The taste of evil
A review of Błoto Słodsze Niż Miód. Głosy Komunistycznej Albanii (Mud is sweeter than honey. Voices in communist Albania). By: Małgorzata Rejmer. Publisher: Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec Poland, 2018.
Małgorzata Rejmer’s most recent book titled Mud is sweeter than honey. Voices in communist Albania is a remarkable story about a country that emerges from the darkness after suffering the impact of communist totalitarianism. Rejmer became known to her readers first in Poland and then abroad through her book about Romania (Bucharest. Dust and blood). She penned a unique story about a country experiencing change and gained recognition as one of the greatest Polish journalist and writers of her generation.
However, Bucharest was written in a very different way than her latest book on Albania. In Bucharest, Rejmer discussed Romania from the vantage point of her own experiences and impressions. She is one of the main characters in the book, perhaps even the main one. In thebook on Albania, meanwhile, she remains in the background, much against the popular fashion of Polish reportages. We do not learn a lot of details about her personal travels, what she feels in her observations, nor what she eats or where she sleeps. Instead, Rejmer hides behind her main characters – voices that introduce the reader to the bloody reign of the dictator, Enver Hoxha. The stories of these two countries are very different. Ceauşescu is faced with the “people’s justice”, murdered by his own citizens. Hoxha dies peacefully and following the logic of such regimes – some even cried after his passing.
Universality of evil
Mud is sweeter than honey is a universal story. If we changed the country described to one of the countries of the former Soviet Union, we would read about similar things. We would hear of innocent people being tormented in prisons and expelled, about persecution and how neighbours snitched on neighbours, brother on brother. We would learn how people lived in fear, as everyone was a potential spy and every word could be your last.
Evil (irrespective of geography or culture) takes on the same shape and enslaved people behave in the same ways. The tormentors and executioners are absolved with the same arguments in totalitarian states. The same goes for the voices supporting the regime (it gives a false sense of security, because there is order, because education and health care are free, and because there is no unemployment). The beauty of those willing to stand up to the regime, paying for it with persecution or their own life is also the same. Rejmer shows us how totalitarianism transforms a person, how fear functions and what havoc it wrecks in the mind. It always follows the same pattern: the citizen has no rights, court trials are manipulated, and the prospect of poverty, hunger and daily humiliation never go away. The ordinary citizen becomes accustomed to the bleak reality of living in a country/prison.
The author has the gift for listening. For the book she decided to live in Albania. She learnt the language and experienced the local atmosphere, figuring out what daily life looks like. In the end, she began looking for “voices” – the main characters of her book. The reportage is full of emotions and stories. It is a book about them for us – namely, people living in Western and Central Europe, the United States and Australia. It is an important book that should be translated into English. Albania – a country on the Balkan Peninsula – is a relatively forgotten place. If it evokes any associations it is its beautiful sea, warm climate and great sacral architecture. Though what about the history of Albania and its people? The legacy of Enver Hoxha’s regime? These are the forgotten issues, ones that are often silenced.
From dreams to fear
Hoxha took power in Albania after the Second World War. The dates are not crucial and Rejmer refrains from mentioning them, as this is not a history book. The context in which it took place is important: “Supported by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, Enver Hoxha took control over the devastated country which had seen three armies and two partisan groups in just six years. The war had destroyed a third of all homes and almost the entire infrastructure. The new Albania was being born out of ruins and mud.” The new Albania was intended to be a country of equality: citizens, equal to the law, with the same opportunities. It was intended to be a just and prosperous state, without illiteracy. However it became a giant prison camp. A place which saw collective punishment.
What seems to be the leading plot of Rejmer’s story? Fear. In fact, fear becomes the main character of the stories. Citizens tremble with fear: the educated ones – because they could say too much, misstate a joke, have illegal books at home; teachers could pass along “unsuitable information” to their students, and, of course, students could ask the wrong questions. Anyone could end up behind bars for anything. Everyone was in danger. At one point Rejmer writes: “here, even the trees have eyes”.
The workers and farmers were afraid. The incarcerated were afraid – because they already knew what it was like. The elite were afraid, even those at the very top. They might live in the capital in accommodation that was considered luxurious at that time, but even there the walls had listening devices. The party could hear your every word and could show up at your door at any time. They could lead you out, never to be seen again.
“You will never comprehend what Albanian communism was. Somewhere on the peripheries of Europe was a place like North Korea. A country that was a bunker, a fortress. People say that our form of communism was like a little Holocaust. Just like it is impossible to explain the Holocaust, it is impossible to explain what it was like to live in a country that was a prison. One could present facts and stories, but it will not show our suffering,” one of Rejmer’s interviewees admits. However she tried to go on and write their stories in an attempt to explain their suffering.
The book is full of touching stories. Some of which force a tear. One is about a prison riot. The prisoners having said “no” to the regime felt free, if only for a brief moment. However they paid dearly for this short-lived sense of freedom. Another is about a young couple, expecting a child, wanting to escape abroad. They plan the escape carefully but at the border he escapes and she is caught, so he decides to return for her (without giving too much away, one can expect the story ends tragically).
Escape is one of the main motives of Rejmer’s reportages. To get out of the hell hole. Leave for Greece, run away, over land or sea and risking the wellbeing of the family that remains. And those who flee are not always out of the woods. Rejmer discusses Albanian spies who are living abroad. Even when you think you are free from the Albanian hell, there is always a chance that personal information (best if it is the most intimate type) makes it back to the “right” ears.
Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht
Małgorzata Nocuń is a Polish journalist and the deputy editor in chief of the Polish bimonthly Nowa Europa Wschodnia.