Guidebooks used to write the name of my city in two ways: Gjirokastër in Albanian, and Argyrokastron for foreigners. The classical-sounding name somehow gave it better credentials, because people in the Balkans famously exaggerate, and often call their villages cities. The next question, what kind of city it was, large or small, was harder to answer. Twenty-five thousand inhabitants are not a lot, but we were reluctant to call the city small, and not simply because we loved it: at high school we considered it a boring place and could barely wait to get away.
When you return to the city of your birth after an absence, it usually looks smaller than you remembered it. But this was not the case with Gjirokastër. The perspective of distance did not diminish it, but rather the opposite. How had it become so distorted in my mind? I sometimes thought its huge houses were the reason. A city with such immense houses could never be called small. The houses were indeed gigantic, with countless empty rooms, antechambers, and verandas. The size of the houses seemed one reason why the city had produced so many crazy people. But some insisted there was a more down-to-earth reason, indeed a financial one: pensions. Some of these mad people received their pensions not from the Albanian state, whose citizens they were, but from a state that no longer existed: the Ottoman Empire. This was a very rare if not unique case of people receiving pensions from a defunct state.
Having grown used to this situation, people no longer thought it unusual that Turkey, which was trying hard to look European, should honor the pension arrangements of the overthrown sultan. Historically, Gjirokastër had been famous for providing the empire with officials: ministers, judges, diplomats, and governors, who all returned home on their retirement to spend their last years in these enormous chilly houses.
Besides these pensions, another thing that upset the city’s equilibrium was its prison. The prison was built on top of a medieval castle, the highest point in the city. This meant that it did not look at all somber. Indeed, it was the first building to catch the rays of the sun and the last to lose them. The prisoners on display took on the roles of celebrities, especially the most famous ones: plotters against the king, bank robbers, and, above all, abductors of women. I was sure that the latter especially were on the minds of young wives in loveless marriages, bored in the great houses where nobody came to kidnap them.
In spite of all this, as I reached the end of high school, I became increasingly impatient to go to the capital city. I left my birthplace far behind. But Tirana, despite the vitality of its student life, did not stop me dreaming of another city, much larger and more distant: Moscow. It was October 1958. The Gorky Institute of World Literature, where I was now a student, was in fever, as was the whole of Moscow. Boris Pasternak had been condemned after winning the Nobel Prize, vilified as an agent of the bourgeoisie, and threatened with expulsion from the Soviet Union. The students of the Gorky Institute were at the forefront of the campaign. By day they howled denunciations of Pasternak at noisy meetings, but at night half of them dreamed of being expelled too.
Like half the students in my course, I felt the desire to write a novel. Ever since the Pasternak affair, novels were divided into two kinds: those that got you expelled and those that did not. For a while I was in a dilemma about my subject, whether it would be a story about Moscow, involving a girl from the anti-Pasternak meetings, or a story about Tirana, involving a girl in my course at the university. Besides this quandary, I was conscious of something else: I seemed to hear a distant, threatening howl coming from the city where I was born, as if there were some unspoken quarrel between us, and I had to ask, “What do you want from me?” while it replied, “You’re the one who wants something.” Which of us could not leave the other in peace? Had I deserted the city, or had it expelled me?
I thought that with my novel I would buy my freedom from this city. But that is not how it turned out. In Tirana, after I returned from Moscow, I felt the city, like some importunate blackmailer, still claiming its unpaid dues.
My most recent visit was a year ago. I went to see my old house, on a narrow street known as “Lunatics’ Lane.” Surely only a city with a sense of itself as superior could give such a name to one of its own streets. A house on the other side once belonged to the former dictator of Albania. As I walked along the lane, I saw an aged sculptor. He called out to me from a distance: “This street has produced three famous lunatics. Two of them, the dictator and you, left long ago. I’m the third, and I really am mad. I stayed here. And I’m proud of it.”
Translated by John Hodgson