The Albanian, in Ornela Vorpsi’s comic novel, is someone prone to megalomania, and who has one obsession “dearer to them than death… Fornication.”
It is rare to find that comic novel which neither borders on the absurd nor reeks of an author trying too hard to be funny. It takes a writer with a sharp wit, pithy delivery, and a keen ear for the musicality of language to charm the reader. In The Country Where No One Ever Dies, Albania’s Ornela Vorpsi succeeds on every level. Unlike the work of her countryman Ismail Kadare, whose The General of the Dead Army portrays the character and landscape of the Albanian people through the watchful eyes of a foreigner, Vorpsi’s narrative is one of immediacy, rooted in the voice and experience of an imaginative young Albanian girl whose name and age change with nearly every chapter.
Whereas Kadare’s book is haunting in both its subject manner and its delivery, from the beginning Vorpsi shows her reader that she is capable of having fun. She understands the necessity of comedy, as well as sorrow, in uncovering the soul of her people—and The Country highlights their foibles with glee. Everything and nothing is sacred, and Vorpsi’s ironic wit, devoid of sarcasm and delivered with honest charm, wins repeatedly on the page.
Vorpsi’s novel is a Milan Kundera-esque critic of the totalitarian state, whose grand Party, “mother of us all,” claims to have enacted a utopian socialist society that is “the envy of the entire world.” One so advanced it requires teenage girls to train with rifles in trenches to defend it from imminent invasion, because it will soon advance to the highest phase of socialism—Communism—which means that “Mankind will have reached such an advanced stage of development that we will all be able to go shopping without any money!”
Where Kundera concerns himself more with the metaphysics of man’s existence, Vorpsi prefers to dwell on the mundane aspects that make life in Albania unique. For the Albanian is lucky: “Albania is a country where no one ever dies. Fortified by long hours at the dinner table, irrigated by raki, and disinfected by the hot peppers in our plump, ever-present olives, our bodies are so strong that nothing can destroy them.” The Albanian, Vorpsi states, is someone whose lexicon lacks the word “humility,” who is prone to “megalomania—a condition that sprouts everywhere, like a weed,” and who has only one obsession “dearer to them than death… the quintessence of their existence… Fornication.”
Delivered in a series of tightly focused chapters that break down further into vignettes or specific moments of memory and reflection, The Country touches on life and death, sex and beauty and the state, and how they all manage to inform one another. Vorpsi’s voice is candid, ringing with both the pointed, no-nonsense immediacy of a curious child and the wisdom that accompanies true experience. Blithely aware of her position in a society that, despite its claims to the contrary, has both clearly defined strata and fixed societal roles, her keen eye is that of a satirist, capable of delivering even the most off-handed minutia with profound candor. In assessing her place as an Albanian woman, she repeats well-known maxims which say women “grow like leaves on a tree,” and “a good-looking girl is a whore; an ugly one—poor thing—is not.”
The Country Where No One Ever Dies is a journey of a consciousness, that of a nameless young girl and of a people deeply in love and deeply at odds with this Albania, this broken down Shangri-La. Though her narration contains a sublimated nostalgia, Vorpsi skillfully avoids anything hinting at melancholy or melodrama, even as her narrator recounts the internment of her father in a “re-education facility,” which affects the narrator only in that, as the daughter of a political prisoner, she had to be sure that “even more than the other students—[she] got a good communist education.” Yet, even under the watchful eyes of Mother party and the leering gazes of lecherous men, it is as though the Albanian is not capable of happiness anywhere but that country “created out of dust” and “thirsting for tragedy.” For, as she concludes in a notably ironic epilogue entitled “The Promised Land” (a euphemism used primarily to refer to Italy, where supposedly all the women look like Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida), “In this country Albanians discover they’re mortal… loneliness accumulates until it becomes a stomach ulcer… They don’t want to hear another word about the Promised Land. The Promised Land taught them they were mortal. And they never want to die.”