This is Albanian novelist Ornela Vorpsi’s first novel and it is quite an impressive one. Bold and daring, this short novel aims for the heart and the guts. Her prose is tough and filled with a healthy dose of black humor and irony. You can’t put this book down and since it’s such a short book, you finish it quickly, but you’re left wanting a hell of a lot more.
It is a coming of age tale about a young woman growing up during the last days of communist Albania. Her father was missing most of her life, having been jailed for a “crime” that we in the west would find utterly absurd but this is Enver Hoxha’s Albania we’re talking about and his presence is ever present, even though he’s only mentioned once throughout the entire novel. Her father’s “crime”? He complained that there weren’t enough potatoes at the market. Sent to a “re-education camp” in the north, the narrator - whose name changes from chapter to chapter - is raised by her mother and her grandparents, who treat her terribly, often telling her she will grow up to be a whore and that she was “just like her father.” In Hoxha’s Albania, the children of political prisoners were just as much of an outcast. But she is a free spirited, independent thinking young girl and she observes the bleak world around her with a dark humor and a sense of irony. As she grows older, the more she reveals her understanding of what is going on around her. These are told through the various chapters, which read more like vignettes that could stand on their own. Taken together, you get a bleak portrait of what it was like to grow up in a totalitarian state where its leader and “The Party” was everything.
A little understanding of Hoxha’s Albania will definitely enhance the reading of this novel and for those who don’t know, Albania was one of the most oppressive Communist states during the Cold War era - where the borders were literally shut, where anyone trying to “escape” was shot down in cold blood, where you could be jailed and sent to a prison camp for the slightest infraction, where its leader had its citizens construct tens of thousands of concrete bunkers over fear of a “Capitalist invasion.” The only other state comparable would have been Ceauscescu’s Romania. This is the environment in which our narrator is growing up and it, as one might imagine, have its effect on her worldview.
The one story being told here - that isn’t explicitly written - is how a child is brought into this world by the choice of others and where that child grows up is merely the luck of the draw. The innocence of childhood, at the moment in life when it knows nothing other than the world it sees and immediately experiences. It does not know of oppression, prison camps, death, totalitarianism, cults of personality, existential dread, fear, terror. But sooner or later, depending on the role of the dice, they will learn about these things, even if they fully don’t understand what’s going on; and some enter this world innocent and eventually become corrupted by circumstances beyond their control. That innocence is destroyed and what they experience as they grow older will effect them for the rest of their lives. This is the true story here: how a life can be damaged merely by where they happened to be born.
This is a truly powerful novel and Ornela Vorpsi is one novelist to keep your eye on.