With Migjeni (1911-1938), contemporary Albanian poetry begins its course. Migjeni, pen name of Millosh Gjergj Nikolla, was born in Shkodra. His father, Gjergj Nikolla (1872-1924), came from an Orthodox family of Dibran origin and owned a bar there. As a boy, he attended a Serbian Orthodox elementary school in Shkodra and from 1923 to 1925 a secondary school in Bar (Tivar) on the Montenegrin coast, where his eldest sister, Lenka, had moved. In the autumn of 1925, when he was fourteen, he obtained a scholarship to attend a secondary school in Monastir (Bitola) in southern Macedonia. This ethnically diverse town, not far from the Greek border, must have held a certain fascination for the young lad from distant Shkodra, since he came into contact there not only with Albanians from different parts of the Balkans, but also with Macedonian, Serb, Aromunian, Turkish and Greek students. Being of Slavic origin himself, he was not confined by narrow-minded nationalist perspectives and was to become one of the very few Albanian authors to bridge the cultural chasm separating the Albanians and Serbs. In Monastir he studied Old Church Slavonic, Russian, Greek, Latin and French. Graduating from school in 1927, he entered the Orthodox Seminary of St. John the Theologian, also in Monastir, where, despite incipient health problems, he continued his training and studies until June 1932. He read as many books as he could get his hands on: Russian, Serbian and French literature in particular, which were more to his tastes than theology. His years in Monastir confronted him with the dichotomy of East and West, with the Slavic soul of Holy Mother Russia and of the southern Slavs, which he encountered in the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky , Ivan Turgenev , Lev Tolstoy , Nikolay Gogol and Maksim Gorky , and with socially critical authors of the West from Jean-Jacques Rousseau , Friedrich Schiller , Stendhal and Emile Zola to Upton Sinclair , Jack London and Ben Traven .
On his return to Shkodra in 1932, after failing to win a scholarship to study in the ‘wonderful West,’ he decided to take up a teaching career rather than join the priesthood for which he had been trained. On 23 April 1933, he was appointed teacher of Albanian at a school in the Serb village of Vraka, seven kilometres from Shkodra. It was during this period that he also began writing prose sketches and verse which reflect the life and anguish of an intellectual in what certainly was and has remained the most backward region of Europe. In May 1934 his first short prose piece, Sokrat i vuejtun a po derr i kënaqun (Suffering Socrates or the satisfied pig), was published in the periodical Illyria, under his new pen name Migjeni, an acronym of Millosh Gjergj Nikolla. Soon though, in the summer of 1935, the twenty-three-year-old Migjeni fell seriously ill with tuberculosis, which he had contracted earlier. He journeyed to Athens in July of that year in hope of obtaining treatment for the disease which was endemic on the marshy coastal plains of Albania at the time, but returned to Shkodra a month later with no improvement in his condition. In the autumn of 1935, he transferred for a year to a school in Shkodra itself and, again in the periodical Illyria, began publishing his first epoch-making poems.
In a letter of 12 January 1936 written to translator Skënder Luarasi (1900-1982) in Tirana, Migjeni announced, “I am about to send my songs to press. Since, while you were here, you promised that you would take charge of speaking to some publisher, ‘Gutemberg’ for instance, I would now like to remind you of this promise, informing you that I am ready.” Two days later, Migjeni received the transfer he had earlier requested to the mountain village of Puka and on 18 April 1936 began his activities as the headmaster of the run-down school there.
The clear mountain air did him some good, but the poverty and misery of the mountain tribes in and around Puka were even more overwhelming than that which he had experienced among the inhabitants of the coastal plain. Many of the children came to school barefoot and hungry, and teaching was interrupted for long periods of time because of outbreaks of contagious diseases, such as measles and mumps. After eighteen hard months in the mountains, the consumptive poet was obliged to put an end to his career as a teacher and as a writer, and to seek medical treatment in Turin in northern Italy where his sister Ollga was studying mathematics. He set out from Shkodra on 20 December 1937 and arrived in Turin before Christmas day. There he had hoped, after recovery, to register and study at the Faculty of Arts. The breakthrough in the treatment of tuberculosis, however, was to come a decade too late for Migjeni. After five months at San Luigi sanatorium near Turin, Migjeni was transferred to the Waldensian hospital in Torre Pellice where he died on 26 August 1938. His demise at the age of twenty-six was a tragic loss for modern Albanian letters.
Migjeni made a promising start as a prose writer. He is the author of about twenty-four short prose sketches which he published in periodicals for the most part between the spring of 1933 and the spring of 1938. Ranging from one to five pages in length, these pieces are too short to constitute tales or short stories. Although he approached new themes with unprecedented cynicism and force, his sketches cannot all be considered great works of art from a literary point of view.
It is thus far more as a poet that Migjeni made his mark on Albanian literature and culture, though he did so posthumously. He possessed all the prerequisites for being a great poet. He had an inquisitive mind, a depressive pessimistic nature and a repressed sexuality. Though his verse production was no more voluminous than his prose, his success in the field of poetry was no less than spectacular in Albania at the time.
Migjeni’s only volume of verse, Vargjet e lira, Tirana 1944 (Free verse), was composed over a three-year period from 1933 to 1935. A first edition of this slender and yet revolutionary collection, a total of thirty-five poems, was printed by the Gutemberg Press in Tirana in 1936 but was immediately banned by the authorities and never circulated. The second edition of 1944, undertaken by scholar Kostaç Cipo (1892-1952) and the poet’s sister Ollga, was more successful. It nonetheless omitted two poems, Parathanja e parathanjeve (Preface of prefaces) and Blasfemi (Blasphemy), which the publisher, Ismail Mal’Osmani, felt might offend the Church. The 1944 edition did, however, include eight other poems composed after the first edition had already gone to press.
The main theme of ‘Free verse,’ as with Migjeni’s prose, is misery and suffering. It is a poetry of acute social awareness and despair. Previous generations of poets had sung the beauties of the Albanian mountains and the sacred traditions of the nation, whereas Migjeni now opened his eyes to the harsh realities of life, to the appalling level of misery, disease and poverty he discovered all around him. He was a poet of despair who saw no way out, who cherished no hope that anything but death could put an end to suffering. “I suffer with the child whose father cannot buy him a toy. I suffer with the young man who burns with unslaked sexual desire. I suffer with the middle-aged man drowning in the apathy of life. I suffer with the old man who trembles at the prospect of death. I suffer with the peasant struggling with the soil. I suffer with the worker crushed by iron. I suffer with the sick suffering from all the diseases of the world… I suffer with man.” Typical of the suffering and of the futility of human endeavour for Migjeni is Rezignata (Resignation), a poem in the longest cycle of the collection, Kangët e mjerimit (Songs of poverty). Here the poet paints a grim portrait of our earthly existence: sombre nights, tears, smoke, thorns and mud. Rarely does a breath of fresh air or a vision of nature seep through the gloom. When nature does occur in the verse of Migjeni, then of course it is autumn.
If there is no hope, there are at least suffocated desires and wishes. Some poems, such as Të birtë e shekullit të ri (The sons of the new age), Zgjimi (Awakening), Kanga e rinis (Song of youth) and Kanga e të burgosunit (The prisoner’s song), are assertively declamatory in a left-wing revolutionary manner. Here we discover Migjeni as a precursor of socialist verse or rather, in fact, as the zenith of genuine socialist verse in Albanian letters, long before the so-called liberation and socialist period from 1944 to 1990. Migjeni was, nonetheless, not a socialist or revolutionary poet in the political sense, despite the indignation and the occasional clenched fist he shows us. For this, he lacked the optimism as well as any sense of political commitment and activity. He was a product of the thirties, an age in which Albanian intellectuals, including Migjeni, were particularly fascinated by the West and in which, in Western Europe itself, the rival ideologies of communism and fascism were colliding for the first time in the Spanish Civil War. Migjeni was not entirely uninfluenced by the nascent philosophy of the right either. In Të lindet njeriu (May the man be born) and particularly, in the Nietzschean dithyramb Trajtat e Mbinjeriut (The shape of the Superman), a strangled, crushed will transforms itself into “ardent desire for a new genius,” for the Superman to come. To a Trotskyite friend, André Stefi, who had warned him that the communists would not forgive for such poems, Migjeni replied, “My work has a combative character, but for practical reasons, and taking into account our particular conditions, I must manoeuvre in disguise. I cannot explain these things to the [communist] groups, they must understand them for themselves. The publication of my works is dictated by the necessities of the social situation through which we are passing. As for myself, I consider my work to be a contribution to the union of the groups. André, my work will be achieved if I manage to live a little longer.”
Part of the ‘establishment’ which he felt was oblivious to and indeed responsible for the sufferings of humanity was the Church. Migjeni’s religious education and his training for the Orthodox priesthood seem to have been entirely counterproductive, for he cherished neither an attachment to religion nor any particularly fond sentiments for the organized Church. God for Migjeni was a giant with granite fists crushing the will of man. Evidence of the repulsion he felt towards god and the Church are to be found in the two poems missing from the 1944 edition, Parathania e parathanieve (Preface of prefaces) with its cry of desperation “God! Where are you?”, and Blasfemi (Blasphemy).
In Kanga skandaloze (Scandalous song), Migjeni expresses a morbid attraction to a pale nun and at the same time his defiance and rejection of her world. This poem is one which helps throw some light not only on Migjeni’s attitude to religion but also on one of the more fascinating and least studied aspects in the life of the poet, his repressed heterosexuality.
Eroticism has certainly never been a prominent feature of Albanian literature at any period and one would be hard pressed to name any Albanian author who has expressed his intimate impulses and desires in verse or prose. Migjeni comes closest, though in an unwitting manner. It is generally assumed that the poet remained a virgin until his untimely death at the age of twenty-six. His verse and his prose abound with the figures of women, many of them unhappy prostitutes, for whom Migjeni betrays both pity and an open sexual interest. It is the tearful eyes and the red lips which catch his attention; the rest of the body is rarely described. For Migjeni, sex too means suffering. Passion and rapturous desire are ubiquitous in his verse, but equally present is the spectre of physical intimacy portrayed in terms of disgust and sorrow. It is but one of the many bestial faces of misery described in the 105-line Poema e mjerimit (Poem of poverty).
Though he did not publish a single book during his lifetime, Migjeni’s works, which circulated privately and in the press of the period, were an immediate success. Migjeni paved the way for a modern literature in Albania. This literature was, however, soon to be nipped in the bud. Indeed the very year of the publication of ‘Free Verse’ saw the victory of Stalinism in Albania and the proclamation of the People’s Republic.
Many have speculated as to what contribution Migjeni might have made to Albanian letters had he managed to live longer. The question remains highly hypothetical, for this individualist voice of genuine social protest would no doubt have suffered the same fate as most Albanian writers of talent in the late forties, i.e. internment, imprisonment or execution. His early demise has at least preserved the writer for us undefiled.
The fact that Migjeni did perish so young makes it difficult to provide a critical assessment of his work. Though generally admired, Migjeni is not without critics. Some have been disappointed by his prose, nor is the range of his verse sufficient to allow us to acclaim him as a universal poet. Albanian-American scholar Arshi Pipa (1920-1997) has questioned his very mastery of the Albanian language, asserting: “Born Albanian to a family of Slavic origin, then educated in a Slavic cultural milieu, he made contact again with Albania and the Albanian language and culture as an adult. The language he spoke at home was Serbo-Croatian, and at the seminary he learned Russian. He did not know Albanian well. His texts swarm with spelling mistakes, even elementary ones, and his syntax is far from being typically Albanian. What is true of Italo Svevo’s Italian is even truer of Migjeni’s Albanian.”
Post-war Stalinist critics in Albania rather superficially proclaimed Migjeni as the precursor of socialist realism though they were unable to deal with many aspects of his life and work, in particular his Schopenhauerian pessimism, his sympathies with the West, his repressed sexuality, and the Nietzschean element in Trajtat e Mbinjeriut (The shape of the Superman), a poem conveniently left out of some post-war editions of his verse. While such critics have delighted in viewing Migjeni as a product of ‘pre-liberation’ Zogist Albania, it has become painfully evident that the poet’s ‘songs unsung,’ after half a century of communist dictatorship in Albania, are now more compelling than ever.
Poem of poverty
Poverty, brothers, is a mouthful that’s hard to swallow,
A bite that sticks in your throat and leaves you in sorrow,
When you watch the pale faces and rheumy eyes
Observing you like ghosts and holding out thin hands;
Behind you they lie, stretched out
Their whole lives through, until the moment of death.
Above them in the air, as if in disdain,
Crosses and stony minarets pierce the sky,
Prophets and saints in many colours radiate splendour.
And poverty feels betrayed.
Poverty carries its own vile imprint,
It is hideous, repulsive, disgusting.
The brow that bears it, the eyes that express it,
The lips that try in vain to hide it
Are the offspring of ignorance, the victims of disdain,
The filthy scraps flung from the table
At which for centuries
Some pitiless, insatiable dog has fed.
Poverty has no good fortune, only rags,
The tattered banners of a hope
Shattered by broken promises.
Poverty wallows in debauchery.
In dark corners, together with dogs, rats, cats,
On mouldy, stinking, filthy mattresses,
Naked breasts exposed, sallow dirty bodies,
With feelings overwhelmed by bestial desire,
They bite, devour, suck, kiss the sullied lips,
And in unbridled lust the thirst is quenched,
The craving stilled, and self-consciousness lost.
Here is the source of the imbeciles, the servants and the beggars
Who will tomorrow be born to fill the streets.
Poverty shines in the eyes of the newborn,
Flickers like the pale flame of a candle
Under a ceiling blackened with smoke and spider webs,
Where human shadows tremble on damp stained walls,
Where the ailing infant wails like a banshee
To suck the dry breasts of its wretched mother
Who, pregnant again, curses god and the devil,
Curses the heavy burden of her unborn child.
Her baby does not laugh, it only wastes away,
Unwanted by its mother, who curses it, too.
How sorrowful is the cradle of the poor
Where a child is rocked with tears and sighs.
Poverty’s child is raised in the shadows
Of great mansions, too high for imploring voices to reach
To disturb the peace and quiet of the lords
Sleeping in blissful beds beside their ladies.
Poverty matures a child before its time,
Teaches it to dodge the threatening fist,
The hand which clutches its throat in dreams,
When the delirium of starvation begins
And when death casts its shadow on childish faces,
Instead of a smile a hideous grimace.
While the fate of a fruit is to ripen and fall,
The child is interred not maturing at all.
Poverty labours and toils by day and night,
Chest and forehead drenched in sweat,
Up to the knees in mud and slime,
And still the empty guts writhe in hunger.
Starvation wages! For such a daily ordeal,
A mere three or four leks and an ‘On your way.’
Poverty sometimes paints its face,
Swollen lips scarlet, hollow cheeks rouged,
And body a chattel in a filthy trade.
For service in bed for which it is paid
With a few lousy francs,
Stained sheets, stained face and stained conscience.
Poverty leaves a heritage as well,
Not cash in the bank or property you can sell,
But distorted bones and pains in the chest,
Perhaps leaves the memory of a bygone day
When the roof of the house, weakened by decay,
By age and the weather collapsed and fell,
And above all the din rose a terrible cry
Cursing and imploring, as from the depths of hell,
The voice of a man crushed by a beam.
Under the heel, says the priest, of a god irate
Ends thus the life of a dissolute ingrate.
And so the memory of such misfortunes
Fills the cup of bitterness passed to generations.
Poverty in drink seeks consolation,
In filthy taverns, with dirty, littered tables,
The thirsting soul pours glass after glass
Down the throat to forget its many worries,
The dulling glass, the glass satanic,
Caressing with a venomous bite.
And when, like grain under the scythe, the man falls
To the floor, he giggles and sobs, a tragicomic clown,
And all his sorrow in drink he drowns
When one by one, a hundred glasses downs.
Poverty sets desires ablaze like stars in the night
And turns them to ashes, like trees struck by lightning.
Poverty knows no joy, but only pain,
Pain reducing you to such despair
That you seize the rope and hang yourself,
Or become a poor victim of ‘paragraphs.’
Poverty wants no pity, only justice!
Pity? Bastard daughter of cunning fathers,
Who like the Pharisees, beating the drum
Ostentatiously for their own sly ends,
Drop a penny in the beggar’s hands.
Poverty is an indelible stain
On the brow of humanity through the ages.
And never can this stain be effaced
By doctrines decaying in temples.
The mosques and churches float through our memories,
Prayers devoid of sense or taste echo from their walls.
Never has the heart of god been touched by them,
And yet it beats on amidst the sounds of drums and bells.
Majestic mosques and churches throughout our wretched land,
Spires and minarets towering over lowly homes,
The voice of the hodja and priest in one degenerate chant,
Oh, ideal vision, a thousand years old!
The mosques and churches float through memories of the pious,
The chiming of the bell mingles with the muezzin’s call,
Sanctity shines from cowls and from the beards of hodjas.
Oh, so many fair angels at the gates of hell!
On ancient citadels perch carrion ravens,
Their dejected wings drooping – the symbols of lost hopes,
In despair do they croak of an age gone by
When the ancient citadels once gleamed with hallowed joy.
Song of noble grief
Oh, noble grief of the suffering soul
That into free verse bursts out…
Would you perchance take comfort
In adorning the world with jewels?
Oh, noble grief in free verse,
Which sincerely sounds and resounds,
Will you ever move the feelings of men,
Or wither and die like the autumn leaves?
Oh, song worthy of noble grief…
Never rest! But with your twin,
Lamentation, sing out your suffering,
For time will be your consolation.
Autumn on parade
Autumn in nature and autumn in our faces.
The sultry breeze enfeebles, the glowering sun
Oppresses the ailing spirit in our breasts,
Shrivels the life trembling among the twigs of a poplar.
The yellow colours twirl in the final dance,
(A frantic desire of leaves dying one by one).
Our joys, passions, our ultimate desires
Fall and are trampled in the autumn mud.
An oak tree, reflected in the tears of heaven,
Tosses and bleeds in gigantic passion.
“To live! I want to live!” – it fights for breath,
Piercing the storm with cries of grief.
The horizon, drowned in fog, joins in
The lamentation. In prayer dejected fruit trees
Fold imploring branches – but in vain, they know.
Tomorrow they will die… Is there nowhere hope?
The eye is saddened. Saddened, too, the heart
At the hour of death, when silent fall the veins
And from the grave to the highest heavens soar
Despairing cries of long-unheeded pain.
Autumn in nature and autumn in our faces.
Moan, desires, offspring of poverty,
Groan in lamentation, bewail the corpses,
That adorn this autumn among the withered branches.
A pale-faced nun who with the sins of this world
Bears my sins, too, upon her weary shoulders,
Those shoulders, wan as wax, which some deity has kissed,
Roams the streets like a fleeting angel.
A pale-faced nun, cold as a marble tomb,
With greyish eyes like the ashes of spent desires,
With thin red-ribbon lips, tightly pressed to smother her sighs,
A chilling image of her has lingered in my memory.
From pious prayers she comes and to her prayers she returns.
In downcast eyes, in lips, in folded hands her prayers repose.
Without her prayers what fate would be the world’s?
Yet they cannot stop another day from dawning.
Oh, nun so pale, making love to the saints,
Consumed in ecstasy before them like an altar candle,
Revealing herself to them…, oh, how I envy the saints,
Pray not for me, for I am hell-bent with desire.
You and I, nun, are two ends of a rope,
On which two teams tug one against the other –
The struggle is stern and who knows how it will end,
So, tug the rope, let the teams contend.
In tears have we found consolation…
Our heritage in life has been
Misery… for this whole world
Is but a grave in the universal womb,
Where human reptiles are condemned to creep,
Their will crushed in the grip of a giant.
– An eye adorned in purest tears of profound pain
Shines from the far side of hell,
And at times, the reflection of a fleeting thought
Flashes round the globe
To give vent to awesome wrath.
But the head hangs, the sorrowful eyelids droop
And through the lashes wells a crystal tear,
Rolls down the cheek and splashes on the earth,
And in every splash of a teardrop a man is born
To take to the road of his own destiny.
In the hope of the smallest victory, he roams from land to land,
Over roads covered with brambles, among which he passes
Graves washed in tears and crazy folk who snigger.
On the mercy of the merciless
The little beggar survived.
His life ran its course
In dirty streets,
In dark corners,
In cold doorways,
Among fallacious faiths.
But one day, when the world’s pity dried up
He felt in his breast the stab
Of a new pain, which contempt
Fosters in the hearts
Of the poor.
And – though yesterday a little beggar,
He now became something new.
An avenger of the past,
He conceived an imprecation
To pronounce to the world,
His throat strained
To bring out the word
Which his rage had gripped
And smothered on his lips.
Speechless he sat
At the crossroads,
When the wheels of a passing car
And… silenced him.
Is there the theme of a poem among fading memories,
Among the happy memories of childhood innocence,
When the heart was full of worldly pleasures,
Desires, hopes and ever-sweet dreams?
Is there the fiery theme of a poem of love
Among the lingering memories of eager youth,
With sonorous rhymes and ardent vows,
Full of the lust for life and shouts of mirth?
On the pallid faces of fallen women
Loitering in doorways to sell themselves,
On their faces a tragic poem is carved
In tears and grief that rise to the heavens,
In dark corners where derision reigns
In disgust, and the insane jeer
At their wives and children,
There in revolt great themes await creation.
In hidden corners where fear dwells
And passivity lurks to smother life,
There in betrayal does the theme take its source
And with it, the poet pens his verse.
Throughout man’s life do themes of all kinds
Come and go. Now the ultimate of themes has come,
Frightening in our fantasy – the paling of the face,
An ominous shadow, and the death knell tolls.
For some time now
I have seen clearly
How from suffering my eyes are growing larger,
The furrows in my face and brow are growing deeper,
And my smile has grown bitter…
…and I have come to realize
That the coming days
Will no longer be constructive ones
Of energy and work, but simply the passing
Of a waning life.
With time, I have come to see
How this treacherous life
Each of my senses,
One by one,
Until nothing remains
Of the joy
I once had.
I did not know before
How much I dreaded
But helpless now,
I gaze into the mirror and see
How from suffering my eyes are growing larger,
The furrows in my face and brow are growing deeper,
And that soon I will become
A tattered banner,
Worn and torn
In the battles of life.
Under the banners of melancholy
Of a mournful melancholy
Throughout our land…
Nor can it be said
That here live a people
Who are building
Here and there in the shadow
Of the banners
An effort can be seen,
A gigantic struggle
To triumph over death,
To give birth to something great,
To bring a jinni to light!
But (oh, irony of fate)
From all that labour
Only a mouse is born.
And thus this comedy
Bursts our vein of humour,
And we ourselves
Burst into rage.
Over the threshold of each house
That contains a sign of life
Unfolds its banner.