality. Though his verse production was no more voluminous than his prose, his success in the field of poetry was no less than spectacular in Albania at the time.
    Migjeni's only volume of verse, Vargjet e lira, Tirana 1944 (Free verse), was composed over a three-year period from 1933 to 1935. A first edition of this slender and yet revolutionary collection, a total of thirty-five poems, was printed by the Gutemberg Press in Tirana in 1936 but was immediately banned by the authorities and never circulated. The second edition of 1944, undertaken by scholar Kostaç Cipo (1892-1952) and the poet's sister Ollga, was more successful. It nonetheless omitted two poems, Parathanja e parathanjeve (Preface of prefaces) and Blasfemi (Blasphemy), which the publisher, Ismail Mal'Osmani felt might offend the Church. The 1944 edition did, however, include eight other poems composed after the first edition had already gone to press.
    The main theme of 'Free verse,' as with Migjeni's prose, is misery and suffering. It is a poetry of acute social awareness and despair. Previous generations of poets had sung the beauties of the Albanian mountains and the sacred traditions of the nation, whereas Migjeni now opened his eyes to the harsh realities of life, to the appalling level of misery, disease and poverty he discovered all around him. He was a poet of despair who saw no way out, who cherished no hope that anything but death could put an end to suffering. "I suffer with the child whose father cannot buy him a toy. I suffer with the young man who burns with unslaked sexual desire. I suffer with the middle-aged man drowning in the apathy of life. I suffer with the old man who trembles at the prospect of death. I suffer with the peasant struggling with the soil. I suffer with the worker crushed by iron. I suffer with the sick suffering from all the diseases of the world... I suffer with man" (Pipa 1978, p. 148). Typical of the suffering and of the futility of human endeavour for Migjeni is Rezignata (Resignation), a poem in the longest cycle of the collection, Kangët e mjerimit (Songs of poverty). Here the poet paints a grim portrait of our earthly existence: sombre nights, tears, smoke, thorns and mud. Rarely does a breath of fresh air or a vision of nature seep through the gloom. When nature does occur in the verse of Migjeni, then of course it is autumn.
    If there is no hope, there are at least suffocated desires and wishes. Some poems, such as Të birtë e shekullit të ri (The sons of the new age), Zgjimi (Awakening), Kanga e rinis (Song of youth) and Kanga e të burgosunit (The prisoner's song), are assertively declamatory in a left-wing revolutionary manner. Here we discover Migjeni as a precursor of socialist verse or rather, in fact, as the zenith of genuine socialist verse in Albanian letters, long before the so-called liberation and socialist period from 1944 to 1990. Migjeni was, nonetheless, not a socialist or revolutionary poet in the political sense, despite the indignation and the occasional clenched fist he shows us. For this, he lacked the optimism as well as any sense of political commitment and activity. He was a product of the thirties, an age in which Albanian intellectuals, including Migjeni, were particularly fascinated by the West and in which, in Western Europe itself, the rival ideologies of communism and fascism were colliding for the first time in the Spanish Civil War. Migjeni was not entirely uninfluenced by the nascent philosophy of the right either. In Të lindet njeriu (May the man be born) and particularly, in the Nietzschean dithyramb Trajtat e Mbinjeriut (The shape of the Superman), a strangled, crushed will transforms itself into "ardent desire for a new genius," for the Superman to come. To a Trotskyite friend, André Stefi , who had warned him that the communists would not forgive for such poems, Migjeni replied, "My work has a combative character, but for practical reasons, and taking into account our particular conditions, I must manoeuvre in disguise. I cannot explain these things to the [communist] groups, they must understand them for themselves. The publication of my works is dictated by the necessities of the social situation through which we are passing. As for myself, I consider my work to be a contribution to the union of the groups. André, my work will be achieved if I manage to live a little longer" (Pipa 1978, p. 150n.).
    Part of the 'establishment' which he felt was oblivious to and indeed responsible for the sufferings of humanity was the Church. Migjeni's religious education and his training for the Orthodox priesthood seem to have been entirely counterproductive, for he cherished neither an attachment to religion nor any particularly fond sentiments for the organized Church. God for Migjeni was a giant with granite fists crushing the will of man. Evidence of the repulsion he felt towards god and the Church are to be found in the two poems missing from the 1944 edition, Parathania e parathanieve (Preface of prefaces) with its cry of desperation "God! Where are you?", and Blasfemi (Blasphemy).
    In Kanga skandaloze (Scandalous song), Migjeni expresses a morbid attraction to a pale nun and at the same time his defiance and rejection of her world. This poem is one which helps throw some light not only on Migjeni's attitude to religion but also on one of the more fascinating and least studied aspects in the life of the poet, his repressed heterosexuality.
    Eroticism has certainly never been a prominent feature of Albanian literature at any period and one would be hard pressed to name any Albanian author who has expressed his intimate impulses and desires in verse or prose. Migjeni comes closest, though in an unwitting manner. It is generally assumed that the poet remained a virgin until his untimely death at the age of twenty-six. His verse and his prose abound with the figures of women, many of them unhappy prostitutes, for whom Migjeni betrays both pity and an open sexual interest. It is the tearful eyes and the red lips which catch his attention; the rest of the body is rarely described. For Migjeni, sex too means suffering. Passion and rapturous desire are ubiquitous in his verse, but equally present is the spectre of physical intimacy portrayed in terms of disgust and sorrow. It is but one of the many bestial faces of misery described in the 105-line Poema e mjerimit (Poem of poverty).
    Though he did not publish a single book during his lifetime, Migjeni's works, which circulated privately and in the press of the period, were an immediate success. Migjeni paved the way for a modern literature in Albania. This literature was, however, soon to be nipped in the bud. Indeed the very year of the publication of 'Free Verse' saw the victory of Stalinism in Albania and the proclamation of the People's Republic.
    Many have speculated as to what contribution Migjeni might have made to Albanian letters had he managed to live longer. The question remains highly hypothetical, for this individualist voice of genuine social protest would no doubt have suffered the same fate as most Albanian writers of talent in the late forties, i.e. internment, imprisonment or execution. His early demise has at least preserved the writer for us undefiled.
    The fact that Migjeni did perish so young makes it difficult to provide a critical assessment of his work. Though generally admired, Migjeni is not without critics. Some have been disappointed by his prose, nor is the range of his verse sufficient to allow us to acclaim him as a universal poet. Albanian-American scholar Arshi Pipa (1920-1997) has questioned his very mastery of the Albanian language, asserting: "Born Albanian to a family of Slavic origin, then educated in a Slavic cultural milieu, he made contact again with Albania and the Albanian language and culture as an adult. The language he spoke at home was Serbo-Croatian, and at the seminary he learned Russian. He did not know Albanian well. His texts swarm with spelling mistakes, even elementary ones, and his syntax is far from being typically Albanian. What is true of Italo Svevo's Italian is even truer of Migjeni's Albanian" (Pipa 1978, p. 134).
    Post-war Stalinist critics in Albania rather superficially proclaimed Migjeni as the precursor of socialist realism though they were unable to deal with many aspects of his life and work, in particular his Schopenhauerian pessimism, his sympathies with the West, his repressed sexuality, and the Nietzschean element in Trajtat e Mbinjeriut (The shape of the Superman), a poem conveniently left out of some post-war editions of his verse. While such critics have delighted in viewing Migjeni as a product of 'pre-liberation' Zogist Albania, it has become painfully evident that the poet's 'songs unsung,' after half a century of communist dictatorship in Albania, are now more compelling than ever.
    The present translation of the poetic works of Migjeni, the harbinger of modernity in Albanian literature, endeavours to provide the interested reader not only with a distinct poetic vision, but also with a glimpse into the culture of northern Albania in the 1930s, at a time when literary and cultural contacts with the outside world were all but unknown. The Albanian-language versions of the poems, composed in the Gheg (northern Albanian) dialect of Shkodra, are given here in their original, often erratic, orthography, that of the 1944 edition.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  • Preface of prefaces
     
  • Songs of resurrection
    The sons of a new age
    May the man be born...
    Awakening
    The spark
    Song of youth
    Songs unsung
     
  • Songs of poverty
    Poem of poverty
    Urban ballad
    The highlander's recital
    The slums
    Blasphemy
    Broken melody
    The prisoner's song
    Songs of noble grief
    The shape of the Superman
    The lost rhyme
    Autumn on parade
    Scandalous song
    Resignation
    Fragment
    New spirit
    The themes
    The weight of destiny
     
  • Songs of the West
    Song of the West
    Wandering souls
     
  • A song on its own
    A song on its own
     
  • Songs of youth
    Springtime ecstasy
    Two lips
    Spring sonnet
    Z. B.
    The encounter
    One night
    Prayer
    Around the table
    On the swing of fate
    The yearning of youth
     
  • Final songs
    A sleepless night
    Suffering
    Luckless inspiration
    Incomprehensible song
    Solitude
    Under the banners of melancholy
     
  • Notes
     
  • Bibliography

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