Polish Reportage: An Oral History of Communist Albania

Mud Sweeter Than Honey: Voices of Communist Albania, by Margo Rejmer, translated from the Polish by Zasia Krasodomska-Jones and Antonia Lloyd-Jones
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What was meant to be has already happened.
Time smooths out the edges of our recollections; the past is distorted by the weight of the present.

Albania isn’t a country I know much about, and I don’t think I’m necessarily alone in that. Although I do tend to read a lot about and from former communist countries, it isn’t one that’s been given as much of a voice (though here’s one featuring Enver Hoxha’s former chef).

So I was thrilled when I saw that a work of Polish reportage, one of my favorite genres, spotlighting those “who suffered, rebelled, and survived under the secretive dictatorship of Enver Hoxha” had been newly translated into English. The country was long overdue for the rest of the world to hear these voices.

Award-winning (including the Polityka Passport and Kościelski Awards for this book) Polish journalist Margo Rejmer structures it as an oral history based on interviews she conducted with hundreds of Albanians, and with much more of her own prose than, for example, Svetlana Alexievich‘s oral histories from the Soviet Union. It ends up a stunning combination, because Rejmer is a novelist as well, and her writing is lovely and affecting.

It also helps to create important context because I think even within the rest of Europe, the plight of Albanians in recent decades isn’t fully understood. Unsurprising given the culture of silence versus punishment in the former dictatorship, which still makes some resistant to speak out, but which makes this all the more important as well.

Not that it’s a contest, but it’s generally acknowledged that among the former communist regimes, Albania’s was likely the harshest. One interviewee says the best comparison of living conditions is to North Korea, so that should tell you all you need to know. Hoxha’s regime was particularly brutal and punitive, shockingly so, even in comparison to communism in other countries.

So these stories are especially haunting, sometimes near unbelievable if it weren’t for the stark emotion that the speaker employs in telling them. What always strikes me in histories like this are the details that have stood out to the storytellers over time. They’re affecting, poetic, and make these accounts strangely immersive. I didn’t at all expect this book to be difficult to put down — the opposite, actually; I thought I would need big breaks from it — but it’s completely absorbing. Their stories are so powerful and powerfully told that I didn’t want to stop reading despite how heartbreaking many are.

The translation is excellent – no surprise if Antonia Lloyd-Jones, one of the preeminent Polish-English translators working today, is involved, but this was one so seamless and poetic that I even forgot it was translated. The storytellers often quote poetry (the title is taken from an Albanian poem), songs, and stories or tales of beliefs from the country’s heritage, which made this feel like a rich and valuable cultural study as well.

I love the Polish reportage genre for the exposure of under-explored issues and topics it brings to wider consciousness, and this was an exceptional entry in that field. Moving, haunting, educational, and beautifully rendered – one to keep in mind for Women in Translation Month.

It’s not like that anymore, but once upon a time every Albanian had his country carved into his face, into his sunken cheeks and his ruined hands.

Published November 2, 2021 by Restless Books, originally published 2018.

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

21 thoughts on “Polish Reportage: An Oral History of Communist Albania

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  1. That sounds a very worthwhile read. The only things I know about Albania is what I gleaned from British Left comedian Alexei Sayle’s autobiography – he visited a few times and wrote their 1980s football anthem.

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    1. Oh how interesting, I didn’t know that! I wonder why he was even allowed to visit and be so involved. It seemed so closed off from anywhere. Even cigarettes from Yugoslavia would get you in big trouble!

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  2. Great review. I am old enough to remember much about Eastern Europe from the news and studies. Albania tended to be the North Korea of Eastern Europe. It was a very secretive country mostly to hide it’s government’s failures and repression. I would love to read this book, but will have to wait until it is n audio.

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    1. Yes, exactly! It was such an all around terrible situation and the people suffered so much for it. I wish I had understood it better, it was such a blank spot for me. I really hope it’s out on audio soon so you can read it, I think you’d really appreciate it! Not sure if it’s worth contacting the publisher to demonstrate demand for an audio version?

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    1. Oh no, I have a review copy of that one and was really excited for it, especially following on from this! That’s disappointing to hear. I promise this one is very emotionally impacting, maybe almost too much so…I was reading it in the airport and getting teary!

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      1. Academic doesn’t sound too appealing either, but understanding something more of the ideology still seems worthwhile. This helps me adjust my expectations going into it, thanks for the insights! 🙂

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  3. Great review – I know next to nothing about Albania, and the little I do know is very refracted through the situation with Kosovo and Serbia, so it is very specific to recent years. This sounds really interesting and important, so I will definitely be picking it up – thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  4. Sounds very interesting. I think most people know very little about Albania, which makes sense considering what a closed society it was. I see what you mean with poetic writing. Your quotes are like poetry.

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    1. I loved those lines so much and wanted to share them to give a glimpse into what some of this book is like, but honestly there were so many haunting, beautifully poetic lines I could’ve shared. It’s a really powerful book and I felt like I learned so much from it, it’s very worthwhile if it’s piqued your interest.

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  5. I traveled to Albania briefly for a friend’s wedding (which was awesome! 12 course, choreographed dancing, etc), but I still don’t know much about the history of the country and I’d love to know more. This sounds like it might contain some difficult content, which does make me slower to pick a book up, but I’m definitely adding it to my to-read list 🙂

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    1. Oh my gosh, that’s so cool that you got to go there!! I know so little about it except what I learned from my former landlords who were Albanian 🙂 But that definitely sounds like an incredible experience, and actually I think getting to attend that kind of wedding is probably an excellent glimpse into the culture! I think you’d really appreciate this one, especially since you’ve enjoyed Svetlana Alexievich and it’s a not dissimilar style/structure and emotional reading experience. The content can be extremely difficult but it has its redeeming elements too. I had avoided it too and then ended up glued to it during a flight even though I’d brought an alternative, if that helps motivate 🙂

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