Ornela Vorpsi - The Country Where No One Ever Dies
I would like to dedicate this book to the word “humility,”
which does not exist in the Albanian lexicon.
Its absence can give rise to some rather curious phenomena
in the destiny of a nation.
There are some authors whose opening pages immediately strike a chord, their sentences and paragraphs clear and strong, propelled forward by the force of the writer's talent. In the American literature, Saul Bellow possessed this to a great extent (“I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way”), and Philip Roth, too, knows how to take hold of the reader from the first and never let go until the last. I find that W. G. Sebald, in his own melancholic way, jettisons me to a strange, somewhat hazy world from his opening sentences, and Kafka, perhaps more than any author, is able to draw the reader further into his nightmares quicker. There are others, certainly, but a list is not necessary to make the argument. Ornela Vorpsi, though she is very different to each of the four authors mentioned, possesses such a talent. From the first, I was willing to allow her to take me wherever she wished. I became convinced of the immortality of Albanians immediately, and I knew that, no matter where her debut novel, The Country Where No One Ever Dies, was to go, I was happy to be led there. Vorpsi is, in short, a writer, and one with a striking, intense voice.
There is a scene, early on, when one of the narrators finds a number of old postcards in the basement. She notes, “Time had gnawed at their edges; they had turned yellow and smelled of mold due to the dampness.” Albania, in its own way, is like these postcards, all gnawed and old. Time, we learn as we read, has hollowed out the important essence of Albania, its core, and in the centre now there is nothing. People live on dreams, feeding their spirits simultaneously on the delusions of grandeur their Party propaganda tells them of the glory of Albania, while lusting after Italian actresses and American models.
The novella is narrated as a series of fragmented chapters. At times, 'Ornela' is the narrator, alternately a young girl and a young woman. Other times she has a different name, and the character's biography changes a little, but their voice is the same. These girls observe their family and country through eyes concerned with love and lust, and are aware of (though unable to explain) the ironies of Communist rule. The chapters are vignettes, often quite small, and sometimes read as notes taken from something larger, more grand – the writing of a life, perhaps. At any rate, these narrators slowly introduce us to their family, their school, and the peculiar impositions placed upon them by the Party. As we flit back and forth, the make-up of a nation becomes clearer. These scenes, haphazardly arranged but carefully selected by the author, build on themes and, in later chapters, act as refrains for the ironies and contradictions inherent in such a confused state. Albania is old, and carries with it the scars, stories, and embellishments of the grandparent.
In a country where no one ever dies, it stands to reason, then, that Vorpsi's story is filled with death. Here death is – an inconvenience. It always happens to someone else, and if it does happen to you, well, you are another person's someone else anyway. There are many suicides, and women often die from strange, obscure problems we suspect are related, at least tangentially, to their acceptance of, and enjoyment from, sexual intercourse. Men are carried away by the Party, sent to jail for obscurely defined crimes, or they are brutally 'taken care of'. Indeed, when one woman's husband dies at a young age, she is told bluntly that “I know your husband was quite young, but death isn't too particular.” And these are the only words of consolation, and this from her doctor, who has just stabbed her husband in the calf with his scalpel, to prove he is truly dead.
The Country Where No One Ever Dies is a novella concerned with the sexuality of women, and how that plays out in a male-dominated society like Albania's. The narrator notes early on that,
A man can wash with a bar of soap and be clean, but a girl can never be pure again, no matter how much water she uses – not even a whole ocean's worth.
She is terrified of falling pregnant, and recognises that a woman is either a whore – which is good for the man using her, but bad for her – or not a whore, which means she is a withered up old stick. Either way, it is how the man perceives the woman that is important. She rebels against this, not quite knowing how to articulate why this is wrong, but sensing it must be true. Why must she be a whore? Why, if she hasn't done anything with a man (and hasn't even seen his 'thing' in his pants), are her family members referring to her as a whore, let alone the people in the street? She thinks,
The thought of my swollen belly was terrifying. Do you know Bosch's paintings? The anguish and madness on the faces, and the bodies of the fallen pressed together like souls in hell? Yes, I could see it clearly: a brownish and dark-red mass, brimming with scraps of organic refuse, with me as its container. You can't hide a swollen belly, and you can't crawl out of your own skin. You're marked.
The narrators in this story realise this is not fair, and not right, but they aren't able to take that next step toward full emancipation. They are within the system of their nation, and are only able to move within its strictly defined parameters. At the least, they recognise this as wrong.
At times, Vorpsi makes the clumsy mistakes of the first time novelist. She too awkwardly inserts references to authors and thinkers, such as in the following paragraph:
Some of the things she read were hard to believe. In one book (was it Maupassant?), the main character, an adolescent girl, discovered blood between her thighs one days, and ran away thinking she was going to die.
It seems hardly fair to comment negatively when someone loves Maupassant enough to mention them, but this sort of intrusion tells us more about what Vorpsi is reading rather than her characters. This type of clumsy insertion happens irregularly, but often enough that it is noticed. These distractions break the character's believability, and, even though we can accept them as a stand-in for the author herself (who is, obviously, quite a reader), their insertion jars.
To return to a positive note, as the novel continues the critique of the Albanian Communist Party grows in strength and acidity. Vorpsi, writing from outside Albania, is positioned well to take on the tragedies of its post-WWII history. One narrator, living in a barracks and training for war with wooden weapons, thinks:
It's true, I have to arm myself. But the weapons I arm myself with only lead to new questions. Even though I've lost the courage to ask the (the enemy would probably take advantage of my questions and profit from the resulting insinuations). There's no alternative but for me to believe – just like you have to believe that two times two makes four.
The American imperialists, the Russian chauvinists, the mighty Italian and French capitalists – they're all just waiting for the chance to invade, to destroy our perfect country, which has divided all its land in the spirit of equality, which has done away with the class struggle – our perfect country which is free of class distinctions and which has given rise to the most progressive society in the history of man.
Ah, Albania! Vorpsi's narrator realises early that no story is ever presented whole, and what's more, she is willing to let the situation speak for itself. Here, Vorpsi's ear is impeccable – to include a paragraph or two of skepticism on the part of the narrator would be to destroy the delicious irony of Albania's sad and sorry state.
The chapters, which fluctuate along an inconclusive timeline, and involve changing protagonists (slightly different names, slightly different biographies, slightly different supplementary characters), when stitched together offer a remarkably consistent view of Communist Albania through the eyes of an intelligent young woman. Sexuality is a key theme, as is death, and their couplings make for the preoccupation of the novel. Vorpsi has captured a time and a place in a manner which is both fragmented and concrete, allowing us a glimpse into the strange, time-ravaged land of Albania.
||The Country Where No One Ever Dies
(Original Title: Il paese dove non si muore mai)
||Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck
||The Dalkey Archive Press|
List of title published by The Dalkey Archive Press under review
Note that an extract from The Country Where No One Ever Dies is reproduced in the Best European Fiction 2010 Series. This review, however, is of the whole novel, and not the extract, which will not be reviewed. This review could, in a pinch, be considered as part of the Best European Fiction 2010 Series, but also stands on its own feet.