Zaratha’s Epistolary

Luan Rama, writer

Miranda Shehu-Xhilaga, traduction

“Zaratha’s Epistolary”

Stolen time and its legacy of filtrated memory and emotion were the only assets at Frederic Coba’s disposal when he wrote his letters to Bruna.  Paper was scarce, and the only light at night was scantily shed by a burning stick of pine.  Food and bodily comforts were meagre.  The saints on the monastery wall looked on but could do little to help.  Sanity was held by the narrowest of margins, and sometimes ceded to the relentless suffering of body and mind.

 “Letters are a thing of the past,” say some.  Fortunately I know people who still write them, despite time stolen not by prison guards but by busy life.  I have letters I keep in cardboard boxes and whenever I move house I find them waiting, each one a testimony to some aspect or person that was part of the time.  Letters are about more than keeping in touch.  In my years of growing up I would write many pages to friends, starting with a status update or (being Melburnian) comments about the weather, and then I’d get into the deep stuff: thoughts, feelings, secrets, the riddle of self.  You could write this because you were sure of your audience and you knew they were there and had time to listen and in fact had been waiting for you to tell them these things. Letters embed themselves in relationships like no other form of writing.

Fred was haunted by the shade of fellow exile Dante and his experience in hell but he was also lit up within by love for his “Beatrice,” Bruna.  Dreams and nightmares, light and dark, brutal reality and unreality, memory and mental torment, the dashing of hope and flights of imagination marked the marginal island life to which he and other Albanian political prisoners had been consigned.  And the letters might never be delivered.

This is a unique, shocking and moving insight into the inner life of a passionate and loving man, a teacher who missed his family and feared for his students, and who wanted to leave a legacy to all lovers of freedom by translating Dante.  Only Inferno would do because it mirrored the experience of these unfortunate men and their communities, and yet held out hope that the circles of hell would one day be transcended.

Once again I thank Miranda Xhilaga for the privilege of editing her translation of Albanian literature, and I hope that between the two of us we have been able to do justice to the work of Luan Rama in introducing Zaratha’s Epistolary to the English-speaking world.  Letters will always be part of my life, and I hope these poetic, powerful, political letters may enrich the lives of readers here as they have in Europe.

Elizabeth Wade, Editor

Luc Vidal

“Here ends the epistolary of the prisoner Frederik Çoba”… That is how your humble and touching book about the political prisoners of the island of Zaratha ends. A political book? Does this definition suit? I don’t think so. Enver Hoxha’s Albanian dictatorship, dubbed the People’s Socialist Republic, was one of the most dreadful, isolated and murderous. In the 1980s, changes in the Eastern block were made possible by Mikhail Gorbachev, and Albania was trying to follow suit. When a dictatorship and a dictator himself lock up men and women under any pretext, one wonders how in the name of ideas that are aimed at freeing men from these chains, seeking nothing more than a little love and care, they manage to shamelessly enslave them and eliminating any chance of achieving freedom.

Their goal is probably to satisfy an immeasurable hatred of the other and to be put on their own pedestal. Narcissus in its share of shade is thus made. “The Long Road to Plato’s Tunnel – The Fate of the Censored Artist, 1945-1990” (European Prize of the French Writers’ Association), a book of yours which I have published, describes this tragic situation like a wound inflicted on these men and women. The fate of the artists in your country Albania that you denounce with remarkable intellectual strength and honesty has been integrated into your political and poetic reflections. Your empathy is synonymous with the love for freedom. I am aware that you are a poet. Your book, The Territories of the Soul, which I have also published, is a testimony to your true lyricism and, among other things, your love of poetry. You love the French language and its poetry. Paul Eluard has undoubtedly been a great influence in your writing and awareness. As a poet and a filmmaker, you are fused body and soul in this extraordinary drama.

The composition of “Zaratha’s Epistolary”’ presents to us the complexity of this great story, the personal history of the people and the history of art. I say composition because for me, this is more than writing. Everything sounds harmonious and tragic at the same time in your book. The conversation in the letters of Çoba to Bruna, his love, is very deep, touching and lively. What creates your lyricism and the interest of this book is the creation of that echo in the abyss of the drama of hell experienced by Çoba and his companions, as well as the strength of Dante Alighieri’s work with selected quotations that highlight the continuation of the story. Moreover, while in prison, Çoba translates this extraordinary work. It creates the feeling that everything continues to remain the same and nothing changes.

“People have the faces of Nero, Antigone, Cassandra, Circe, Oedipus, Heraclius and Menelas… The same tragedy, different setting!” – you point out. The island of Zaratha has the contemporary taste of a dive into hell as imagined in the Greek mythology. Koron, the sailor, Rrapushi, is there to remind us of this mythological figure. Perhaps in the heart of the translator who loves Bruna, just like Dante loves Beatrice, this island, when everything is over, will become that simple paradise you describe. I don’t mean to evoke the lives of the prisoners that you have so much felt and written about in your book, as well as the presence of Pop, the priest, who is almost mad, or that camp guard, the cruel guard Cerbère, proving day after day that human bureaucratic idiocy rule as a god.

The descriptions of nature, the sea sounds, which the prisoners can only imagine, the sound of the birds crying, the reality of the frescoes, the noise of a plane flying over their shoulders and the castle, the endless days of investigation and questioning in the cells of Tirana until the death of dog Guli, display your art of evocation and accurate description through the facts of the daily life of these people in that “no man’s land”, that hell. Remarks on Dante and Florence intertwined with the survival of prisoners and Çoba’s need to dream make your art of writing even more convincing. “But Dante could not have imagined such an apocalypse,” you wrote in Fred’s words. For Dante, Beatrice was the morning star. The same can be said for Bruna, your hero’s lover, until his terrible end and disappearance, at a time when he had just finished translating the work. At the same time Bruna was able to get a permit to go and visit her boyfriend. A minute too late. The narration flows beautifully with a story that makes you shudder. It is a living and profound fresco.

Everything is terrifying in Dante’s work, you write thinking about the world of the translator. This is illustrated by the work of Botticelli wich accompanies the book. Just as it shows the fraternal solidarity that arises between these men who have become shadows. “Ideology cannot brake their friendship”, you say. What Çoba and his unlucky friends are experiencing is living proof of analogies with Dante’s world. Your book exudes a great love for “Divine Comedy”. The book consists of 13 letters. Thirteen strong and transparent letters that reinforce the idea of protecting happiness at all cost, which remain current and possible in our clear fraternal memory. We no longer believe the voices that sing to a better world, the horizon of which is taken prisoner by the moustache of the father of the people, Stalin. We need the “drunken ship” of Rimbaud. We need the “Ulyssian” dream of Frederik Çoba, our brother in arms and that butterfly that sits on his shoulder, as if it is sitting on ours. Your afterward describes how the idea of “Zaratha’s Epistolary” was born in your heart and in your soul.

Now that you like the “Divine Comedy” so much, I tell myself that you may also love the Beatles’ songs. Frederik Çoba stands there, sitting by the sea. I see him sitting like this, meditating about his sadness and predicament, praying for a better future for his love Bruna, the newly found Beatrice. This vision makes me think of Arthur Koesler’s book “Zero and Infinity” and the epilogue of the freedom space where the blue sea was offered to those who they wanted to lock in the bureaucratic sphere. “Free man, you will always enjoy the sea,” sang Baudelaire.

Recently, you wrote me a letter where you describe your conviction about having to believe in the prophecy of poetry about our future on the path of beauty. You were writing to me like a Rimbaud or the Albanian poet, Migjeni. “Respublica littéraria”, which you wish it would, one day, be established in Albania, I hope to see it establish in the France that we want as well.

In your literary writing and poetry, there is also the presence of the red robin, words and phrases about beauty and white pelicans in Zaratha. Then, we have to stand hand in hand and patiently wait for this day to be born.

Poet, French editor

“I am intrigued by the work. It is obviously of high literary quality and has been worked on with very great care at every level. It is also to me fascinatingly European – I can’t think of any English or Australian writer who could write in quite such a way, alluding to a classic and bringing so effectively and inevitably the likes of Koestler or Kafka to mind (Milton or Blake, apart and perhaps, centuries ago). It is an astonishing work – copies should certainly be sent to Peter Craven and Phillip Adams. “

Nick Walker, editor.


I reached a region silent of all light, which bellows as the sea doth in a storm, if lashed and beaten by opposing winds. The infernal hurricane, which never stops, carries the spirits onward with its sweep, and, as it whirls and smites them, gives them pain.

(Dante, Inferno V)

20 July

Dearest Bruna, I write your name and then stop a little as there are a hundred things that I want to tell you all at once. Then, I close my eyes and from that absolute darkness comes a light: the light of you. You arrive just as when you used to hurry towards the house, walking on air, while the wind played with your summer dress. You would run up the stairs two by two, just to fall into my arms and hold me tight. I run like that in my dreams, too, at times – free, searching for you – but I cannot find you, cannot see your eyes, and so I wake up from this nightmare and, unable to fall asleep again, lie down to wait for morning.

At such times, I pick up Inferno and start reading some of Dante’s work. It is incredible how he imagined Hell’s circles to be, the Acheron River and its nine circles. What a genius! When I was a student in Turin, we studied Dante. We studied Dante like we studied Virgil and his Bucolics, Petrarch, Boccaccio and the Decameron, and lots and lots of other Renaissance authors. And now, as I sit in this monastery corner, I have turned to these works that warm me up like sunbeams. In this place, Inferno has another meaning. Every single verse that Dante has written is an excruciating step towards torture and death. I say it is an excruciating step towards death because it makes you aware of who you are; it reminds you, each step of the way, of human strength and its limitations, and defeat and your instinct to survive. Should a man always be strong, stoic? I have seen so many men crying in Tirana, my darling. I do not judge a man who sheds tears, never looked down on any who did …

Dante is no longer the Dante I read years ago; he is now another Dante. The first circle of suffering in Inferno consists of religious ignorance. Then come the rest of the circles that condemn those who demanded luxury, the lustful, the greedy ones, the sinners of rage and heresy, the murderers and criminals, the ones who have resisted the Truth and finally those reprobates who have betrayed their neighbour and themselves, turned their backs on the Lord and the Church, the Faith … circles that become wider and wider as they mount to the top. Mighty circles, don’t you think?! Everything about Dante makes you reel. Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise … A comedy in three parts, not as people understand ‘comedy’ here – some show where you go to have a laugh – but the real-life arena where humankind is the main character of its own dramas, comedies or tragedies; a story of death and magical love, just like that of Romeo and Juliet or Tristan and Isolde, Héloise and Abelard – stories of the greatest lovers of this world who continue to be born and to die again and again, generation after generation, century after century.

Tell me, my darling, why does great love often carry with it something tragic, something that smells of blood and ashes! A vicious circle of tragic events that bring terrible soul-searching and then the challenge of self- sacrifice. It all seems as if, finding youself in a burning tree about to be consumed by the flames, you hear onlookers call out: ‘Do you dare jump? Are you ready to come face-to-face with your death and to tell us how far you would go for love?’ And you know, you know it all too well: I would do that, I would do whatever it takes for you!

With us here is someone called Sotir, a pleasant young man but one who has lost it completely. In fact, he doesn’t even understand why he is here. He has periods of clarity now and then, and when this happens you come to understand his beautiful life philosophy. He was the son of one of the members of government during the fascist occupation. He studied theatre in Rome, theatrical direction; the subject of his graduation was one of Pirandello’s famous plays, Non si sa come [It Is Not Known How], but he did not get to defend it because the war started and the borders closed. When he tried to escape to Italy with a small boat from the south, he got caught and was imprisoned immediately. Infuriated after he had exhausted all his pleas for forgiveness, he started screaming and shouting in the courtroom, abusing the prosecutors, resulting in a long sentence. This destroyed his mental health irreparably and so they tossed him here, away from everyone and everything he ever knew. At times, suddenly, he starts reciting Leopardi’s poetry or parts of his thesis in Italian. The soldiers can’t stand it – to begin with, they laugh at him, then they abuse him, and in the end they kick him hard, taking turns, so painful to watch, until he can no longer move or make a sound.

One day, he assigned roles to all of us, and started declaiming Pirandello’s words. It is the story of an unintentional crime, committed in a moment of madness, but the sort of crime that becomes the source of the character’s pain and suffering. So much so that, in the end, he turns himself in. He was so excited! He told us that in 1935 this role was assigned to Alexander Moisi by Pirandello himself, as the Italian dramaturg considered him to be one of the best actors in the world, but days before the premiere at the Vienna Theatre, Alexander Moisi died of pneumonia. Sotir also told us that when he chose this piece for his defence, his professor, perplexed, asked him why he had made such a choice. And he had told him that Pirandello expected this drama to be played by a world-class actor of Albanian descent and that, as an Albanian, Sotir wanted to fulfil the dream of the Italian master. In fact, this is such a moving, emotional piece. We did our best to make him feel happy, if even for a little while. He got so excited, he started screaming and then suddenly fell into my lap, crying like a child. I tried to make him feel better and eventually he fell asleep.

One day, my darling, I will tell you about my days under interrogation in Tirana’s prison cells. On the other side of the wall was a very well-known writer. I didn’t realize at first, but one day he started knocking on the wall with a stone. And so we came up with our communication code where the number of knocks represented a different letter and the length of the pauses between the knocks allowed us to form words. What a place! Late at night, we would hear noises that meant that someone was being taken out, God knows where. Another day, someone jumped from the window of the interrogation room and died instantly. Quite often, we would be woken up by the screaming of men who could no longer stand the torture. It was so frightening. We continued to talk. It lasted three weeks. One morning, I knocked on the wall to ask whether he knew which one of us had been taken the night before, but I didn’t get an answer. In the deep silence of my cell, I realized that my dear friend was the one who had been taken God knows where …

More trauma yesterday. Kamberi, the poet, had been missing for two days without a trace. Soldiers searched all over the island. They allowed us to join the search, too, but we could not find him. The alarm went off. The officer who serves on the other side came and checked on us and ordered that we restart the search. Finally, the Bulldog found him hidden in a pit, at the other end of the forest, covered with branches, writing poetry. Poor man, the soldiers brought him into the middle of the monastery and beat him up savagely right in front of us. Bulldog was panting, white foam coming out of his mouth, and kicked him in the face. It seems they broke his jaw, for now Kamberi cannot chew. We feed him only food softened with water. He cannot stand deprivation of liberty … ah, these poets! … Today they brought out a big wild dog and tied him up at the lieutenant’s cabin. He bares his teeth at us and growls night and day, and to me, he resembles Cerberus in Dante’s Inferno, only with a single head!

Since that day, from time to time, in the middle of the night, Bulldog comes through the monastery door with his automatic rifle and searches every corner, in case one of us has yet again disappeared into the forest. Holding a lantern in his hands, he walks in between beds as if he were Mephistopheles. The light then seems like some kind of projector that smites our frail bodies as they sink to rest, as well as the faces of each of the saints in succession so they, too, seem upset because someone or something is waking them up in the middle of the night. They appear angry but growl sotto voce, being unable to roar and bellow. Then Bulldog pulls the monastery door shut and a deadly silence falls upon us all.

I’ve already hidden away your letters because, occasionally, Bulldog conducts searches and I do not want your letters to be taken away from me. It is midnight and there is an immense silence, as if a holy hand has worked its magic and stopped time, the universe. It is at this moment that I start thinking of you. One night, I dreamed that I flew out of the window and came to you, just like an angel. I floated up in the air, through this dense frost. The clouds pushed me towards you. And you were waiting there, by the window, as if you had known about this heavenly adventure. ‘Why so late?’, you said. I didn’t say a thing, I just took you in my arms, I embraced your legs as if you were a Phidias sculpture, whispering: ‘All this longing – I’m burning!’ And then I saw lightning rip the sky. Far away, I could hear thunder …

‘Surge et ambula’ … ‘Get up and walk’

Yours forever, Fred