Fatos Kongoli | The Loser

Translated by Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck ISBN 978-1-85411-452-5 Seren Books, Bridgend, Wales, 2007 181 pp. PREFACE Fatos Kongoli (b. 1944) is one of the most forceful and convincing representatives of contemporary Albanian literature. He was born in the central Albanian town of Elbasan and raised in the capital, Tirana. As a young adult, during the tense years of the Sino-Albanian alliance, he was sent to Red China to study mathematics. Kongoli chose not to publish any major literary works during the oppressive dictatorship in his country. Instead, he devoted his creative energies to a relatively obscure and apolitical career as a mathematician, and waited for the storm to pass. There was, as he subsequently noted in an interview, "no Marxist strategy for mathematics." His narrative talent and individual style only really emerged, at any rate, in the nineties, after the fall of the communist regime. The novel "The Loser" (Alb. I humburi) takes the reader initially back to a real event in March 1991 when, after almost half a century of Stalinist rule, thousands of impoverished Albanians clambered onto a rust-infested freighter which was anchored in the port of Durrës and forced the crew to sail the vessel across the Adriatic Sea to Italy. The scenes broadcast on television of the arrival of the ship, teeming with refugees, were apocalyptic. It seemed that everyone wanted to leave Albania and start a new life elsewhere. The vast majority of Albanian refugees, after fifty years of total isolation, had no idea what awaited them in the outside world, the fabled and marvellous West. It is to these events in Albania's troubled history and, in particular, to the frightening decades in communist Albania which preceded them that Fatos Kongoli alludes in this novel. Yet The Loser is not a novel of emigration. At the last moment before his ship sets sail, the book's protagonist, Thesar Lumi, the 'loser' for whom all hope is futile, abandons his companions, disembarks and walks home. "I went back to my neighbourhood at nightfall. No one had seen me leave and no one saw me come back." The novel returns at this point to the long and numbing years of the Enver Hoxha dictatorship and revives the climate of terror and universal despair that characterized day-to-day life in Albania in the sixties and seventies. Thesar Lumi was born on the banks of a river (Alb. lumi) in the looming shadow of the people's own cement factory, which produced more dust than it ever did cement. Despite a skeleton in the family closet, an uncle who had earlier fled the country, Sari, as he is known to his friends, manages to get himself registered at the university, and briefly penetrates a milieu that is not his own and never will be - that of the ruling families of Albania's red aristocracy. "I was destined at that young age to learn that I belonged to a category of inferior beings or, as I imagined it at the time, to a category of mangy mongrels who are kicked around wherever they go." Sari, whose fate in Albania's hermetic society has been sealed once and for all by a daringly clandestine love affair, returns to live a life of futility in a universe with no heroes. Far from the active protagonist struggling to control his destiny or even from the staid but positive hero of socialist realism, Sari is incapable of action and incapable of living. He is the voice of all the 'losers' who glimpse the silver clouds on the horizon and know full well that they will never reach them. "It was my destiny to live a banal, mediocre existence in the mud and filth of a little town, condemned to while away the coming years amidst the suffering and tragedies of others." When it was first published in 1992, in what for Albania was a comparatively large edition, "The Loser" found immediate success among the reading public. There were few Albanians who could not identify with the confessional monologue, the secret and doomed loves, and the relentless psychological torment of Thesar Lumi. "The Loser" has been described as the most important Albanian novel to emerge from the post-communist era.
Robert Elsie