The Albanian Affairs

by Susana Fortes

translated by Leland H. Chambers

Published by McPherson and Company

172 pages, 2006




Double Morality Ethos

Reviewed by Pedro Blas Gonzalez

Novels set in totalitarian countries always possess a closed-room, double morality ethos that few people in open societies can begin to imagine. These works depict a bare bones realism that more often than not is nothing less than a test of survival. Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in response to the brutality of Chinese Communism. Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984 are tales of totalitarian doublethink and Soviet examples of the "party pigs who are more equal than their brother pigs." Zamyatin's We and Witkiewicz's Insatiability, too, are dystopias set in the pale light of totalitarian regimes.

The themes, plots and characterization of such novels play out under rules that have everything to do with the sinister vagaries of the staple realpolitik which informs totalitarianism. Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Cancer Ward and The Gulag Archipelago quickly come to mind.

The Albanian Affairs takes place during Enver Hoxha's iron rule of Albania from World War II to 1985. Regardless of the names Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro or Hoxha, the reality in these totalitarian, Kafkaesque systems of social/political control is always the same: dastard, infrahuman repression.

Spanish writer, Susana Fortes', The Albanian Affairs, is the first of her novels to be translated into English. The novel was runner-up for the 2003 Planeta Prize for Fiction, winning $172,000 in the process.

Two brothers, Viktor and Ismail, find their loyalties spread thin between family and allegiance to the asphyxiating, multi-tentacled reach of the government. The fanatical fervor exhibited by this plotline is a common feature of this novelistic form of storytelling. Highly realistic and telling in its ability to capture this Dantesque moral/spiritual inferno, the novel readily depicts the brutality of the two paths that the brothers must choose: alienating resistance, or modish, tyrannical complicity. Thematically, The Albanian Affairs is comparable to the novels of the Cuban writer, Reynaldo Arenas.

Viktor and Ismail's father, Zanum Radjik, is a national hero. Their mother died mysteriously. The younger of the two, Ismail, was only five years old at the time. Now his brother, Viktor, who is his father's favorite, has introduced his young peasant wife, Helena, to their childhood home. Viktor is a soldier and Ismail has the sensibility and temperament of a poet. This makes the brothers diametrically opposed in character and in the way that they assuage the reality dictated by the overbearing, ever-present eye of the regime. It also explains the favoritism that Zanum displays toward Viktor.

The drama is propelled by Ismail's affair with his brother's wife, his longing to know the fate of his long ago departed mother, and his search for the truth concerning her death. It is at this point when the plot displays an uncanny parallel between Ismail and Helena's affair: Viktor, the government official, suspecting a betrayal by both his brother and his wife, as well as the death of their mother.

Actually the plot coagulates, as they say, when we understand that their mother, a Spaniard by birth, had an affair with the family doctor, Gjorg, who happens to be Zanum's friend. Thus, the "affairs" found in the title of the novel. Having found out, Zanum has the doctor arrested and subsequently "disappeared." After all, this is Albania, a ruthless communist country where might is always right. Given the regime in which they live, this affair between Ismail and Helena becomes the stuff of life and death. Ismail and Helena cannot escape the possibility that they may face a tragic end as well. | March 2007

Pedro Blas Gonzalez is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Barry University in Miami, Florida. Amongst his intellectual pursuits is his interest in the relationship that exists between subjectivity, self-autonomy and philosophy.