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History and hysteria: The private libraries of dictators

Posted by & filed under Pen Atlas.

In this week’s PEN Atlas piece from Gazmend Kapllani, we hear about the books that were damned and banned during the communist regime in Albania, only to resurface in some unlikely places…

There are houses without libraries. There are houses with poor or small libraries and others with big and wonderful ones. There are also houses with burned and destroyed libraries – like those of the Jews of Thessaloniki during the Nazi occupation of the city. The private libraries of 20th century can tell a lot about its political history and hysteria, about its big dreams and big crimes.

The “Age of Extremes” (as Eric Hobsbawm called the 20th Century) “found” me in Albania.  I grew up in a house with a tiny library; most of which I used to hate.  My fearful parents, persecuted by the regime in the past, made a huge effort to create a sort of “window-library” which would show their obedience to the regime, hoping this way to prevent more possible ordeals. As one knows, the library is the first thing a visitor  notices on entering the house.

The shelves of this “window-library” were full of books written mostly by “Party leaders” and “leading minds” of Marxism – Leninism. Enver Hoxha, all by himself, used to occupy three shelves of the library with his eighty books, which were multiplying every year, till he died in 1985. The other shelves were reserved for “Party leaders” of “minor levels” – none of them would dare to write more books than Enver Hoxha, of course. There were also some foreign books, considered as “useful” or “harmless” by the regime. Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and next to it, his Magnum Opus, Das Kapital. One with a red cover and the other one with a black one. Some other books written by Stalin and Lenin, all of them in grey covers. One day, two books by Mao Tse Tung were added to the rest, but they disappeared relatively early, as soon as Enver Hoxha called Mao “a traitor to  real socialism”. The most interesting books of the library for me were those of foreign literature, like Gorky’s Mother and Cervantes’ Don Quixote (the only one that I really adored!).

Close to my adolescence I made an impressive discovery concerning the existence of other books in my house. Apart from the “window-library”, my parents also used to keep “damned books”. They kept them secretly in their bedroom, enclosed carefully in two small black commodes. The “damned books” never crossed the door of their bedroom and were never found scattered by chance in different parts of the house, on the sofa or the table, like the other “normal” books. They were like terrible secrets and their existence was exclusively linked with darkness. Before allowing me to read some of them I had to swear to my parents that I would talk to no one. A promise that, unfortunately, I never kept.

I should say that during that period of oppression and systematic paranoia in Albania we had a lot of free time to read books. But we couldn’t have the books we really wanted to read. Today, I can read whatever I like, but I have no time anymore. That’s why there are moments when I feel nostalgic about that terrible period, when reading of the “damned books” was akin to a ritual and my relationship with books was similar to the forbidden love…

In 2009 I found myself again in Albania, doing some research on the lifestyle of the “Party leaders” during the communist regime. I was surprised to discover, among other things, that books and private libraries played an important role in Hoxha’s court. I was astonished by the fact that some of these guys, who systematically destroyed libraries and book collections, were also great readers and book collectors themselves. They even used to compete with each other, comparing the size of their private libraries. Enver Hoxha himself possessed an astonishing private library with almost 30,000 titles, mainly in French, as he had studied in France in the thirties. Some of these books were, literally, stolen from the private libraries of his enemies, who were killed or deported under his orders.

The private library of Enver Hoxha doesn’t exist anymore. Many of the books of the old tyrant were stolen by those who came to power after his death and after the collapse of the communist regime. Some of the book thieves were former exponents of the old regime and from this perspective they were starting their post-communist career by stealing the books of their old master. The tyrant’s library was “dismantled” into thousands of pieces and totally disappeared.

In the framework of my research I interviewed Ramiz Alia*, the successor of Enver Hoxha and one of his most obedient attendants. We met at his beautiful big flat, constructed by the Russians in the fifties, some hundred meters only from his previous villa. He used to live alone as his children had emigrated. We had a nice talk together. As we reached the end of our interview he insisted on showing me a particular beloved corner of the house: his private library.

As I was looking, full of curiosity, at the books on the shelves, examining almost like a microbiologist their multilingual titles, he told me that many of the books he possessed once were stolen “in that period”: it meant the period when the regime collapsed and  Hoxha lost power. Ramiz Alia began telling me the titles of the books which were stolen. I remember him mentioning books by Nabokov, Baudelaire, Camus, Kafka… I interrupted him gently and asked: “Sorry, do you know that during your regime, if someone was caught with a book like the one you mentioned, they could go to jail for many years?”. He pretended not to hear my question and continued to talk with a nostalgic enthusiasm about his beloved writers and books. His approach only increased my insistence. I interrupted him again, not so gently this time: “Why were the books you are talking about on the list of the “damned books?”. He looked at me and smiled cynically. “Because the minds of the people were not ready for these books. It’s the same when a father wants to protect his child from evil” he answered. Twenty years since his fall from power he was still justifying his methods.

We said goodbye and while I was going down the stairs of the Soviet style building I thought that tyrants never regret for their deeds. Were they to come to power again they would do exactly the same…

 *Ramiz Alia, died in 2011

About the Author

Gazmend Kapllani was born in 1967 in Lushnj, Albania. In January 1991 he crossed the border into Greece on foot to escape persecution by the communist secret services. In Greece he worked as a builder, a cook and a kiosk attendant, while also studying at Athens Universityand completing a doctorate on the image of Albanians in the Greek press and of Greeks in the Albanian press. He is now a successful writer, playwright, broadcaster and journalist.His best-selling first novel, A Short Border Handbook has been translated into four languages (English, Polish, Danish and French). A Short Border Handbook was published and by Portobello Books in 2009, and was translated by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife.

 

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