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.