Monday, November 7, 2011

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
Robert Carver “THE ACCURSED MOUNTAINS –  Journeys in Albania” (first published 1998)

There are ways and ways of writing about places. There is the scientific, statistical socio-historical way of the “Caversham Project” and its books such as An Accidental Utopia?  And then there are the descriptive, impressionistic, anecdotal autobiographical ways of the travel book. So in extreme contrast with this week’s Something New, allow me to plunge into an excellent travel book as this week’s Something Old. An excellent travel book about a miserable place.

Robert Carver, English-teacher, journalist and graduate of the University of Durham, travelled to Albania in 1996. He crossed the small country from south to north, passing through the capital Tirana and concluding his journey in the “accursed mountains” up next to the Serbian border and the province of Kossovo.

At the time, Communism had already fallen and the genocidal regime of Enver Hoxha was often publicly reviled. But it was clear to Carver that the Democrat regime that had taken over was as much dependent on cronyism and tribalism as the Communist regime had been. Indeed, on his journey, Carver rapidly learnt that ideological labels meant little.

Albania was (and is) still essentially a tribal society which hadn’t yet even reached the organizing principle of effective feudalism. The dominant mode of social interaction in the country was the blood feud between different “fis”, or family groups, and the pattern of the country’s history was one of ruthless authoritarian leaders trying to control tribal anarchy by organized state brutality – in succession the Ottoman Empire, Ali Pasha, King Zog, Mussolini’s Fascists and Enver Hoxha’s Communists.

As Carver reports it, the result of all this is an Albanian population which at once hates all government, but still expects government to take responsibility for everything. They have never had the chance to learn what a civil society and its duties are, or how much effort and time it takes to build a civil society.

In 1996, Carver observes Albanians who dream of living off Western hand-outs and generous IMF grants to post-Communist countries, but who never use those hand-outs for anything like real national development. Instead, they become part of the personal fortunes of tribal leaders. This leads Carver to boil over with rage at the sort of “aid” which makes beggars of whole countries.

In his epilogue, Carver reiterates that his journey was undertaken in 1996, before the collapse of the Democrat government in 1997, a new round of anarchic civil war, a new quasi-Communist government and the new closing of the borders. The landscape he presents is one of ruins, beggars, armed thugs, poverty, dirt, the sound of gunfire every night, routine official dishonesty, routine bribes to police etc. It is so unrelievedly grim that it almost becomes funny.

Carver is both surprised and delighted when he meets the rare Albanian who makes an honest assessment of his situation, or who has developed a sense of personal responsibility. Surprisingly, one who impresses him most is a still-Communist mayor and guide, who at least shows some expertise in his work. Even more surprisingly, the agnostic Carver says positive things about German and American evangelical Christian missionaries he encounters. They are, as he sees it, at least in the business of teaching Albanians that they are answerable for their own actions.

There is one blemish to this well-written book. Very occasionally, some of Carver’s English snobberies peep through, or he tells us self-importantly how he was the first Westerner to visit a certain location in decades. Regrettably, too, when he reaches the “accursed mountains”, he does a little rhapsodising about the lack of modernity and the alluring oriental scene. To me, this sounds like the indulgence of somebody who knows he doesn’t have to actually live there, and will soon be on the plane back to London.

But I quibble. These blemishes don’t torpedo the book.

Dare I add a specifically New Zealand note to this sad, desperate and very well-written journey?

Even those who haven’t studied it closely know that in its dying days, New Zealand’s tiny and insignificant “official”  Communist Party (consisting of a few dozen people), having broken with post-Stalin Russia, and having broken with Mao’s China, promoted Enver Hoxha’s Albania as its ideal model. Apparently, in Communist Albania, there was the perfect welfare state, the peasant and worker masses were happy, there was a universal pension scheme and peace and contentment reigned. I’m not exaggerating. I have examined in archives the four or five years worth of the New Zealand Communist paper The People’s Voice in which this fantasy was perpetrated.

Delusions about the Soviet Union and Communist China were bad enough. But delusions about a sordid, grubby, brutal, poverty-wracked Balkan statelet like Albania? Flipping heck. The word surreal is inadequate.

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