Mud Sweeter Than Honey: Voices of Communist Albania   
By Margo Rejmer. Restless Books. 304 pages

In reading this account of life in communist Albania under Enver Hoxha, who ruled the country for 41 years, 1941-1985, a phrase, “the pornography of suffering”, kept coming into my mind.

For in one sense the narrative is almost too painful to contemplate or read about; the temptation is to focus on the torments endured by this small nation under a psychopathic dictator rather than on individual personhood – the actual voices of those who suffered. Only by keeping the person in mind who is giving their harrowing account does one avoid an almost voyeuristic approach to the text.

Margo Rejmer, a Polish journalist and writer, who has conducted these interviews with survivors of the regime and who has lived in Albania for the last four years with her Albanian boyfriend, maintains a balance between accurately recording the experiences of witnesses and occasionally interjecting with authorial irony. For, as she perceives, an appalling irony lay behind Hoxha’s experiment in creating new Communist man: on the one hand Albania was a self-styled “paradise” where everyone had food, shelter, education and work, and on the other it was literally held together “by barbed wire and dotted with labour camps”.

As Bashkim Shehu, son of Mehmet Shehu, Hoxha’s onetime prime minister who was forced to commit suicide in 1981, described Albania: “That small country of bunkers, blockades and barricades.” Those who tried to escape and flee to Yugoslavia or Greece were shot on sight by the border guards.

Those of us who followed the fortunes of Eastern Europe under their various communist dictatorships during the decades before the whole infamous system collapsed in 1989, would make mental notes about the countries: the USSR was both hard-line and sclerotic, unyielding and dysfunctional; East Germany and Hungary were rigid, implacable regimes; Poland was permanently conducting skirmishes between the atheistic government and the Catholic Church; Czechoslovakia had its well-known dissident writers like Vaclav Havel and its underground university; and Yugoslavia was held together in a more relaxed fashion by the tricky balancing act of President Tito.

But Albania? It was clear to outsider observers that this highly secretive, completely isolated country, which had even broken off relations with Soviet Russia on the grounds that it was too lenient, was a basket-case.

Yet to read Rejmer’s account is to be pricked in one’s collective conscience when one listens to the voice of Mari Kitty Harapi, whose “bourgeois” past meant she was from a “bad family background” – meaning that higher education and a professional career would be closed for good – which reminds us, “the rest of Europe”, that “nobody realised how much we were suffering.”

Every so often one reads tragic accounts of child abuse and cruelty behind closed doors that the neighbours seemingly never knew about. This book makes it fearfully clear that such abuse and cruelty was practised deliberately and daily over an entire people while the rest of Europe looked the other way.

Bashkim Shehu’s family, educated members of Albania’s privileged elite, reflects the fate of so many people in the country: after his father’s suicide, his oldest brother, unable to bear the family disgrace, also committed suicide; his middle brother got ten years in prison; and his mother died after seven years of internal exile.

Stefan Arseni articulates the way the citizenry of Albania was brainwashed: “The Party meant more than God. God did not exist. And even if he did, he was only almighty in theory, while the Party was almighty in practice.”

As a young man Arseni made a trip to neighbouring Greece and his eyes were opened to the lies he had been fed: “For years we kept repeating “Albanians are the happiest people in the world”. It was only the trip to Greece that opened my eyes…Sometimes it really is better not to know, not to wonder, not to ask questions” – questions that would confront the self-interrogator with the stark truth of his misery, once his illusions have been brutally removed.

One of the worst aspects of this enduring nightmare was that one could trust nobody. Family members were not always proof against State manipulation and pressure that pitted brothers against brothers and wives against husbands. Thus, when a very occasional statement of truth is enunciated among these accounts it gleams like a rare jewel. A young man, Yzeir Ceka, clever, neglected and ostracised because he came from a “bad family”, formed an improbable but close friendship with Thome, a former minister of culture and education, now fallen from grace and reduced to the status of a cowherd, who challenges him: “Do you really think that everyone who lived before us was wrong?” Thome adds, “Why do we live in a country that’s run by a cannibal?” (i.e. a dictator who feeds off and relishes his people’s pain and terror.)

Despite the sadness occasioned by these accounts, voices raised in sorrow and bitterness, they cannot entirely quench the human spirit. Ridvan Dibra, a writer, sentenced to a hard peasant’s life of internal exile, relates that “the system wasn’t capable of destroying everyday beauty. And that was our salvation. Beauty always found a way around the system” – referring to Albania’s natural landscape in all its harsh, austere grandeur.

And Neim Pasha, who was sent to prison aged 19, and who suffered two decades of captivity, reminisces, “My prison friends …kept me alive. We survived thanks to each other.”

Perhaps the last word should go to the moving memory of Shpetim Kelmendi, a poet, who as a youth regularly travelled long distances to inaccessible places, sometimes on foot, to visit his father in prison:  he recalled “small figures in brown prison garb, circling the courtyard, identical in their suffering. I couldn’t tell which man was my father, and suddenly it occurred to me that every one of them was him, and that I felt love for every single one.”

The future of Albania is uncertain, fraught with instability, corruption and gangsterism, which it exports to the rest of Europe. As the writer Fatos Lubonja comments, “Dictatorship reduces people to the level of children who want to survive at any price.” Although a kind of freedom has come “We’re still in that childlike state of regression. We’ll spend our entire lives trying to grow up.”

A country cannot survive a regime like Enver Hoxha’s without paying a high price in collective moral degradation; the country’s psychic wounds run deep. One has to hope that the humane, even mystical influence of artists and poets like Kelmendi quoted above, will, as the poet Shelley wrote over two centuries ago, become the unofficial legislator of this once benighted country.