"But It Was Beautiful"
by Erwin Koch
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Photo (c) 2006 by John K. Cox
Since the end of communism and the revival of old customs and compulsions, ten thousand people have died from blood feuds in Albania. People caught up in them scarcely ever even leave their homes. The following essay is a companion piece to the author’s interview with John K. Cox in the March 2011 issue of WLT.
The best thing would be to let himself get killed. They should shoot him down with their rifles, the way tradition dictates in this country. A country he hates with all his heart: Albania, armpit of the world. They should just do it. So that their vengeance, after twenty-seven years, is finally complete and their honor restored.
So that peace is restored.
Visati Kolndreu is seventeen years old and doesn’t quite know whether he is crazy or not. Because, if they shot him—so run his thoughts sometimes—his father could once more leave the house, which he surrounded two months ago with a wall, three meters high and ridiculously expensive. And his stepmother would finally stop crying and ringing him up whenever he ventures—only rarely—down into the streets of Shkodër with a friend on either side: “Visati, is everything okay where you are?”
Three months ago they found a note lying in their courtyard. On it was written in small, crooked script: Ndoka’s son has come back from Italy. Be careful.
The avengers have been sowing fear for twenty-seven years. Ndoka and his sons, Ndoka and all his kith and kin. They sowed signs and rumors.
If Visati were dead, then his brothers Edi and Josef, now nine and eleven, could attend school until they were grown. They would not have to hide as soon as they reached age twelve or thirteen. Since in the Kanun, that accursed text that no one really understands and no one reads, it is written that the vengeance of the blood-takers may descend upon all boys and men of the offending clan who are capable of handling a weapon.
The Kanun was written by a devil, Visati thinks.
Twenty-seven years ago, what was at stake was nothing, and everything. The honor of a man—since a woman has none, and her honor is subsumed in a man’s. For the Kanun, the centuries-old code of customary law of the Albanian mountain clans, states: Woman is a vessel by means of which goods are transported. And it was a hot day in the vicinity of Tropojë, in the north of Albania, and someone from Ndoka’s extended family threw a glass full of wine or schnapps into the face of Visati’s great-uncle: God gave us two fingers’ width of honor in the middle of our foreheads, says the Kanun.
A dishonored man is a dead man, as the Kanun tells us. And the dead deserve revenge.
Half a year later, at a rifle drill sponsored by the Party of Labor, all the participants had wooden weapons. Only Visati’s great-uncle, the unit commander, had a real one; the dishonored man shot and killed his dishonorer. The blood-taker shot down the blood-giver.
Since then it has been Ndoka’s turn, his and that of all the men in his clan, the brothers, sons, cousins. They seek the death of the one who in his turn deprived them of honor—Visati’s great-uncle, or someone else from the tribe of the Kolndreu.
Gja per gjak, blood for blood, clan against clan, back and forth, an endless game of table tennis.
The great-uncle, an ardent communist, was sentenced to life in prison and then released after fifteen years.
The great-uncle fled to Italy when, in 1990, the empire that had been put together earlier by Enver Hoxha—that paranoid who had dotted his country’s landscape with 700,000 bunkers and pillboxes—collapsed in chaos.
“But we are still here,” Visati Kolndreu sighs while sitting at the table in the garden of Sokol, his father.
“Do you hate your great-uncle?”
“I don’t know him,” Visati responds.
“But he destroyed your life.”
“I don’t know who is destroying my life,” says Visati, rubbing his face with his hands.
The Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, usually just referred to as “the Kanun,” is the best-known kind of law, customary law, that has been in force in the remote valleys of northern Albania for centuries, transmitted orally from generation to generation, and it has outlasted all governmental norms up to the present day, from the Ottomans’ edicts to the decrees of the Communists, not to mention the imperatives of the weak young democracy of 1991. The Kanun determines and regulates social behavior—marriage, death, inheritance, property, hospitality, the church—and it is at once both a moral guiding light and a penal code. There are other codes of customary law—the Skanderbeg Kanun, the Kanun of Julius the Priest, the Kanuns of the High Plateau and of Labëria—but the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, all 1,263 articles, was first assembled in full and committed to paper by the Franciscan priest Shtjefën Gjeçovi in 1913.
Once, back when Visati’s father, Sokol, still used to leave the house on occasion, in order to work as a cabinet-maker, locksmith, welder, or bricklayer, he brought a book home with him.
“What is that?” Visati asked.
“It’s kind of like the Bible. Or its opposite,” his father replied. Then he hurled the Kanun into the stove and watched as it was incinerated.
Some days, when Irena, the second wife of Sokol, listens to the same CD for hours on end—with songs from Germany, Sweden, or France—he gets worked up and shouts through the house: “Turn that noise off already! I sit here and can’t go out, but you, woman, no sooner do you make your merry way home than you put on this music I don’t understand.”
Irena says nothing. She turns off the CD player.
“How can I help you?” she asks at some point, crying.
“Nothing,” says Sokol, the father, who then runs into the courtyard, smacks the dog, and concocts some kind of job for himself so that he won’t go crazy, like relocating stacks of rocks by carrying them from one corner of the yard to the other.
The blood-taker is not allowed to shoot at the children of the blood-giver, nor at his wife or livestock, and not at his house or courtyard.
That much is written in the Kanun, but few observe these provisions anymore. They kill because the Kanun desires it, and they transgress against the Kanun as they are killing. Visati thinks the Kanun produces killers. The Kanun cloaks a great many crimes these days, garden-variety murders, settlings of accounts after traffic accidents—all camouflaged as blood feuds. Recently, since women are allowed to avenge a murder honorably, two women shot a man to death, because in their clan no man remained who was eligible to do the deed. What a fucked-up country, this Albania.
Visati actually knows that Sokol built the wall as high as he did, not only to keep the avengers from seeing who is moving about in the yard, but also so that he no longer has to see what’s going on outside. Papa does not want to know who is standing outside, possibly waiting for him; he doesn’t want to know any of it, he stacks his stones and cuts the grass, and he builds concrete columns and then demolishes them.
Yesterday evening Sokol said to Irena: “Tomorrow I am going out, even if they shoot me.”
Irena wept. “We need you.”
“Then I will wait one more day,” Sokol said.
“Maybe there is a second life,” Visati sighs. The table in the garden stands behind thick green curtains; a donkey brays and garbage is burning somewhere, here on the periphery of the northern Albanian city of Shkodër, 120,000 inhabitants strong.
“A life without fear.”
Visati Kolndreu, born on January 7, 1993, in Barbullush, thirty kilometers south of Shkodër, was four years old when his father took him by the hand. It was October 1997, his oldest memory.
“We’re going to town. You need a new pair of pants.”
“May I go too?” his mother asked.
“You stay here.” His father gave the command. “There’s only enough money for the pants.”
Sokol bought his boy a toy telephone, yellow and not cheap. Visati pushed on a button and a voice said: “Hello? Hello? Who am I talking to?”
They came back home, with Visati proudly pushing the button “Hello? Hello? Who am I talking to?” when suddenly he heard his father cry out. Visati ran into his parents’ bedroom and saw his mother. She was lying on the bed, coated with blood, her face no longer a face. A gun on the floor. The walls bloody.
“Get out,” Sokol said. “Get out of here.”
Visati ran away. He ran and fell down and when he came to, he was in an uncle’s bedroom. He stayed locked up there for two days. He put the chair up on the table, and put a smaller chair on top of the first one, until he could finally get at the window. He knocked out the pane, jumped out, three meters down, and ran home. No one was there, and he ran through the streets of Barbullush until he reached the cemetery. People were standing around there, crying and lamenting. Lying in the grave was a coffin without a lid, and Mama was in it. She wore her wedding dress. Visati wants to go to his mother and jumps into the grave. A man grabs him by the neck and pulls him back out. Sitting here at the table in the garden behind thick green drapes, behind high walls, he remembers this pain.
“It is hard not to go crazy in this life,” Visati says. He has brown skin, short hair, a green T-shirt, donated by Swiss nuns, Seastore Speed North Shore Pier 54.
When Visati speaks of the death of his mother, who killed herself with his father’s rifle because she could no longer cope with the fear, he lowers his face into his hands and tells himself that an accident tore Mama away from this life, some stupid goddamned mishap. Mama accidentally touched Sokol’s weapon that lay there, loaded, on the dresser.
The Albanian National Reconciliation Committee, an NGO in the capital, Tirana, has information on at least 10,000 families that have become embroiled in blood feuds in the course of the last twenty years. At least a thousand of them sought, and found, a settlement, a reconciliation, instead of continuing to murder. According to the NRC, there are currently 1480 families who seldom leave their homes. In order to escape the revenge of their opponents, they live isolated, outlawed, in perpetual fear. In the district of Shkodër alone there are 298 such families. The committee estimates that the number of victims of blood feuds shot since the collapse of the dictatorship, in the period 1990–2010, is around 10,000. The number of those people who took their own lives out of desperation over the past decade is estimated at more than 2,000.
The government of the republic, naturally enough, sees things differently. It claims that the number of blood feud murders is trending steadily downward, from 45 cases in 1998 to a single case in 2009. As for families in hiding, there are supposedly only approximately 130 nationwide.
Sokol, now a widower, fled with his children Lili and Visati to Torovicë, three villages away. He shut himself in and asked a friend to find him a new wife. In short order, the friend was successful: Irena, ten years younger than Sokol. A pretty and intelligent woman, whose father had broken the law and been jailed under the Communists for one sentence: “The bread in this country is so hard you can’t eat it.” Twelve years of prison, then six in a labor camp.
About a year ago, Visati heard Irena whisper to herself that the day of her engagement, in February 1998, was the saddest day of her life because she could not imagine a worse fate than to have to marry a man living in a blood feud, to wed a man who will someday lie in a pool of his own blood.
The Kanun states that a father, or his representative, may force a daughter into marriage but not a son. The Kanun states that it is legal for the father to add a bullet to the trousseau so that the husband can shoot his wife if she attempts to flee, violates the rules of hospitality, or commits adultery.
Irena’s uncle did not include a bullet.
Irena was twenty-five, long overdue for marriage.
“Visati, if your father is shot, will you avenge him?”
Table of Contents
- Duo Duo’s acceptance speech and biographical profile
- Duo Duo new poems, trans. Yibing Huang
- Michelle Yeh, “Monologue of a Stormy Soul: Duo Duo, 1972–88"
- Yibing Huang, "Duo Duo: Master of Wishful Thinking"
SPECIAL SECTION: Jazz Poetry
Guest edited by Lauren Camp
- Introductory essay by Lauren Camp: "What's in the Notes: The Sound of Jazz in Poetry"
- Poetry from Lauren Camp: “Thelonious Monk on a Subway” and “What You Might Hear” plus web exclusive audio clips
- Virgil Suárez (Cuba/US): “Latin Jazz on the Go in Havana”
- Adrian Matejka (Germany/US): “Behind the Yashmak"
- Nii Parkes (Ghana/Great Britain): “Our Love Is Here to Stay” & “Hymn"
- Virgil Mihaiu (Romania; tr. Adam Sorkin): “Finesse de Brasil," “Universal Canticle,” and a web exclusive concert recording.
- Author Profile: E.C. Osondu (Nigeria)
- City Profile: Seoul, South Korea
- First Words: Luma Sarhan, “Approaching Zainab”
- WLT Online Bookclub: The United States of Africa by Abdourahman A. Waberi
- New books: recent translations
CRIME & MYSTERY
- J. Madison Davis, “Scarface Al and His Pals”
- Romeo Çollaku (Albania), Two poems, tr. Peter Constantine
- Stuart Friebert (US), “Good Leg Up, Bad Leg Down"
- Jan Wagner (Germany) Two poems, tr. Chenxin Jiang
Q&A: WLT INTERVIEWS
- Erwin Koch (Switzerland) by John K. Cox
- Adrianne Kalfopoulou (Greece/US), “Ruin”
Web Exclusive: PHOTO GALLERY: Athens Street Art
- Web Exclusive: "But It Was Beautiful" by Erwin Koch
- Luay Hamza Abbas (Iraq), “Spit Out What Is in Your Mouth,” tr. Yasmeen Hanoosh
WORLD LITERATURE IN REVIEW
OUTPOSTS: Literary Events & Landmarks