Review of Fatos Lubonja's Second Sentence

01/04/10

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The Albanian writer Fatos Lubonja gave the Scottish PEN lecture at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to mark the English translation of his book Second Sentence.

Below is a review of his book, first published in The Times Literary Supplement.

Behind Closed Doors

Fatos Lubonja – Second Sentence
Translated by John Hodgson
I B Tauris/in association with The Centre for Albanian Studies
ISBN 978-1-84511-924-9
pp 215
£24.50

In the era of the Communist Bloc, the texture and permeability of the “iron curtain” had clear variations, as did allegiances and attitudes to the former USSR. Tito managed to wrest ex-Yugoslavia away from Russia's domination, which allowed a measure of freedom to Yugoslav citizens that was not enjoyed by other Communist countries. Albania's break from the USSR had more to do with its leaders’ refusal to go along with the relative easing of conditions brought about by Khrushchev and their desire to continue with the Stalinist line. Brief alliance with China brought some benefits in terms of economic help, planning and manpower for factory building, but when that relationship also foundered, Albania was on its own. Rule by a harsh dictatorship always breeds paranoia, but in Albania's case this was increased by having no allies whatsoever. Deep-rooted fears of invasion by the west then sprouted new fears of invasion by other Communist states, particularly the USSR.

Any hermetically sealed environment has the potential to become what we understand as “mad”. Dissociation from the whole, whether in psychological or sociological terms, is severely unhealthy. Albania's leaders were deeply suspicious of the motives of any other state. A psychological wall ringed the country. And while there was no physical wall, a necklace of thousands of concrete bunkers was built along Albania’s coastline and inland. There was no freedom of movement, thought or expression. As Fatos Lubonja’s memoir of his own persecution makes clear, you could be accused of uttering words and sentiments which you had never expressed. Worse still, inmates already serving one sentence in prison could be called to trial and given a second, to be added to the first.

Even madness has a peculiar logic of its own. Second Sentence draws us into the maze of this logic, the convoluted thinking of frightened and intimidated people. It is the first account to be translated into English of personal experience of trial and imprisonment in Albania under Communist rule. Written by a leading Albanian novelist, it is both terrifying and absorbing.

Second Sentence begins in the prison camp of Spaç, where Lubonja is serving a seven-year term – a “light” one – for “agitation and propaganda”. We learn about some of the other inmates, the camp’s routine, the exhausting labour, and the absence of heating. The pace is measured and calm, the descriptions objective, almost understated. We are shown the huge self-discipline required not to respond to the warders’ deliberate provocations. In winter, with temperatures reaching as low as minus 20, a stint in the punishment cell could mean death.

A letter has supposedly been sent to the Central Committee of the Communist Party by two inmates, Fadil and Vangjel. Nobody really knows what was in the letter, but rumour is rife. The two inmates are taken away, no one knows where. Later arrivals at the camp disclose that they are being held in Tirana prison. Several months pass before Lubonja and others are also taken away without warning. They, too, are brought to Tirana prison, and kept in solitary cells.

We share Lubonja's disorientation and his experience of darkness both literal and metaphorical. We share his jubilation when he manages to find a chink in the peep-hole of his cell, allowing him to see a few metres of corridor. As days and months go by we begin to see, through his interrogations, the insidious nature of the charges brought against him and others. We discover that there are a series of doors, for the most part closed. The cell door, leading to the corridor, the door to the next floor of the cell block, the door to the interrogation room, doors into court rooms, doors the judges go through to confer. People appear and disappear through these doors. Behind the “ultimate door” is the “ultimate leader', the dictator Enver Hoxha, who is not supposed to be seen or named yet who hovers over the courtroom, possibly listening in on the proceedings. For all their second-guessing, those on trial cannot know his mood.

To what extent the outcome of the court case was decided ahead of time, we cannot know. Yet there is a semblance of a “fair” trial. Prisoners testify and are allowed to speak in their own defence. A great deal of time and trouble has gone into the preparation of the reports, by men whose own fear is palpable. Correct procedure must be followed and the outcome must appear to be justified, even “just”. As Lubonja puts it:

Everybody was on the lookout for plots and conspiracies everywhere: the leaders out of paranoia, and their subordinates because, by exposing conspiracies, they earned praise and proved how indispensable they were to the system. So the leaders imagined conspiracies, and their underlings made them reality, until everyone believed in them.

Lubonja’s testimony rests on spare, lucid descriptions and on factual data from records of the trial. The courage and eloquence of Fadil Kokomani, the principal defendant, is unforgettable, and for his words alone this book is important. As Doris Lessing has commented, it seems as though the goal of the regime was to wipe out excellence. Fatos Lubonja's book shows that they did not succeed.

John Hodgson's translation is also to be recommended for his skilful rendition of Lubonja's lucid and sensitive prose into a natural and rhythmic English. His 'Afterword' gives a valuable historical and political context to the events described in Second Sentence.

Morelle Smith

First published in TLS, December 2009