"Parallel literature" - a conversation

Interviewed by Arta Marku Qëndro 


 ‘I need to tell a story. It's an obsession. Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later.’ This is how Isabel Allende replies when asked why she writes. I think it is the kind of answer that can be given by all writers. Everything must start from the need to tell a story. But this one here is an irrational terrain, so let’s start the conversation from a clearer and more easily explicable space: your beginnings as a writer. Because there must be a moment that you discovered this inner need. How would you describe the moment of discovering a writer in yourself - the moment you realized the need to tell a story?  

Before it is a need, it is an almost a childish desire, but not to amaze anyone. It's like an invitation to discover, eyes closed, together with someone (whom you often neither know, nor see, nor will ever meet) things that are extremely vivid and yet invisible, neglected for entirely ordinary or even unjust reasons. I have started writing very early, but I always distinguish the winter of 1985 in Poradec[1]. That setting reminds me of a beautiful death, which seemed to surpass even life itself in many ways. Looking through the eyes of experience, it seems to me that the events that insist on being narrated are those whose ‘longevity’ in the memory is not guaranteed. This also awakens a compassion without which literature cannot live a very long life. 

 Does the writer’s need to narrate coincide with the reader’s need to read? Do you keep your readers in mind as you focus on your need? If you do, what are their characteristics? If you do not, isn’t that an oversight, and, consequently, aren’t they right to harbor resentment and keep their distance?  

My experiences in dealing with readers are so bizarre that they really need to be written down to gain a little credibility. Let me refer to the most recent one: about a month ago, I heard that some of my books in Romanian were being sold in online antique bookstores, and not just any books: some friends, colleagues or acquaintances to whom I had given the books with an autograph, had sold them by the kilo or for peanuts, as it is the case nowadays, while the booksellers are now selling them for good money, listing them in the category ‘With the author’s signature’. Now imagine my opinion of these readers, who I considered at least attentive, if not special. For many reasons, justified or not, your books were sold by the kilo, then they are sold at the same prices as books written by world-famous authors, and you become a sort of ‘unknown master’, perhaps dead (because death raises the price of some books)... What I am trying to say is that the reader is full of surprises. So, it makes no sense to imagine him, but only to marvel at both the good and the not so good. 

 Writing about childhood, about the lake, about the hometown games, about wandering in the city of your youth, about banned radio programs, about running to the technician holding the big broken ‘Sonra’ in your arms… is in a way like using a torch to shed light on the inside of yourself. At times there is a conscious selection of elements within the illuminated space; at other times it is an unconscious call of a detail that is nonetheless personal. But writing about a story that does not directly belong to you, speaking (for example) about a man you have never met and who has not told the story to you himself is a different matter. (Or maybe there is always a character who confesses to you, lured by the idea of making his way into literature?) In a way all writers do this, but everyone has their own studio, their own writing time, their own relationship to the event, the characters, their own perspectives, their own preparatory work. How would you describe your process? 

I believe that everything happens in the spirit of empathy and in the ability to live ‘in installments’, on the invisible side of things. It is a rare gift, but also big challenge, during which you realize and become convinced that we can really do nothing without God. 

 What do you do, then, (before you sit down to write or while writing) to make sure that the story you tell, the character you build, even though fictional, stands firmly on the ground?  

For me, the question is: Do I really have to make someone believable for someone else? If not, to what degree, and why? More believable than in real life or less alive than in a book? Perhaps by answering to each question with other questions we manage not to give up literature entirely. 

 How do you come up with a detail that will later transform into a book? What stands at the genesis of a short story or a novel? What makes a detail stand apart from another that does not deserve your attention?  

When you narrate, in fact, you choose a higher type of solitude, from where details are assessed and examined through other criteria. I have learned to detach myself – as much as it is humanly possible – from my published books, so that I can live as naturally as possible, and so that I can write almost as if I were just starting out. It has been necessary and decisive. Otherwise I would constantly feel more writer than I should, while the others would feel observed, and this would burden our relationship with a dose of hypocrisy. Of course, I remember the details that have awakened a book in me, and they are not few: words, expressions, images, sounds, a dream with my eyes open or closed, but especially fragments of events, which, in everyday life, seemed to continue or end in an undeserved lack of poetry. 

– A literary story may not be true, but it must be as good as true. Do you agree with that? Or is that an outdated concept?    

Truth is the state against which no personal or borrowed truths can help us. It is more or less like Death. That is the reason why the Holy Scriptures constantly repeat the advice that man should take Death into account as much as possible. In other words, even in life, not only in literature (which brings a greater responsibility, because it communicates directly to the soul), the goal is to express things that are as compatible with the Truth as possible. In a spiritual space, where not everyone who knows how to read and write is allowed, (yet unlived) literature trades places with (yet unwritten) life and there is no way of defining which is which. 

 You are a character in some of your books. That being the case let us focus on the child character for a moment, on the need to recount your childhood. Is this prompted by the geographical distance from the places of your childhood? Or by the temporal distance from childhood?  

More than I, they are fragments of myself. It is not a question of becoming as visible as possible, much less in these times dominated by ‘I am visible, therefore I am’ beliefs. I just know these pieces of myself better and I can write about them without prejudice or stereotypes rooted in the current mentality. I return to the ‘pen-insula’ of memory also to be cleansed of excessive words and images (‘People worry about things that will not be of any use at all to them after death’, said the famous Romanian poet Marin Sorescu), but also to release the longing for a world that resembles less and less today’s reality. 

 ‘It seems to us that to adapt is a sign of wisdom, endurance, superiority, but it is more of a proof of decline, of resignation. If not worse: a sign that the childhood within us is fading, piece by piece.’ You say it in a book. But it gives the impression that a writer can resign without giving up. So, he loses his childhood by keeping it, if not inside, than close, because he writes about it. Do you feel this is an advantage of being a writer? Is this the reason why you have ‘whitewashed’ your childhood in books, and even announced it through the subtitle NOVEL WITH CHILDHOOD?  

Living your childhood in Poradec and Tirana in the 1970s and 1980s was a miracle in itself. I have later often found myself in the nightmares of the devoted parent who keeps their child on the inside, where, surprisingly, it is more threatened than on the outside. A particularly metaphorical parent, who carries his own childhood as if he were carrying a child. Writing from this place not only do I not lose it, but I also train myself to the possibility of its loss, because I prolong its life as much as it can be done in books. At the same time, it is a tool which can remind readers that, in our childhood, before we had plans, salaries, functions etc., we had lives, people and indispensable things, sacred poverty, as much heart as we needed, reasons not to let our souls get crushed and almost no prejudice. It must be said that publishing this type of book is dangerous for a writer and not every author knows or dares to take the risk. So far, I have only published a book only if keeping it to myself was endangering the lives of subsequent or even previously written books. The timing of the publication seems crucial to me. Otherwise it is like taking a newborn baby and letting it grow up in a brothel... The subtitle ‘Novel with childhood’ is an invitation, or a sign that the book should be read more or less in the spirit in which it was written. 

 Since we are on this topic how do the novel (that is supposedly an invention) and childhood (that is supposedly a reality) get along?  

There comes a moment after which the strange rhythm set by the longing and the releasing of the longing makes it possible for some events and people to have been or to become like you remember them and like you describe them while writing about them. 

 When you write about the past that belongs to you, be it your childhood or other points in time, to what extent are facts compatible to their interpretation?  

I try to relive them as I narrate them and vice versa, trying to make sure that the literary invention does not affect the Beauty. 

– What does literature (the one with or without autobiographical elements), while including imagination, do to memory? Does it deform it or, despite everything, preserve it?   

I believe it rewrites it beautifully. The life that we can’t believe will one day be interrupted becomes more graceful, whereas the everyday one –more difficult. At some point, both of them are replaced by books. 

– ‘I believe he died from too many memories. He resisted and resisted, until he exploded.’ a character says in one of your short stories. What is your view on a person’s memory? How do you work with it? How do you sift through it to avoid the superfluous? How do you decide on what has been forgotten or should be forgotten?  

Memory can be a blessing, but also a Torment. I sometimes write in order not to forget, and other times, in order to forget (because the weight of the life that has not been able to enter my books, wearies me). A good memory, it seems to me, does not allow you to be completely where you physically are, and this can lead to unnatural silences between the writer and his friends or family.    

– I once said to an Albanian writer who has been living abroad for many years: ‘You take your memories with you and everyday life does not affect them, because those are two separate eras. Thus, you preserve it like in a fridge.’ Her answer was: ‘No, our memory is not kept in a fridge. We place it into an incubator instead.’ How about you?  

Acquaintances freeze in the moment you emigrate, and it is not known whether you will return or not. You freeze in their memory, too. This complicates future relationships, but also covers them with a special kindness, because each side remembers the other as they were in the moment of the separation. During future meetings, when they take place, it is so bitter to accept the changes that have often been inevitable. So, both sides hurry to return mentally to the moment of the separation and everything flows more easily, even when they have nothing to say.

My memory is kept alive and incessantly enriched by my family, starting with my parents, my brother and a few friends, and even my daughter, who, from time to time, reminds me of details from stories that I told her at bedtime and with which I made her fall asleep – or with which I awakened in her a creative insomnia. It all relies on the preservation of genuineness, of a balance where no event – whether too bitter or too sweet – is treated with priority compared to others, unless it is particularly beautiful and humorous. 

 ‘There are books that crumble down on the inside even from the name of some characters or some words put in the wrong places.’ you say somewhere in your book ‘Anonima…’, where you depict Tirana as it was in your childhood. Let’s take things one at a time: What does that mean? How does just a character’s name destroy literature?  And then, how do you make sure that a word, a single word, fits right in the company of others?  

To me, literature is incomparably less of a craft and more of a gift. If you know how to preserve the gift, you will not suffer for the place where a word, an expression, a name or a nickname of the character is placed. They will only be where they need to be. I was talking about good taste and the essential importance of keeping literature within its primary boundaries as art. The untalented are convinced that literature is a doorless and Godless inn, built in no man’s land, and that you can afford to do whatever you please. And they do not think twice, quite the contrary. In general, you will not find any mediocre person who is dissatisfied with his writing and the ways boasts it. But literature harmed in this manner shows signs of desecration, and those signs are the root of all evil. 

– ‘Every day I become more and more convinced that true literary gems should not be read aloud.’ The moment you say this, you are referring to the former child who went to the movie theatre and felt disturbed by the unfit voices of the actors. But let’s leave this aside, because actors’ voices can also be right; (doesn't everything depend on the point of view?) would it be better anyway to read literature IN SOLITUDE? Is the literature made to build individual gardens in each reader, all dissimilar to one another?  

I have neither a good singing voice nor a musical ear, but I have a poetic, metaphorical ear, and a voice of reason, more precisely, an insistence on good taste. Because from early on I have remained strongly connected with the audible side of life (and emigration multiplies and sharpens a person's hearing, even when he is unaware of it), I am convinced that the voice can turn into a destructive ‘con-text’. I have heard, for instance, Eminescu’s[2] or Lasgushi’s[3] masterpieces, read with the same intonation as the verses of some nobody, and that type of recitation could have convinced any child or poetry lover that the value of the texts was the same. 

 What do you think about the multiple types of readings? Is it important for the reader and the author to be in two parallel lines? Or should it be the opposite of it?  

The voice chooses its listener – and there are quite a few interpretations that do not confiscate his inner voice, but attract him to read further, in the necessary or indispensable solitude. 


***


 You have quite surprising titles: Invisible Stories, Superfluous Angels, The Diva or the Flower Eater, Kiss me, Skeleton, The Art of Suicidal... The title is the reader’s first encounter with a work: it can be devastating for his connection to the book; it can be an irresistible seduction; it can be common and not at all memorable; it can be a simple and at the same time a powerful metaphor... How do you deal with titles? What is a title to you?  

I do not feel that I am in competition with anyone, and I know that I will survive even if no one reads a book because of its title. I do not look for titles. Sometimes the title comes to me before the book, being even more important than that notorious first sentence. 

 You sometimes define your books as ‘novels’, sometimes as ‘novel with childhood’, and other times as ‘stories’. What are the specific elements? In what way is a novel with childhood different from a story? Some writers think that books cannot be specified cannot be defined...  

When the book is out on the arena, every definition made by the writer becomes less relevant. My definitions are only my wishes that my books are read as stories, novel with childhood, with love and conspiracy etc. or they are a testimony of the spirit in which I wrote them. In Anonima or Tirana in the Shadow of a Passer-by I wrote ‘rrëfilm’[4] – that I came up with when I was turning the text in a film. But essentially, a reader’s deep relationship to a text does not normally consider specifications and definition. 

 What does the name CHRISTIAN in your pen-name mean? It is your real name or a pen-name?  

Yes, it is my penname (since Romanian does not have a ‘y’, I also use Ardian-Christian Kuciuk). It comes from my baptismal name. As a member of a generation to which it was forbidden by law to be baptized, I separated, against my will, hundreds of relatives and my parents, baptized according to our tradition, from the descendants to be born of us. This ‘schism’ was corrected in Bucharest when I was 25 years old. While waiting to be baptized and immediately after my baptism, I realized that it was much more than life-saving (it was customary for old Albanians to give a different name to babies who were in danger of dying) and that the essence of my writing had already changed radically. It would have been extremely despicable, completely out of character for me not to express at least an indescribable gratitude. Instead of that indescribability I have been bearing the name Christian ever since, with a dash between it and the name Ardian. 

 What are your writing obsessions? When do you write? How do you write? Do you have writing schedules, favorite or disagreeable places?  

One of my humorous characters would have said: ‘When I arrived, there was no obsession that hadn’t already been taken.’[5] I have no obsessions. I am now realizing that the time when I write is also the place where I write. But I need to mention, with full gratitude, my grandparents’ houses in Poradec, the apartment on ‘Arkitekt Kasemi’ Street in Tirana, the dormitories where I have lived for several years in Bucharest, the house where I live, the trains, some cities where I have stopped from time to time, and a beautiful, old-fashioned Bucharest café, ‘Nicola’, which is not found on online maps, and where I write without paper. 

 Does the fact that you are a prolific writer mean that you are methodical?  

Judging by the number of books I have published so far, one may get the impression that I am out to conquer a castle, in the style of Skanderbeg, to regain any lost time, or to seize some throne in the Pantheon. This is simply my writing pace and I do not know how it would have been otherwise. My dedication to writing does not give me time to think in terms from criticism or from the history of literature. The only phrase that comes to my mind after having written so many books is ‘Parallel Literature’, by which I mean the delays of today’s society to recognize and spread independent literature, the lack of critics who sense and even hunt for genuine books, the fanfare of average books etc. 

 Your literary work is a vast oasis, from the perspective of the number of works. Books published in Albanian and books published in Romanian, a language that has been in your everyday life for years. What is your language of literature?  

Each book chooses its own language. I do not interfere with it, not because I do not want to, but because I can’t. 

 While we are on the topic, where do your stories and characters mostly come from, what geographical space do the settings where they move belong to? Has Albania, with what it offers, left its place to Romania or some other country?  

I will bring as an example Un trib glorios și muribund – eposul unei uitări (A Glorious and Dying Tribe – The Epos of an Oblivion), (Romanian, 1998) and Sy (Eye/s), (Albanian, 2003), books in which features of several regions and peoples are being extended and rediscovered, in a sort of intra-Balkan being, but not in the spirit of globalization. Each space preserves the other, even when mixed with them, as it happens in love. 

 Do writers take their homeland with them wherever they go?  

I think they do: the birthplace has the death place as a shadow. 

 There are in the library of every writer, sometimes not exactly on the shelf where the books are placed, some works and authors which have always remained there or which may belong to different periods, but which have played the role of mentors. What are the books and authors that have shaped you?  

The main authors for me remain my grandparents with their extraordinary storytelling talent. I remember looking forward to being able to tell stories the way they did. I believe that their spirit moves powerfully within my writings, while in everyday life, I joyfully discover gestures, movements, sparks of humor that I have inherited or instinctively borrowed from them as a result of my admiration. In addition to the writers who are ‘common property’, so to speak, I want to mention Luigi Pirandello, Pär Lagerkvist, Paul Heyse and Heinrich Böll. Among the books I want to mention in the order in which I read them, are Eposi i Kreshnikëve (The Epos of Heroes, in Albanian) and Filocalia (Φιλοκαλία, translated in Romanian in 12 volumes). And because the silver screen has had and still has a very special place in my life and it has often enlightened me more than some books, I want to mention Ingmar Bergman (with his The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Persona, Scenes from a Marriage, Autumn Sonata, Fanny and Alexander, with the literary masterpiece The Magic Lantern, and with movie scripts The Best Intentions and Faithless; Fellini (with Nights of Cabiria, Amarcord, La Dolce Vita); Edgar Reiz (with Heimat); Krzysztof Kieślowski (with Dekalog and Three Colors Trilogy), and Ernst Lubitsch (with To Be or Not to Be and Ninotchka). 

 How have books and authors changed their place from time to time?  

For many reasons, I keep very few books in my library. If you did not have them in your mind and soul, there is no reason for you to have them in paper. I rarely re-read, just fragments, for some study or for my university lectures. It may be hard to admit, but what happens with books is the same as what happens as with people: even the most precious ones die one day. Fortunately, the taste of presence and the role they have had in our lives last until we shall ‘return to books’[6]. 

 During a conversation with another writer, Rudolf Marku, who has been living away from Albania for years, he told me: ‘Sometimes I think that if I hadn’t left, I would not have come to know Albania to the extent that I know it seeing it from the distance of the country where I currently live. It is this kind of distance that gives me an opportunity to see the city not from somewhere inside it, but as if I were on a hill and I saw it lying down there, thus a lot more clearly than when I was walking in its streets.’ Moreover, once you have known the city and its streets from the inside, you have the opportunity to observe it from a distance. This, I think, should be the case of writers who have lived for the same amount of time in Albania as they have away from it. Has distance served you in getting to know it? What knowledge are we specifically talking about?  

I am not afraid to say that I must have really loved Tirana very deeply and very purely, since I have never felt up, down, sideways, near, far, etc., from it, but only inside it. This may have been a rare gift from Tirana to a child who was experiencing the moving out from his hometown as an exile. Tirana seemed to have shown to me then, as a sign of consolation or gratitude in advance, not only things that never change, but also things that would happen many years later. 

  According to Orhan Pamuk, Turkish writers, most of them, destroyed their talent so that they could serve the homeland, an ideology or a good intention. They did not write good novels exactly because they gave themselves a mission. If you agree with Pamuk, how would you interpret this?  

It is not in my nature to judge writers, partly because the value of their work provides its own judgment, at the right time, in ways that sometimes seem too harsh. Perhaps some destroyed their talent so that they could serve the homeland, an ideology or a good intention, but it is also known that there are many of those who destroyed their homeland, the conscience of entire generations and every talent, so that they could serve themselves only... Amid such dilemmas, I remember a question that old people from Poradec asked to prodigal people: ‘But where will your soul end up, poor thing?’ I usually stop on that question, while the answers can be summed up in two sentences: 1. There is a big difference between the countries where politics defines ideology and those where ideology defines politics; 2. The more amount of politics a literature accepts to take in, the more political its destiny will be. 

 In your view, does literature have a mission?  

The fact that they cannot eradicate it, shows that it does. 

 Do you see the writer you read as a missionary?  

I believe in the expression that says that when all are screaming the one who keeps quiet is the only one who is heard. 

 Do you feel the role of the missionary in you?  

Enough not to alter my past.  

TiranaBucharest, September 2020

  


 

[1] The old, traditional pronunciation of the name of the town of Pogradec.

[2] Mihai Eminescu (Botoșani, 15 January 1859 - Bucharest, 15 June 1889) is regarded as the national poet of Romania. From 1869 to 1874 he studied philosophy in Vienna and Berlin, later on working as librarian, superintendent of elementary schools and newspaper editor. Only a small part of his work was published during his lifetime (Poezii, 1883). He was most loved for his pieces dealing with nature, and love, and for his lyric of thoughts, deeply melancholy and full of Weltschmerz and longing for death. His lyric in fact has a very proper and touching melody.

[3] Llazar Sotir Gusho (Pogradec, 27 December 1899-Tirana, 12 November 1987), commonly known by the pen name Lasgush Poradeci, was an Albanian poet, thinker, translator, memorialist, philologist and pioneer of modern Albanian literature. He is regarded as the greatest lyric of Albanian literature of the 20th century.

[4] The word ”Rrëfilm” has / recall at the same time the meaning of Confession, Storytelling, and Film.

[5] Wordplay: in Albanian, mani e pa-marrë means mad obsession, but also yet not taken obsession.

[6] From Biblical expression ‘From dust you have come, And to dust you shall return’.