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Robert Elsie

Tales from old Shkodra
Early Albanian short stories
Edited by Robert Elsie

ISBN 9951-04-043-3
Dukagjini, Peja 2004
178 pp.



    Although creative writing in Albania goes back to the 1600s, it was only in the early decades of the twentieth century, after the declaration of Albanian independence, that a certain tradition was established in literary prose. The focus of this writing, and the centre of Albanian literature and culture at the time, was the town of Shkodra, the capital of northern Albania.
    Set on the banks of a sparkling lake at the foot of the wild and rugged mountains of High Albania, Shkodra, formerly Scutari, was once the largest and most flourishing town in the country. Even today, though it has suffered much destruction and decay from years of neglect and isolation, including half a century of Stalinist dictatorship and a severe earthquake in April 1979, it remains the cradle of northern Albanian culture. Its mighty fortress, Rozafa, still rises proudly over the Drin and Buna Rivers as a symbol of Shkodra's will to survive.
    Albania is a small country and yet its traditional culture is very diverse. There are numerous cradles of urban civilization in this country: Vlora, where Albanian independence was declared in November 1912; Elbasan, the centre of learning and education at the heart of Albania; Korça, which provided the nation with many an intellectual leader; Janina, now in Greece, which in the early 19th century was the home of the formidable tyrant Ali Pasha Tepelena; the ancient Adriatic port of Durrës, which has been inhabited for over two thousand years; Tirana, the bustling, present-day capital and largest city in the country; venerable Prizren, a jewel of Balkan architecture at the foot of the Sharr mountains in Kosova; and Muslim Gjakova with its splendid oriental bazaar, which, alas, was razed to the ground by Serb forces in the spring of 1999.
    The southern Albanians, also called Tosks, were more advanced and were always regarded as somewhat more "civilized." They were able to progress and enjoy a certain degree of prosperity - in relative Albanian terms - because the terrain in the south was more favourable to herding and farming, and because of emigration, trade, and contacts with the outside world. The rugged northern part of the country around Shkodra was different. The northern Albanians, also called Ghegs, were much poorer and, in the highlands, lived in virtual isolation from the rest of the world. Their barren homeland, snowbound in the winter and parched and arid in the summer, hardly offered them enough on which to survive. Yet, survive they did. It was in the northern Albanian Alps that these "wild" highland tribes developed their own way of life and a uniquely structured society which they strove over the centuries to preserve from outside influence. Few Albanians in the mountains had received any formal education, and only a very small minority could even read and write. Indeed, no region of Europe was more destitute and underdeveloped than the highlands of northern Albania, on Shkodra's very doorstep.
    Shkodra itself was a hybrid town. The half-Catholic, half-Muslim population was western-oriented and had close ties with Italy. In the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church had opened the first schools here in which the Albanian language was used as a medium of instruction, and cultural associations were founded under the aegis of the Austro-Hungarian Kultusprotektorat. No town in Albania was more influential for early twentieth-century literature and culture. It was from the nearby mountains in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the earliest Albanian writers stemmed and, after five centuries of Ottoman rule, it was in Shkodra itself that the major Albanian prose writers of the early twentieth century put their imagination and creative impulses to paper.
    The writers of Shkodra were profoundly aware of the misery around them, and it is perhaps the extreme diversity of their social environment which furthered their talents. They looked to the West and longed for a new, European Albania, yet they found themselves in an archaic society, one so bound by the force of tradition and custom that progress was impossible. For most people, any sort of change was quite inconceivable. They were out of place in their own country and reacted to their situation in various ways, some with an outpouring of sentimental attachment to popular traditions, and others with strong feelings of revolt at the poverty and backwardness which they saw. Their writings reflected and gave full expression to this dilemma.
    The present collection brings together a number of well-known short stories and prose sketches by two of the finest Albanian writers of the first half of the twentieth century: Ernest Koliqi and Migjeni. These two men of Shkodra, one raised as a Catholic and the other as Orthodox, could scarcely have been more different.


    Prose writer, scholar, and public figure Ernest Koliqi (1903-1975) was the most imposing and influential Albanian prose writer of the period before World War II. He was born in Shkodra but was educated at the Jesuit college of Arice in the Lombardian town of Brescia. After his schooling in Italy, he arrived back in Shkodra to rediscover and indeed to relearn his mother tongue and the culture of his childhood in a newly independent country.
    Koliqi was forced to escape to Yugoslavia when conservative landowner Ahmet Zogu (1895-1961) took power in a coup d'état in December 1924. He lived there for five years, three of them in Tuzla. These years were to have a profound impact on his academic and literary career. From 1930 to 1933, Koliqi taught at a commercial school in Vlora and at the state secondary school in Shkodra until he was obliged, once again by political circumstances, to depart for Italy.
    Ernest Koliqi's solid Jesuit education enabled him from the start to serve as a cultural intermediary between Italy and Albania. In later decades, he was to play a key role in transmitting Albanian culture to the Italian public by publishing, in addition to numerous scholarly articles on literary and historical subjects, the monographs: Poesia popolare albanese (Albanian Folk Verse), Florence 1957; Antologia della lirica albanese (Anthology of Albanian Poetry), Milan 1963; and Saggi di letteratura albanese (Essays on Albanian Literature), Florence 1972. For the Albanians, he brought out a large two-volume Albanian-language anthology of Italian verse entitled Poetët e mëdhej t'Italis (The Great Poets of Italy), Tirana 1932, 1936, to introduce Italian literature to the new generation of intellectuals eager to discover the world around them.
    Koliqi registered at the University of Padua in 1933. After five years of study under linguist Carlo Tagliavini (1903-1982), and of teaching Albanian there, he graduated in 1937 with a thesis on the Epica popolare albanese (Albanian Folk Epic). He was then a recognized Albanologist, perhaps the leading specialist in Albanian studies in Italy. In 1939, as the clouds of war gathered over Europe, he was appointed to the chair of Albanian language and literature at the University of Rome, at the heart of Mussolini's new Mediterranean empire.
    Now the country's éminence grise, Koliqi chose to make the best of the reality with which he was faced and did what he could to further the culture of his homeland, now under Italian rule. He accepted the post of Albanian minister of education from 1939 to 1941, much to the consternation of large sections of the population, and founded and subsequently ran the much-read literary and artistic monthly Shkëndija (The Spark) in Tirana. Under Koliqi's ministerial direction, Albanian-language schools, which had been outlawed under Serbian rule, were opened in Kosova, which was reunited with Albania during the war years. Koliqi also assisted in the opening of a secondary school in Prishtina and arranged for scholarships to be distributed to Kosova students for training abroad in Italy and Austria. He also made an attempt to save Norbert Jokl (1877-1942), the renowned Austrian Albanologist of Jewish origin, from the hands of the Nazis by offering him a teaching position in Albania. From 1942 to 1943, Koliqi was president of the newly formed Institute of Albanian Studies (Istituti i Studimevet Shqiptare) in Tirana, a forerunner of the Academy of Sciences. In 1943, on the eve of the collapse of Mussolini's empire, he succeeded Terenc Toçi as president of the Fascist Grand Council in Tirana, a post which did not endear him to the victorious communist forces which "liberated" Tirana in November 1944. With the defeat of fascism, Koliqi fled to Italy again, where he lived, no less active in the field of literature and culture, until his death in 1975.
    It was in Rome that he published the noted literary periodical Shêjzat / Le Plèiadi (The Pleiades) from 1957 to 1973. Shêjzat was the leading Albanian-language cultural periodical of its time. Ernest Koliqi thus served as a distant voice of opposition to the cultural destruction of Albania under Stalinist rule. Because of his activities and at least passive support of the Italian occupation of his homeland, Koliqi was virulently attacked by the post-war Albanian authorities - even more so than the Shkodra poet Gjergj Fishta (1871-1940), who had the good fortune of being dead - as the main proponent of bourgeois, reactionary, and fascist literature. The official Party "History of Albanian Literature," published in 1983, refers to him in passing only as "Koliqi the traitor."
    Ernest Koliqi first made a name for himself as a prose writer with the short story collection Hija e maleve (The Spirit of the Mountains), Zadar 1929, which gathered 12 tales of contemporary life in Shkodra and in the northern Albanian mountains. Tregtar flamujsh (Flag Merchant), Tirana 1935, his second collection of tales, is considered by many to rank among the best Albanian prose of the period before World War II. A quarter of a century later, Koliqi also published a short novel, Shija e bukës së mbrûme (The Taste of Sourdough Bread), Rome 1960. This 173-page work revives the theme of nostalgia for the homeland felt by Albanian emigrants in the United States.
    As a literary and cultural figure, Ernest Koliqi was and remains a giant, in particular for his role in the development of northern Albanian prose. Literary production in Gheg dialect reached a high point in the early 1940s from every point of view - style, range, content, and volume - and much credit for this development goes to this eminent publisher, prose writer, and scholar.


    Migjeni (1911-1938), an acronym of Millosh Gjergj Nikolla, was born in Shkodra. As a young lad, he attended a Serbian Orthodox elementary school there, and from 1923 to 1925 he began studying at a secondary school in Bar (Tivar) on the Montenegrin coast, where his eldest sister, Lenka, was living. In the autumn of 1925, when he was 14, he obtained a scholarship to attend a secondary school in Monastir (Bitola) in southern Macedonia and 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. On his return to Shkodra in 1932, after failing to win a scholarship to study in the West, he decided to take up a teaching career rather than join the priesthood for which he had been trained. In April 1933, he was appointed to teach Albanian at a school in the Serb village of Vraka, seven km. north of Shkodra. It was during this period that he also began writing prose sketches and verse which reflected the life and anguish of an intellectual in what was then the most backward region of Europe.
    Soon though, in the summer of 1935, the 23-year-old Migjeni fell seriously ill with tuberculosis. In January 1936, he was transferred to the mountain town of Puka and in April 1936 began his activities as the headmaster of a rundown school there. After 18 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 arrived in Turin just before Christmas 1937, where he 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 the San Luigi sanatorium near Turin, he was transferred to a Waldensian hospital at Torre Pellice and died there on 26 August 1938. His demise at the age of 26 was a tragic loss for modern Albanian letters.
    Migjeni made a promising start as a prose writer. He is the author of short stories and prose sketches which he published in periodicals, for the most part between the spring of 1933 and the spring of 1938. He approached new themes with unprecedented cynicism and force. He also made his mark on Albanian literature and culture as a poet, though posthumously. His verse production was no more voluminous than his prose, yet his success was no less than spectacular in Albania at the time.
    The main theme of Migjeni's only volume of verse, Vargjet e lira (Free Verse), Tirana 1944, and of his biting prose, was misery and suffering. It is writing of acute social awareness and despair. Previous generations of writers 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 hardship, disease, and poverty which he discovered all around him. Though he did not publish a single book during his lifetime, his writing, which circulated privately and in the press of the period, was an immediate success. Migjeni paved the way for modern literature in Albania.


    In addition to the translations made by the present author, which are appearing here for the first time, this collection also contains a number of stories translated into English by Stuart E. Mann (1905-1986). Born in Nottingham, England, Mann was a scholar with remarkable interests and was a linguist with a talent for rather obscure languages. In 1929, he set off for Albania in order to learn the Albanian language and got a job in Tirana teaching English at the American Vocational School. He stayed in the country until 1931. Later in the 1930s, he taught English at the Mazaryk University of Brno in Czechoslovakia. Mann returned to England during World War II and worked for the Information Ministry and subsequently for the Foreign Office. In 1947 he became reader in Czech and Albanian at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies of the University of London where he worked until his retirement in 1972. It is there that a number of his manuscripts are preserved, among which are the present translations from the Albanian, made in 1942. As a tribute to his memory, the delightful tale of his impressions and early adventures in Albania is being included as an appendix to this volume.
    The present author wishes, in conclusion, to thank the keepers of the Stuart Mann Archives at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London for permission to publish his works, and Janice-Mathie-Heck, of Calgary, Alberta, for her kind assistance in the preparation of this book.

Robert Elsie
Eifel Mountains, Germany
June 2003



Ernest Koliqi

  • The Blood feud
  • The Dukagjini dancer
  • The Garden
  • The Golden cradle


  • The Story of one of them
  • The Student back home
  • Prose sketches:
    Tragedy or comedy?
    Refrain of my town
    Forbidden fruit
    Do you need any coal, sir?
    The Suicide of the sparrow
    Little Luli
    In the fly season
    The Platform of a magazine
    The Headless idols
    The Legend of corn
    Lethal beauty
    The Harvest
    The Robber's kiss

Albania then and now by Stuart Mann


About the editor

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