The literatures of small countries seem unable to rise above the size of their birthplaces. When we speak of classical literature, we think of Russia and France, of England and Germany.

Albania, which still has only about a million inhabitants, is nowhere, although, under socialism, it did give birth to some good writers. They wrote well not because of socialism, but in spite of it. In fact, they wrote their best works after Albania had outgrown “socialist realism”, the “great gift” of Zhdanov, Stalin’s favourite intellectual. He decreed “literary norms” like five-year plan targets.

The Albanian novelist, Ismail Kadare, wrote well - and this, under Enver Hoxha, his craft a masterpiece of dissimulation. Anyway, his two novels, one about Albania’s break with the Soviet Union and the other about its quarrel with China, are good by any standard. For example, a description of two persons in love in the first novel mentioned above The Great Winter: “‘What will you have’? asked Besnik, as they settled themselves at a free table. She fixed her gaze into his as if she did not understand the language he spoke. Under her eyes, he could discern two little shadows of purple spots, betraying, one would say, sensual pleasures, and then these two circles, having become distinct, appeared to him as visible proofs, the only ones, of their union, the evocation of hours passed together in a drunkenness close to suffering, a burning consciousness that this miracle had become real within the body of the woman he loved; that he had begun in pain to end in pain, that nothing great is achieved in this world without suffering.”(This is a double translation from Albanian into French into English. So, it must have lost some of the délicatesse of the original.)

“Har gauhar-e-nishat hai ansoo liay huay.”

“The inadequacies of a monolithic system”, in whose shadow Kadare lived and worked, have been well described by Arthur Koestler. (Today’s young reader, who may by chance glance at what I write here, must wonder at the names I bring up. But, in my young days, names like Malraux, Koestler, and Isherwood were familiar to the readers.) That Kadare did not go to prison and lived to denounce socialism after the change in Albania, is due entirely to his careful avoidance of anything resembling a disapproval of the system, while living under it. His criticism of the system after its end means the questions were there but well hidden.

Koestler’s Darkness at Noon tells the story of an old Bolshevik revolutionary, whom Stalin wants killed, but in a juridically proper way. So, he is arrested and kept awake every night under questioning to make him declare himself a foreign spy and a traitor to the Communist Party. Koestler traces his mental processes, as he comes around to signing a paper “confessing his treachery and betrayal.” Since Koestler had himself suffered similar torture when he was a prisoner of Franco during the Spanish civil war, one supposes he is on sure ground. But one can look at it another way. One may confess to whatever is demanded of one to escape endless torture into death. Human will is strong, but physical pain can crush it. As the Moroccan revolutionary, Abraham Serfaty, says: “One cannot draw a straight line in a curved space” (La Memoire de L’Autre, Edition Stock, 1993, p. 227).

n    The writer is a retired              ambassador.