A few weeks ago, I bought a book, Albanian Literature, by S.E. Mann. I partly bought it because I know nothing about Albanian literature, and partly because the text on the spine looked to me like the name of a particularly unlikely superhero.
Anyhow, it’s a marvellous book. First published in 1955, it is a detailed and witty summary, from the soup of c.1400 to the nuts of 1950, of the whole literature of Albania and the Albanian diaspora, all the Tosk and Geg a man might ever need.
[On Gjul Variboba’s Gjella e Shën Mëris, 1762.] Picturesque details from the poet’s Calabrian homeland are woven into the Bible narrative, and the imagery is at all times homely and vivid, if occasionally naïve and irrelevant. This the Immaculate Conception is likened to a ray of sunshine entering a room and falling on to a mirror. Mary is portrayed spending a whole night embroidering a swaddling-cloth before her long journey to Jerusalem, and putting three home-made cakes among the baby-clothes. The journey is made through snow, rain and wind. On arrival at the Bethlehem stable Joseph makes a fire, but the fire smokes and refuses to burn. Mary, ignorant of laundry-work, nevertheless settles down to a day’s washing. A local motive is introduced when, after the birth, adoring shepherds perform the traditional Calabrian springtime dances to a flute, and depart wassailing through the village and singing hymns in the local folksong rhythm. The gifts which are brought to the Christchild are those appropriate to an Albanian child of noble birth: a black-lipped kid, a horse, a wild pigeon, a cockerel, a capon, a peacock, finches, blackbirds, and gifts of food and clothing.
[On Konstantin Kristoforidhi (1827-1895).] The pattern of his life had already been set by a slight work entitled Catechism for Little Boys (Istanbul, 1867), an illustrated primer written in Lepsius’s phonetics. This was followed in 1872 by a primer in Tosk dialect based on an English original, and designed to teach reading and inculcate morals at the same time. Here appears Kristoforidhi’s only poem Star High in the Sky (Ylli nalt në Qiell), a piece without literary merit.
[On Pashko Vasa Shkodrani (1827-1892).] Pashko Vasa’s literary work is slight, and includes an appendix to Sami Frashëri’s Primer bearing the title Albania and the Albanians, an Albanian Grammar in French (London, 1887), and some patriotic verse. One long poem, Oh Albania, Poor Albania, was written for Jarník’s Albanian Language Study. It is trite, lacks originality, and does not scan.
And finally, a poem by Jeronim de Rada (1813-1903).
Where Did The Orange Tree Grow?
Oh, the orange tree! Where was she born?
She was born down by the sea.
Did she grow strong or did she wilt?
Nobody cared but the master’s daughter.
The master’s daughter came every morning;
Came to tend the tree, bring her water,
And before long, to sing to her too:
Grow, orange tree, grow for me;
Grow leaves and strong branches;
Make a deep shade with your branches,
Shade where a prince and princess might sit.
The tree was unimportant,
But the shade she gave was fine and thick.
And it was at her feet that the master
Set the table for his only daughter’s wedding.
At the marriage, lords and ladies
Gathered round, sat on silk carpets.
Servants stood waiting
With their caps in their hands.
Musicians played their zithers
While everyone ate and drank.
The lords had knives in their belts;
The ladies sat with their daughters:
A daughter, young and fresh, for each lady,
And a handsome man for each daughter.
Every girl held a ring,
And every boy held an orange…
And the breeze blew from the sea.