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Book Review Albania the enigma

HENRY BELL is intrigued by an account of Albania that grapples with the changing nature of history and memory

Enver Hoxha’s Long Shadow – Travels in Albania
John Watkins, Signal Press, £14.99

ALBANIA is an anomalous and perplexing country to many outside of it: a heartland of European Islam and long an atheist country, dominated by a language that has no close relatives, geographically a wild mix of forest, mountain and sandy beaches, but firmly associated with brutalist cities, heavy industry and metal mining. 

Surrounded by the tumultuous history of Greek and Balkan nations, Albania has remained apart through the centuries. Both despite and because of its long domination by the Ottomans, then the Italians and the Nazis, it has forged a strong and unique national identity. Yet its people are spread around the world, with more Albanians in the diaspora than living in the country. 

Albania remains perhaps the most exotic place in Europe.

Like Albania, its longtime leader Enver Hoxha cuts an ambiguous and contradictory figure. Praised by many communist parties for his steadfast anti-revisionism and his part in transforming Albania from a war-torn semi-feudal society into a socialist state where literacy climbed from 5 per cent to more than 90 per cent, Hoxha was the partisan who helped defeat fascism and rebuild a nation. 

At the same time however he is mocked and vilified as the ruler of a hermit kingdom, who obsessively built hundreds of thousands of bunkers, militarised the coastline, squandered the country’s mineral wealth, and pursued policies too Stalinist to sustain relations with either China or the Soviet Union. 

Now a generation on from Hoxha’s death and the fall of Albanian communism, many from Europe and beyond are beginning to explore this complex nation. John Watkins’s book Enver Hoxha’s Long Shadow takes us on two parallel journeys, one through the Albania of the 1980s and another retracing those steps in 2018 and 2019. 

The result is a fascinating super-imposition of the images of the final years of communism, upon pictures of the rampant yet often stagnant capitalism that liberal democracy has produced in Albania. 

Watkins delicately presents the gains and losses of both systems and takes care to discuss the changes that he finds with the people who have lived through these national transformations. 

Detailing his first literary and personal encounters with Albania — charmingly scouring press clippings and tuning into distant Radio Tirana — Watkins begins a book that develops a complex portrait of a country that has been an obsession of his. 

Presenting his photographs and memories to Albanians today, he notes the gulf between the reactions of those young people with no experience of the benefits or the terrors of communist Albania, with the older generation who remember the lost world that he presents to them. 

This is a book that grapples with the changing nature of history and memory. From the crumbling and demolished relics of the old regime; to the young Albanians who visit the John Buckle bookshop in Lambeth to peruse the many shelves of Hoxhaist literature and make up their own minds about books that cannot be read in Albania or Kosovo any more. Perhaps most telling is the Albanian guide who reproaches the author, telling him that life had not improved since the fall of communism, and that it is a luxury for visitors to be able to enjoy their memories.

And it is clear that Watkins does enjoy his memories, reaching now for something that has been lost in Albania’s collision with the modern world. 

This is not apologism for Hoxha but nor is it an uncritical story about the “triumph of democracy.” Paternalistic and dominating building projects and monuments of communist rule feature significantly, but so too do the insidious deforestation and unlovely architecture of capitalism. 

In Volume two of Capital, Marx outlines the inherently sprawling and unsympathetic nature of capitalist construction – how it spreads out in small bursts, horizontally and illogically to the detriment of the workers, and the land. Time and again this sprawl is in evidence as Watkins encounters environments that were unscathed in 1988, but destroyed by 2018, although he is often too eager to ascribe crimes to corruption when in fact the culprit is capital. 

Watkins provides us with a charming journey through a country that remains filled with unique cultural and material identities. One can’t help but think that this detailed and passionate book might be most interesting in 20 years time for visitors to an Albania that has transformed again. 

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