Albanian literature and the sea of Ulysses

Shehu, Bashkim
Revista Literatures Núm. 0 1997

Albanian literature is, historically speaking, the product of the crossover of three cultural territories: the Italo-Dalmatian territory, with a culture ranging from primitive Christianity through to the threshold of the European Renaissance, present above all in the country's coastal towns; the Byzantine territory of the Balkan hinterland; and the territory of the Balkan periphery of the Oriental world, crystallised during the centuries of Ottoman rule in the peninsula. The Mediterranean may serve as a metaphor for all these elements, this being the sea in which the different cultural traditions overlapped.
Albanian literature begins with oral literature, with legends which refer back to the Greek and pre-Greek myths, among which there is a version of the Homeric Odyssey. The first written text in Albanian dates from 1555 and is religious in nature: the translation of a missal written by the monk Gjon Buzuku.
The national cultural movement, Romantic in origin, lasted through the whole of the 19th century. The most outstanding authors of this period were Jerome of Rada and Naim Frashëri. The former wrote in the language of the Albanian disapora in Calabria, and the latter was the founder of modern literary Albanian.
The other highpoint is the period covering the first decades of the 20th century, from the formation of the independent Albanian state to the foundation of the dictatorship. During this time, Albanian literature freed itself from its national-utilitarian phase and began to follow modern tendencies, above all in poetry (Lasguch Poradeci) and the short story (Ernest Kiliqi, Migjeni and Mitrusch Kuteli). Translations played an important role at this time, especially due to the work of Fan Noli.
The other period in the development of Albanian literature is that of deformed modernism and is linked precisely to the period of the Communist dictatorship. The only escape route from Zdanovist orthodoxy was that of indirect expression, that of the metaphor. A dangerous path to follow, given that it often meant giving proof of ideological loyalty, as was the case with Ismaïl Kadara, the greatest Albanian writer, translated into over thirty languages.
During the decades following the Second World War, Albanian-language poetry manifested itself beyond the borders of the state, in Kosovo. Four authors have had considerable influence on both sides of the frontier: the historian Rexhep Gosja and the poets Azem Shkreli, Ali Podrimja and Sabri Hamiti.
After the collapse of the dictatorship, there are two promising poets who are not yet 25 years old: Ervin Hatibi and Gnetial Çoçoli. At the same time, Albanian literature is clearly attuned to the post-modern spirit, as evidenced by its rejection of the old hierarchy of values; we are currently at a stage in which extreme doctrinairism is giving way to eclecticism.
Human reality, that of our recent past and that of the present, is ideal territory for literature. And this is even more the case when such territory finds itself in a privileged cultural area: that of the Mediterranean coast.