"HUMANITY SPRINGS INTO EXISTENCE WITH POETRY"
Interview with VISAR ZHITI
Translated from the Albanian
This interview followed the release and publication of a document from the secret state archives of the Communist period, revealing the obscure inner workings of the regime’s repressive organs preceding Visar Zhiti’s arrest and eventual sentencing to thirteen years in prison for the crime of writing poetry which deviated from the Socialist Realism ideal, containing “grave ideological errors” that “distorted” and “blackened reality”. Following a report by Miti Tona, the head of the Press Department at the Naim Frashëri State Publishing Company, the mobilization of these backdoor political channels comprised the involvement of the Politburo all the way up to Ramiz Alia, at the time the Secretary of the Central Committee of the Labor Party.
*Selected passages from the interview were transcribed and adapted for use in print.
Visar Zhiti, you are a well-known personage, a man of letters, writer, ex minister, ex deputy, and a man who has suffered on his back the ordeals and tribulations of the Communist regime.
Nevertheless, these documents, which have received a lot of attention in the media recently, I think were a surprise for you too, although in Albania they might even seem normal.
Thank you for the invitation and kind words. You said, ex deputy, ex minister… I am glad you did not also say ex human. Because a time has come that we may say ex human, too. Or ex friend, ex companion, ex brother, etc. etc.
I mentioned, in fact, that in our country absurdities are happening… And that perhaps to you these documents may not seem that absurd, although you may have remained surprised yourself.
It is as you say… [pauses] It is about the documents that were revealed in the Albanian Newspaper a few days ago…
Yes, they have to do with Ramiz Alia signing off your conviction.
Yes, I saw that he examined the poetry of some authors sent by the Naim Frashëri State Publishing Company, and according to the orientations of the publisher they are poems that do not live up to the socialist realism ideal, perverted poems that sow confusion, according to them, etc etc. The greatest surprise is that it was the Central Committee and the highest Party echelons that concerned themselves with this. And they did not deal with it in any good sense but in the sense of punishing this creation, and even the Ministry of Internal Affairs would get involved. This was the bewilderment and the terror of their apparatus, that even the most innocent and beautiful thing such as poetry – for there is no people, no human being who can live without poetry – is persecuted. Humanity springs into existence with poetry. And if poetry ends, humanity ends with it. And in this sense, for poetry to be oppressed in this manner along with those who produced it, this is a real destitution…
On the other hand, seeing the subsequent reality in which neither the poet nor his poetry hold any of their previous importance, this is still a recognition, albeit an ominous recognition. Thus, the state is concerned about the literary production. The response, then, is terrible; that these people must be punished, that they must not write or they will become dangerous. The danger were they themselves, not the poetry that we wrote…
Doubtless they wanted to protect themselves. They understood perhaps that they were themselves the danger.
Yes, that… I like this, that you say they understood it—I don’t think they understood this fully, but they had their helpers who made them understand it. And so, if poets were punished, I would say that the commentary or the alarm at the Central Committee came also from the intellectuals. Because the examination was not done by some officer or policeman the way he would investigate someone who breaks windows in the street. This is the diabolical work of colleagues, which means that intellectuals were oppressed with the help of intellectuals, poets with the help of poets, writers with with the help of writers, because they were the ones who raised the alarm, that this poetry was so and so.
Perhaps we come this way to that famous saying that the struggle within the kind is terrible and deadly?
Look, these things happen everywhere, but the system should not encourage this type of conduct. This is natural. And I have recently read a contemporary sociologist who says that oftentimes envy in professional fields, including here artists and writers, is camouflaged behind ideology and you attack the other not because he is better than you, you can’t express it like that, but ideologically he is wrong, and so they hide their envy this way. He takes the example of Freud, who was envied by his colleagues for his achievements. But they could not say, “he is abler than us”, and so they said “he is a Jew and must be punished”. And so, in this sense it is the system, the apparatus of violence that is more at fault than particular individuals. Nevertheless, everyone is responsible for one’s own actions.
Did these documents surprise you or were you expecting things to be this way? Because ultimately, you have suffered the afflictions on your back, but perhaps more surprising was the manner in which this was done, or what was written, what was said?
The punishment, of course, was severe and when you have known that, nothing astonishes you anymore. Nevertheless, this still holds a certain mystification. Because I was young, we’re talking about a time when I was about twenty years old. I had just finished my studies to become a teacher, I was teaching in a remote village. And in this isolated place, a young unknown teacher who writes poetry… in fact, I sometimes wondered if the village barber knew me, let alone my name to be mentioned at the Central Committee.
And this shows that unity of which they spoke, the Party-people unity which apparently existed, but in the bad sense. It was an infernal unity that much rather did not exist. And so, when things are used backwardly, a diabolical thing like this is dreadful.
It is eerie, a unity that buries people.
It buries itself, too. It’s only a matter of time. I fell in ’79, they fell in ’99 (sic), the system fell, the whole Communist Empire. And so, wishing to bury others – in fact, there are no others, it’s only us – the grave they dug belonged to us all.
Precedents of conflict between your family and the regime had existed even before; you were not the only one in your family to personally have known persecution. Your whole family was well acquainted with their methods, starting from your uncle in ’44.
My family was not the only one. Others have been slaughtered and buried worse still…
Certainly. Under these conditions, however, in this familial situation, did you have issues with your schooling?
What happened was what they called the class struggle, which supposedly is the engine of history. This is what we learned in our Marxist-Leninist courses. And the class struggle would continue, it would not stop until Communism came. But this struggle intensifies or weakens. It is a dreadful thing to place hate, class struggle as the engine of the progress of history. A good world, a human world has love as the engine of movement. We grew up in a system whose engine was fueled by hate, by class struggle. This conflict, however, eased off every now and then. It eased off not for our benefit but because it served them for whatever reason. And at this period, what is known as the spring of ’72, I gained the right to study.
The level of the war had abated somewhat, they had let their guard down, perhaps Hoxha was sick in his bed and did not know some things. The 11th festival happened, etc, etc. And when he came around and saw that there was a whole festival without songs for the Party or verses for him, he was rattled.
After that the terrible Fourth Plenum took place, the “Black Plenum” in which art was attacked, works of art, artists; books were burned, and readers were punished, too, not only authors. And so, Albania was the only place which banished books… the book itself as material. Books were burned or sent to the paper factory… I lived in Lushnje at the time and at the factory often came books that were to become pulp, recycled to become paper again, in other words, forgetfulness would flow again over them, because forgetfulness is white, they would be converted again to white paper.
In the meantime, to touch precisely on that part of your life, which may be difficult to remember…
Nothing is difficult now…
It has become normal!
Difficult are those who make things difficult.
You were a young man teaching, you really loved your students. You loved teaching, as your father and uncle had done before you, you had inherited this love of teaching.
I have always enjoyed work, whatever it was. In general I have worked well no matter the job, even as a slave. I have cultivated the cult of work.
How did the moment come? Where were you? What happened?
I was in Kukës, it was the eighth of November. I had been teaching four or five years in a very remote village between Kukës and Peshkopija. But because it was a holiday I had taken my leave. November eight was a holiday because it was the anniversary of the foundation of the Communist Party. According to an unwritten law that I learned later in prison, or so it was rumored, they did not make arrests on holidays. Only in flagrant cases, when someone was captured crossing the border or some other violation, but there were no arrests for agitprop, though apparently…
In your case they disregarded their own rule.
No, they often did the opposite of what was said. And I was arrested at noon in eight November in the middle of the city. I was with a friend, the director of the Puppet Theater. We were discussing the possibility of writing a piece for a puppet show when the infernal puppets of our regime of hell came and arrested me. Why? “We’ll tell you later”. They handcuffed me and threw me in their car, the dreadful (Chinese) Gaz that still comes to mind from time to time, and they performed that ritual of checking the collar of my jacket for any hidden poison I might have, so that when I was captured I might commit the ultimate heroic gesture. But I had not committed any crime, I just wrote poetry… in fact, at that moment I didn’t even know I was being arrested for poetry.
You had no idea what this was about?
I can’t say that I had no inkling at all.
You had sensed it somewhat…
The anxiety perhaps… but that is something that everyone must have felt because it was that kind of system…
The fear that one might make a mistake?
Not merely a mistake but it was the kind of system, which, as we said, relied on class struggle, on hate—a system which, as it produced grain, it had to produce also enemies, and sometimes it was not possible to know on whom it would fall to be this product, save for those who were conscious of it and had done something in that direction. But in a way, I had no strong awareness that with my poetry I was bringing about some calamity. However, the suspicion existed, and so…
Was there anyone who read your poetry, did you have any critique, someone who may have told you ‘don’t write like this’?
Yes, and some of my poems had already been published. I had also sent a book to the publisher, and the replies came, saying ‘what are these ideological errors?’ etc, etc. ‘review them again’… And I did review them, but in a way it’s not that I did not make any changes, but not the kind of changes that I would no longer be in them. Until the whole thing came before the Central Committee, to the point that, as the journalist Dashnor Kaloçi writes, Ramiz Alia forced half the politburo to sign off my conviction.
Were you not held back when receiving these responses?
Of course I was. I had doubts, anxieties. Sometimes, seeing the operative walk around, I would think to myself, what if he is here for me? But this was a Kafkaesque guilt—you can’t fully comprehend that in totalitarian systems you are guilty without culpability. Everyone must have lived with this kind of doubt. Yet, I always thought, I don’t know, I’m just writing poems. If they don’t like them they don’t have to publish them. But the hand can never be corrected with handcuffs. My poems were not political tracts.
In the meanwhile, we are at the moment of your arrest. You were immediately taken in their car. And so your travails began. They took you to the police station in Kukës. What was that like? Were you informed of why you were being arrested? Did they tell you?
Eventually they did. The cells in Kukës were underground. The windows, if I can call them that, because they were just a small hole in the shape of a rectangle, were at the same height as the ground. And the cell itself was lower, with a wooden floor, but there were also cells that were narrower and in more deplorable conditions. I have seen cells in which the floorboards were rotten, with rats scurrying about and insects crawling in which you would be afraid to fall asleep. Now and then one could hear screams, shrieks… you could understand that someone was being tortured. Almost my entire interrogation was conducted during the night, they did not take me during the day, I don’t know why, only at night.
Maybe they wanted to keep you in a state of exhaustion so as to surrender more easily.
It was one theory. Indeed, I have learned later that almost all the arrests for agitprop against the state were done on the eve of winter because in the dungeons winter awaits as yet another torture, a great chill…
They were professional torturers.
Indeed. And at first they asked what I had done. I said, “What have I done!? My job, teaching.” –“What have you done? Do you think we would arrest you without reason?” –“But tell me, what have I done?” Finally, they told me, “agitation and propaganda.” –“But this is my job,” I replied, “I am a teacher. That’s what a teacher does, agitation and propaganda.” –“No,” they said, “you have done it against us.” –“Who are you?” I asked. Then they became revolted, and nearly assailed me physically: “Who are we? We are the security organs, the Department of Internal Affairs. And you have done agitation in different places and times, we have proof. If you confess you will be treated more leniently.”
Sometimes the whole thing seemed like those absurdities we’d hear in the radiotheaters, the stories of what the communists themselves suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Things repeated themselves; the ruler and the subjugated remain always the same. And, in the end, there came a point when they told me that “all your crime, your hostility, your desire to overthrow the people’s power, all your wickedness consists in your poems: You have written bad poems. And you have written them not because you don’t know how, but because you don’t want to.”
“You have written them on purpose.”
Yes, “you have written them on purpose because the Party has sent you to school. And since it has given you education, you ought to know how to do the right poetry. This is how you are thanking us, and so you are dangerous and we’ll punish you.”
Those cells were terrifying, you said it yourself just now. Were you alone or did you have any friends?
No, alone. During the interrogation they don’t allow you to communicate with anyone. Or at most they will bring in a friend who is not your friend but theirs. They may bring in the informer. Which means, those who don’t know will pay.
Were there instances of provocation?
Yes, I’ve also had my provocateur… A book by Dostoevsky which I had read before I went to prison helped me immensely, though. It was a publication of Kosovo, Memoirs From the House of the Dead.
This reading was for you a sort of schooling, too, a preparation of sorts.
It gave me something to rehearse on what I had read about the Nazis, the informers, their tactics, and such things. There, inside the cell, I called out to myself, I sounded an inner alarm, so to speak, that what you have read, what you know, call them now to your help. Indeed, even this appeal to myself of how I would communicate with the monster in front of me, it was questions such as these, “Should I do Qemal Stafa against the fascist trial? Or Dimitrov against Göring? They are unforgiving,” I thought. “They will destroy you if you play that game. Should I do Hamlet and play dumb so the murderer king would not discover him?” I thought, “They are more deranged themselves. They will not allow you to go insane.”
Perhaps the thing that might be of more help in that situation was Schweik. His naiveté. And so I decided to work with the Schweikian phraseology, let’s say. This was just to push through the day, not to avoid conviction. That was already decided with Ramiz Alia above. They had made it clear, your hostility is verified, we have proof, everything. Material evidence, verbal statements, etc. What we are doing here is simply the costume we’ll cut for you when you go to court. So everything was decided. My condemnation had already been sealed with that document in the Central Committee.
But the idea is not for us to just tell stories and draw no lesson from them, because if all that suffering remains just a story, it means nothing. It must become experience, it must become a lesson, and I think that its lesson is also this; that Ramiz Alia did not know me, he had no idea who I was and had no way to read my poetry. Someone brought it to him. In this regard, it must be said that the Party-people unity was terrible. This was a unity in the evil sense. This is the lesson that I draw from it, at least, from the documents that were published a few days ago.
I would like to remain in the prison years. Even though you were convicted for your poetry, you did not give up on it.
That would have been the same as giving up on life.
They were equal for you, poetry and life?
But there is a reason for living, goddammit. There is a reason, and you may take this reason away but as long as I am alive I will defend it. And I wrote poems even in prison. In the beginning only in my mind because I had no pen and paper, they were not allowed…
Didn’t they search you?
Inside my mind they could not search. They strove to do it. In fact, when they would take me to the interrogation room, sometimes… To me the interrogator seemed like an empty thing. Because when he would ask his questions I would think to myself, “what do I care about that?” I was searching for some rhyme, because my isolation had given me another world, I had no more universe outside. I was in my labyrinth, at the bottom of my self, and everything else seemed meaningless. Because my detention was not one week or one month. It was nine months. To be swallowed inside those cyclopean walls for that long, one forgets the world outside. And when he would ask “what have you done?” to me he seemed like a meaningless being. Terrifying, of course, but meaningless. “What have I done!?” –“Explain this,” he would say. –“What do I care about that? I am trying to find a rhyme that escapes me.” That seemed more important to me, to the point that he once asked, “Why are your eyes shining like that? What is that insane spark in your eyes, have you gone insane?”
That is terrifying. He was attempting to enter in your head…
Yes, and he would ask sometimes, “Have you gone insane? What do you do there in your cell?” And he would ask the guard what I was doing in my cell. “I don’t know”, the guard would say, “he sits.” But I was searching inside me for rhymes, I was searching for verses, for metaphors… In fact, I was searching for my own survival. And in this sense, if I began to create, I deluded myself into believing that I am doing it in order to testify to what was happening. Then, I convinced myself that I must leave my testimony because I am being convicted as a poet, for a book of poetry. But then where is my testimony? They took my book, they erased it, they did what they wished with it. And in the meanwhile I was not able to be there wholly with my fate. I said that I was there with my metaphors. And so by being closed in, I opened up. I opened up in rapport with myself and the future, if there was going to be a future at all. I was writing the poetry of tomorrow in the sense that I am confessing the present for tomorrow. And I was quite certain that even if they seized it, they would document it, would archive it, would insert them in their files. And so, they would remain in a way.
Why wouldn’t they be burned or shredded?
That too was possible. It could happen, the flames could take them. And then, what would happen is this, that the more letters are burned in the fire, the more incendiary the letters. Another would come who would do even more. And in this sense, I understood that in there I was creating the living emotion of the human being. This was the most important thing. At the moment when I wrote or when I read I was no longer in prison. I was as every creator, no different than the one who writes in Paris, or the one who writes in Moscow, or the one who writes in New York, or the one who writes in the prison of Spaç, because the moment of creation is divine.
You were comfortable in a way, even there in those extreme conditions. Or perhaps detached.
It was a state. It was not a tangible reality, it was a condition. And so, I was creating my own condition, my freedom, my poetry. And this was the miracle of that place. This was my salvation, if indeed I was saved. And in this sense I started writing even in prison with my friends, reading it to very close companions. So, if there were about 1200 inmates, maybe no more than twenty may have read my poems throughout my time in prison.
People you believe to have been trusted companions…
Not “believed”. They were so. I remember a friend in prison, the writer Zyhdi Morava, who used to say, “in prison experience cannot help you. Because you may do something and they will arrest you, and it serves you nothing. What serves you is your intuition, you need intuition.” My intuition lead me to them. It was a stroke of good fortune that I was not denounced by anyone. Because if that had happened, I would have been re-arrested, one or two poems would have been filed with the charges and the rest would have been burned. As in fact they confiscated 39 notebooks and journals from me which I don’t know where they are. And so I am immensely grateful to those who read my poems, and who protected them. Because the people who used to read in prison or who were known to have more education were searched more often and without warning by the police. The guard could stop you as you were passing and search your pockets and your opingas, because there were no shoes allowed there. And he would ask you where your bed was – your bed being a couple of wood-boards in a room of 52 people – and he would slit your mattress to see if you had hidden any notebooks. And sometimes they were hidden in mattresses, opingas, or the food sack. But sometimes we trusted it to someone who was suspected less. In prison there were illiterate people who were convicted for agitation and propaganda. I remember a shepherd from Libohova who couldn’t read or write that offered to hide my poems, my notebooks. A marvelous act. And he would hide them in a place that not even I knew. Because if they questioned me and said “you have written poetry, we know, someone has reported you, where are they?” and I would say “Ilmi has them” – because that was his name – Ilmi would say, “No, he’s lying. Where are they?” Then, after some time he would give them to me and hide those of someone else, and so on.
You were able to salvage some of them…
I was lucky to smuggle out all of them. So, my poems were luckier than me. We were transferred from the prison camp of Spaç, because it had by then become known around the world. The revolt had happened – the first revolt in Communist prisons, and the first to raise the flag without the Communist star – and this camp was condemned. Imagine now to be condemned in a condemned camp. And the conditions were very severe. It was the time when a certain liberalization was taking place around the world and so Albania had to undo the labor camp of Spaç (which reflected bad on them), and they sent us to an even more severe one; the prison of Qafë Bari is ice cold, but the local police came from an ordinary jail and did not have the vigilance and training of the jail guards in Spaç.
And so, in a meeting with my family, I asked my mother if they searched them on their way out. She said no. I asked her if I could give her something, and she said yes. So I removed my opinga, I had wrapped the notebook in a dirty piece of cloth so they would be disgusted and would not search it, and my mother hid it in her bosom. Or at times my brother would hide them in his inside pocket. I have learned later about their anguish, their fear of every uniform they saw on the street.
The notebooks were gathered thus, and then my brother in law, who was a mechanic in the paper factory in Lushnja where the books were turned again to paper, made a metallic box where they placed my prison notebooks and they buried them. They gave them to me when I came out. Most of them have been published. I have not published a part of them because I did not wish to burden my books. In the first book, The Memory of the Air, I have inserted only one chapter, maybe one sixth or one seventh of it with prison poems. Then, in every book I have had one chapter of prison poems. I only have one whole book with prison poems, I Throw a Skull at your Feet. Albania, I write in that book, is like a Hamlet holding in its hands the skull of its prisons. Since I came out, however, I have not written one single poem about prison.
During the prison years, we touched briefly on this, you have had many companions and friends.
Yes. It is a place where many lifelong friends will be found. There you share the burden of the prison, the fears…
Yes, undoubtedly. Maybe you were lucky to have had around also other writers?
There are no more writers there. There the difference ends, things become equal. As the Romans say that death makes everyone equal, so does prison. There are no writers there. There are numbered creatures, all with shaved heads, with opingas everyone, better fed than the peasants in the cooperatives because they will send them underground in the coal mines, and they need the strength to stand up and push the wagon… there are no writers there. But in those depths, in those abysses there remains that last burning candle, and so the light finds the light, the word finds the word, the fear finds fear… and thus one climbs to the next day.
A moment ago you asked me to stop talking about prison…
It would be preferable.
To forget it, to leave it aside.
Let us remember it so that it may no longer be that way.
And to draw a lesson from it. So that the younger generations may know it, in fact, because they know very little of it. But I don’t know, I don’t see any resentment in you, any desire for revenge.
No, I have both resentment and the instinct for revenge. I have them both.
It is not noticeable, though.
My literature is my revenge. My books are my vengeance.
How distant my night is
from your night!
Between them other nights rise unsurpassable as mountains.
I set the road after you. It could not find you and
worn out it came back to me.
I set free the roebuck of my song. But
the hunters shot it down, and bleeding
it came back to me.
The wind does not know the way. Raveled in thick woods
and spelean torments it came back to me–
A torrential rain falls, robbed of hope…
Tomorrow at dawn, shall I launch the rainbow
to go looking for you? Alas, the rainbow - naïve as joy -
cannot cross but one mountain.
Alone I shall set out into the night.
I shall search, I shall search, I shall search
like the hand groping in the darkness of this room
to find the extinguished candle.
(Qafë-Bari prison camp, 1983)