Recovering Albanian Voices: A Conversation with Margo Rejmer




MUD SWEETER THAN HONEY (2018, Eng. trans. 2021) by Polish journalist and fiction writer Margo Rejmer is a bone-chilling portrait of life under Europe’s most despotic post–World War II dictator, a story of decades of state-directed terror that most Americans are unfamiliar with and from which much of modern Europe turned away. She descends from the literary lineage of Nobel laureates Herta Müller and Svetlana Alexievich. Like Alexievich, she recounts the story of a place and time by animating native voices, but she also reports stories from outside her homeland. As she did for her previous book, Bucharest: Dust and Blood, which won the Newsweek Award for Best Book of 2014, Rejmer relocated from Poland (this time to Tirana), learned the language, and began to listen.

In Mud Sweeter than Honey, Rejmer uses captivatingly stark and ironic prose to introduce the tall tale of Hoxha’s Albania:

Once upon a time, paradise was created in the most perfect socialist country in the world. 

Where everything belonged to everyone, and nothing belonged to anyone.

Where everyone knew how to read and write, but they could only write what the authorities endorsed, and they could only read what the authorities approved.

Where electricity, buses, and propaganda reached every village, but ordinary citizens weren’t entitled to a car or an opinion of their own.

Where everyone could rely on free health care, but people sometimes vanished without a trace. […]

From 1976, their paradise on Earth was called the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania.

Its only rightful god was Supreme Comrade Enver Hoxha.

After a few short chapters in her own voice, Rejmer transitions to the stories of Hoxha’s survivors told in their voices, the voices that were silenced under Hoxha’s reign of terror, with the author serving as their linguistic alchemist. This storytelling collaboration requires confidence and trust, an artistic antidote to the repression and paranoia essential to Hoxha’s rule. The result is as close to a literary redressing of trauma as a single book can offer. Through skilled curation and arrangement, Rejmer pieces together for the reader a full accounting of those horrible years and beyond, including a glimpse of present-day Albania and its strained relationship to its past.

In the new edition from Restless Books, Mud Sweeter than Honey has been fluidly translated from the author’s native Polish by Zosia Krasodomska-Jones and Antonia Lloyd-Jones and features an introduction by Tony Barber. Rejmer spoke to me about the book and her work recovering these Albanian voices.

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NINA HERZOG: I’m interested in the book’s origin story. As a Polish journalist and author, how did you get the idea for the book, to move to Tirana and gather these stories?

MARGO REJMER: It all started at least a decade ago. I’d been living in Romania, but Albania kept popping up here and there in my friends’ stories as a slightly exotic, slightly absurd sort of country. Supposedly European, but not entirely. “You should definitely go there; it’s the right place for you,” my friends kept saying. So, in 2013, I went, started talking to people and collecting their stories, just sparse, superficial accounts often limited to a single line: “You could have gone to jail for complaining that the bread was stale, or that the tomatoes were rotten.” Those were just throwaway remarks for foreigners that didn’t say anything about what life was really like.

Then in 2015, I moved to Albania permanently; later on, I met Fatos Lubonja, an Albanian intellectual and writer, who had spent 17 years in prison. It was the first time I collected a full testimony: a personal story with a historical background and deep universal meaning. There was suffering, courage, and ambiguity, but also a touch of humor. The story was so powerful that it took me nine months to write it down. Knowing what story it contained, I was too scared to approach my recording device. And that was when I realized that my book, originally intended to be just “Albania for beginners,” had to have a different topic, and that it should focus on stories from the communist era.

It’s both a big story and a difficult one. What made you want to write it?

Listening to powerful stories is addictive: you look forward to the thrill, the delight, and the emotion. A good storyteller has their own special sensitivity and tells their tale using metaphors, symbols, and turning points — you just have to steer the person to extract it and to gather up all the details. I do my best to go deeper and deeper into meanings, to find the extra layers, all the paradoxes, and to come up with questions about the collective consciousness and unconsciousness.

And I realized what an extraordinary subject it was. I knew that if I collected some precise true stories, the book could be very powerful because communist Albania was a unique case, almost unimaginable. Here was a tiny, isolated country that became even more isolated after Enver Hoxha introduced his Stalinist regime and created his authoritarian laboratory, shaping and distorting human behavior. The total isolation, the closed borders, the fantasies about the world outside, the division of people into good and bad, the effort to bring out the worst side of people’s characters. And on the other hand, the various strategies for survival and for preserving one’s dignity under such a regime.

Why the oral history style?

It was obvious to me that I had to give almost the entire floor to my characters, and to keep myself invisible. Digressing or trying to provide moral comment would be inappropriate. It was the characters’ tragedy, their voice that mattered. I was just an ear for listening, and later on an editor. But I tried to smuggle my own point of view and sensitivity into the chapters that are designed to read like miniature short stories, each based on a single image or anecdote. While writing these lyrical chapters, in which I tried to capture the melody of propaganda or of a folk ballad, I had the chance to feel like an author of fiction again.

How did you gather the stories, meet and choose the people, gain their trust?

I talked to more than 300 people, but the book contains 30 stories. I wasted a year trying to collect stories in Tirana, talking to people under the age of 40. Sometimes I felt as if I was listening over and over again to the same futile account of public debate. But then I moved to the smaller cities, such as Shkodra and Gjirokastra, and I realized that it was all about finding the right person, sensitive and intelligent enough to describe the past in all its complexity. I didn’t ask about the politics or the historical facts because by then I knew them, but instead I’d ask: “What did your mother look like? What was her hair like? What was your favorite toy?” And some people found that surprising — those weren’t the sort of serious questions a proper journalist should ask. But I kept telling them I was just collecting stories, and I needed to be able to imagine the past visually. This is a work of imagination but also a process of understanding.

Also, when I started, my Albanian was very limited. I was a bit like a nine-year-old child, so I didn’t pose a threat to anyone. And I was strongly focused on the process of listening; I felt as if my whole body was listening. I let myself react to whatever I heard. People would tell me: “You are not like a real journalist; you really are curious about what we’re saying.” It took time to gain people’s trust, but fortunately I knew that this sort of book takes time. I knew it involved a process, my own personal process, too, collecting pieces of puzzles, collecting knowledge, gaining experience, and growing. Each conversation was a lesson to me, not only in history but also first and foremost a lesson in life.

How did you choose which stories to feature? 

A story has to be like a good short movie. The character is the axis of the story, so their personality matters, and as they’re telling me their story, I’m mentally picking up the turning points, the memorable images, the twists and turns. The story has to capture the essence of that time, but it also has to provide the sort of universal content that will interest or move readers in Poland, the United States, or Serbia. Sometimes, I sensed that the character wasn’t telling me the whole truth or was breaking off their story at the point where it actually started, because they didn’t want to go deeper, or they were using some other defense mechanism. And they had the right to do so. It was not my role to judge, but to listen to them, and later on to condense and edit their story. At these moments, I just let go because I wasn’t going to collect my stories at any cost.

How long did the whole process take?

I started the first interviews in 2013 and I finished the book in 2018. The first three years involved nothing but gathering information, reading history books, learning Albanian, and listening to public debate. Then I had to learn how to ask the right questions. I realized that questions to do with childhood help people to open up. People enjoy talking about their earliest memories, their first friends, and their first toys. Later, I realized that my book wasn’t just about communist Albania anymore, but about freedom, happiness, solitude, and humiliation. So, I decided to ask very simple questions: What is happiness to you? What is freedom to you?

Who were your teachers? 

My mother is a teacher of Polish literature, and she wrote her MA thesis on Sławomir Mrożek. When I was little, she used to read me Mrożek’s short stories about animals, such as “The Elephant,” or his twisted, ironic story about two laboratory rats. I know plenty of lines from that story by heart, like: “Clever Lolo knows how to press all the right buttons!” And my father is a dedicated fan of Polish poetry and Russian literature, so he used to read me poems by Stanisław Grochowiak and short stories by Mikhail Zoshchenko, and later Chekhov. All this shaped my literary taste, and my reportage is sometimes close to poetry; I like to point up all the absurd elements of the reality that surrounds us, especially when they occur within language.

Where are you writing to me from? What’s it like where you are?

I am writing my responses on a train from Warsaw to Berlin because I’ve been invited to a nonfiction festival in Berlin. It’s a dark, gloomy day, cold and foggy, with high humidity. Just a few days ago I came home from a trip to Albania, where I started collecting stories for my new book. Some of them were very powerful, so, as the Polish poet Marcin Świetlicki once wrote: “[N]ew energy ripples through the dead.” I already know how the book is going to start and how it’s going to end. I also have the title: There Are Fine Days Ahead of Us. This time I was working mostly in Albania, in Gjirokastra, a tiny Ottoman town, known in a literary context thanks to Ismail Kadare’s novel The Fall of the Stone City. As you gaze at those gray tiled roofs, you find yourself thinking: Where are all the dragons hiding? Where is Frodo? I am planning to move there in the spring, and to immerse myself in everyday Albanian life again. Each book is a new chapter in my life because I need a lot of time to collect and digest the stories, so the book grows along with me, and now I’m ready to start this journey again.

Has the book come out in Albania?

Not yet. There is a publishing house confirmed, but we’re having trouble finding a translator since Polish-to-Albanian translators appear to be rare specimens. From what I have heard, only three or four people could do it, and each of them is busy now. I will probably have to go to Tirana and have a few coffees to arrange it in the end.

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Born in Zagreb, Croatia/Yugoslavia, Nina Herzog holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing has appeared in Tin HouseTricycle MagazineLARB, and Words Without Borders, among other publications. She is currently writing a book about her experience with ketamine for treatment-resistant depression.

 

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