Even during the height of Communism, Albania was an outlier, a dystopia seemingly little noticed by most of the world. Here was a country whose dictator, Enver Hoxha, broke ties with the Soviet Union because he believed criticizing and abandoning Stalinism was “revisionism.” Having then allied the country with Red China, Hoxha broke that off when China began taking steps to reestablish diplomatic relations with the U.S., believing that to be a betrayal of Marxist-Leninist principles.
The impact of Hoxha’s philosophy and policies on routine life in the country is among the subjects of Albanian-born Ornela Vorpsi’s The Country Where No One Ever Dies. First published in France in 2004, some 15 years after she left Albania for Italy, it is her first work of fiction to be translated into English. More a novella than a novel, the book’s structure tends to reflect the country’s political and social disorder.
Translated by Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck, The Country Where No One Ever Dies doesn’t present a linear narrative. Rather, it is more a series of vignettes of life in 1980s Albania before the collapse of Communism. Although some narrators reappear and at least one is called Ornela, their names and ages change from chapter to chapter. Their stories reflect a society in which sex, death and repression are common themes.
Most men come off as interested in little other than fornication, “the quintessence of their existence,” They lust after even young girls but if the girls don’t take care of their “immaculate flower,” they will be forever branded a whore. At the same time, another adage of a country is that “a good-looking girl is a whore; an ugly one — poor thing — is not.” Some pregnant young women commit suicide by drowning themselves in a nearby lake. Abortion is illegal and the back alley abortions are often performed without anesthesia and, “a little more than occasionally,”‘ lead to the woman’s death anyway.
There is also the injustice created by the pervasive control of the party. When one girl visits her father, a political prisoner, in prison, she notices his face looks different. It is only after returning home the next day that she understands why. “At home, when I looked in the little bag that Mother had brought back with her, I discovered teeth, real teeth, some made of gold, hollow inside. They were what had been missing from my father’s face.”
Another girl’s father is also in prison but there’s a saving grace to his situation. “He wasn’t a political prisoner, though — just a common criminal — and so posed no danger to society.” And Ornela’s grandfather, who is brave enough to express his opinion about the state of things, explains to her why he no longer practices law. “I’m a defense lawyer and my profession no longer exists, thanks to the Party. The Party says that no one is ever convicted unjustly, so there’s no need for a defense.”
To escape the crush of totalitarian government and the seemingly inbred cultural attitudes, one girl finds refuge in books, doing whatever she can to get them. That is where she not only manages to find escape in fairy tales, but also discovers the concept of love. This is often the only glimmer of life that comes off as anything but misery.
Although exceptionally well written, the book’s vignettes provide only a glimpse of the country and its people. While there is a sense that perhaps never-ending hardship makes Albanian life seem eternal and Albanians survive because they see no other choice, The Country Where No One Ever Dies never takes us much deeper. If the proposition is that Albanians never die because they are fearless and immutable, too many of the people we meet seem to contribute to the adversity more than tolerate it. Because we never really grasp the reason for resignation or tolerance, the book ultimately never becomes a cohesive whole capable of surpassing its individual parts.
It’s no mean feat to gain an Albanian’s respect; it only surfaces when you’re on your deathbed — and when you breathe your last, you’ve finally won it.
Ornela Vorpsi, The Country Where No One Ever Dies