The condemned apple
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The Condemned Apple is quite simply the most disturbing collection of poetry I've ever read. Visar Zhiti was born on 2 December 1952 in the port of Durres on the Adriatic coast. Between 1970 and 1973 his first published poems appeared in literary periodicals. By 1973 Visar was preparing his first collection of poems, Rhapsody of the life of roses. Pretty standard stuff so far. If he'd lived in Ireland or Britain, Visar might have gone on to be nominated for a Forward Prize or some such, or been invited to showcase his first collection at The Ledbury Festival or Cúirt. Or he might have been ignored, and if this happened he would, no doubt, have complained about it to his friends. Such is the poet's life. At least as we have come to know it.
But Visar Zhiti didn't live in Brighton or Galway; he lived in a country under the absolute rule of the fanatical Stalinist, Enver Hoxha, who made Nicolae Ceausescu look like a benign liberal. Hoxha was a crank of gargantuan proportions. After first falling out with the Soviet Union, when Khrushchev admitted that Stalin had actually made a mistake or two, Hoxha then proceeded to fall out with the Chinese when, after Mao's death, they called a halt to the so called 'Cultural Revolution' and put the Gang of Four - including Mao's wife Jiang Qing - on trial. He condemned the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China (and all their satellites from Cuba to North Korea) as "bourgeois revisionists". By the mid-1970s Albania had broken off diplomatic and economic contact with the rest of the communist world, it was now officially "the only socialist country in the world". It was also probably the second worst place in the world to live. In terms of grim Stalinist brutality, only Pol Pot outstrips the Albanian regime.
It was hardly the ideal circumstances in which to be publishing a first collection of poems. Zhiti had just submitted the manuscript of his first collection to the Naim Frasheri publishing company, when the 'Purge of the Liberals' happened at the Plenary Session of the Communist Party in Tirana. That the 'Liberals' in question only existed in Enver Hoxha's imagination was neither here nor there; they had to be purged anyway. And Zhiti suffered as a result. His work was interpreted as "blackening socialist reality". In 1979 two members of the League of Writers and Artists - their names are abbreviated here to R.V. and P.K - prepared an "expert opinion" on the poetic works of Visar Zhiti, at the request of the Ministry of the Interior. The two lackeys dutifully handed over their 12-page "expert opinion" to the authorities on 24 October 1979. Two weeks later Visar Zhiti was arrested. He was finally released on 28 January 1987, having done the rounds of the Albanian gulags, including the hellish copper mines at Spac.
This "expert opinion" is republished in full at the back of the book. It makes chilling reading, in particular because its vehement denunciation of the "obscure language" and "hermetic" nature of some of Zhiti's poems reminds me of things I've actually heard socialist friends - some of them now former friends - say about the works of poets such as Medbh McGuckian and John Ashbery. Much left-wing literary criticism, particularly as it appears in the small press, is still laced with Stalinist attitudes. These days there are few overt Stalinists left, but there are certainly those on the literary left who talk Trotsky – "no party line when it comes to art", and all that - but act Stalin when dealing with poetry which doesn't appear to serve the cause. Bad and all as things are, those of us who live in the Western world are at least still basically free to write whatever we want. Our poems may languish mostly ignored - that's a different issue - but at least Medbh McGuckian is not in danger of being denounced by the Ministry for the Interior for not being Adrian Mitchell or Linton Kwesi Johnson. Having condemned Visar Zhiti for the obscurity of some of his poems; R.V. and P.K of the League of Writers and Artists then go on to roundly condemn him for clearly saying what they don't want to hear:
"In the poem, 'For Julia', a mountain lass attends university wearing an old army jacket her brother gave her when he finished his military service. The writer's intentions are obvious here. In such poems he is endeavouring to blacken our life and make little of the economic well-being which socialism has brought to all of us, including the inhabitants of the mountains."
The major criticism I would have of this collection is that the offending poems, those referred to in R.V. and P.K's "expert opinion", are not included. It would have been very interesting to read them. The collection is dominated by poems Visar Zhiti 'wrote' during his years in prison. Deprived of writing paper and pencils, he memorised these poems in an attempt to avoid losing his mind. In the translation from the original Albanian to English, much must have been lost. And yet Robert Elsie's translations of Zhiti's poems are powerful and moving. Some of Zhiti's short poems are beautifully accurate, the sharpest perhaps being 'Moments Pass':
Over my body
In this hole of a prison
Filled with the soil of suffering
I sit and wait
How sad it is
To be a warrior
In the incredibly stark poem 'The Prison Shower Room', memorised while he was in Qafe-Bari prison camp in July 1983, Zhiti shows how even in the most dreadful circumstances human beings will cling to what small pleasures they can access:
The beloved water licks me with its tongue,
Soothing me all over.
The shadow of barbed wire,
like a tattoo on a slave,
Stretches sombre on my skin
And I wash and wash,
And fall into another reality.
In the title poem Zhiti is clinging to his humanity by the barest thread "I, gone mad, scream in silence: / Hi there, world! / You may have forgotten me, / but not I you." In a sense, because the regime fell in 1990; and Visar Zhiti finally got out of the gulag; this is a collection with a happy ending. The poet preserved his sanity, and prevailed. In 'The Tyrant's One-time Office Near Which I Work' he even gets to visit the office of his tormentor and - echoes of Hannah Arendt - finds it to be a duller place than he'd imagined: "No abyss of convictions. No gun barrels / Emerging from drawers / like the eyes of metal detectors. / I stood silent, pallid / As if just over a long illness." This collection of poems was born out of one man's worst nightmare come true. It is one of those rare books with the power to fundamentally alter the way the reader thinks about the world. Buy it and keep it close. It is the starkest illustration I've seen yet of how the high Socialist hopes of the early 20th century degenerated into such sordid everyday tyranny.