For almost half a century, from 1944 to 1990, Albanians lived under an exceptionally harsh Marxist-Leninist regime. Communist partisans, who took possession of the country at the end of the Second World War, altered the already assiduous course of Albanian history radically. Most countries of Eastern Europe experienced a thaw and a certain liberalization after the death of Stalin in 1953. Albania was different. Its leaders, foremost among whom was Enver Hoxha (1908-1985), ruled the country with an iron fist right to the bitter end. It is difficult to imagine any people in Europe having suffered more under Communism than did the Albanians. Orthodox Stalinism, isolation and ignorance proved to be a fatal combination. In 1990, the tiny red cardhouse of revolution finally collapsed and the Albanian nation was left with little more than universal misery and a sub-Saharan economy. Albania's culture was in ruins, too, and after decades of persecution, there was no intellectual leadership left to fill the void.
Visar Zhiti is the Albanian writer whose life and works perhaps best mirror the history of his nation. He was one of the many to have suffered appalling persecution for no apparent reason. But Visar Zhiti survived- physically, intellectually and emotionally, and he is now among the most popular poets of present-day Albania.
Born on 2 December 1952 in the Adriatic port of Durrësas the son of the stage actor and poet Hekuran Zhiti (1911-1989), Visar Zhiti grew up in Lushnja where he finished school in 1970. After studies at a teacher training college in Shkodra, he embarked upon a teaching career in the northern mountain town of Kukës. Zhiti showed an early interest in verse and had published some poems in literary periodicals. In 1973, he was preparing the collection "Rapsodia e jetës së trëndafilave" (Rhapsody of the lifeof roses) for publication when the so-called Purge of the Liberals broke out in Tirana at the Fourth Plenary Session of the Communist Party. Zhiti, whose father had earlier come into conflict with the authorities, was one of the many scapegoats selected as a means of terrifying the intellectual community. The manuscript of the verse collection which he had submitted to the editors of the Naim Frashëri publishing company was now seen to contain grave ideological errors and was interpreted as blackening socialist reality. His works were denounced as anti-communist agitation and propaganda, and there was nothing the poet could say to his interrogators to prove his innocence. None of his fellow writers saw fit or dared to help him. Indeed in October 1979, some of them prepared an insidious report condemning the works of the poet, no doubt to save their own skins. It was this "expert opinion," published here for the first time as an appendix to the volume, which led directly to Zhiti's fall and subsequent torment.
After years of uncertainty under the Damocles Sword of the Party, Visar Zhiti was arrested on 8 November 1979 in Kukës where he was still teaching, and spent the following months in solitary confinement. To keep his sanity, he composed and memorized over a hundred poems. Sentenced at a mock trial in April 1980 to thirteen years in prison, he was taken to Tirana jail and, from there, transferred up to the isolated northern mountains to do the rounds in the infamous concentration camps similar to the Soviet gulags, among them, the living hell of the copper mines at Spaç and to the icy mountain prison of Qafë-Bari. Many of his fellow prisoners died of mistreatment and malnutrition, or went mad. Visar Zhiti was released on 28 January 1987 and was then 'permitted' by the Party to work in a brick factory in his native Lushnja, where he kept a low profile until the end of the dictatorship.
In the autumn of 1991, when Albania was in a state of chaos, Visar Zhiti managed to get to Italy and worked in Milan until July 1992. He visited Germany for several months in 1993 on a scholarship offered to him by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and was in the United States in 1994. On his return to Albania, he worked as a journalist and was appointed head of the Naim Frashëri publishing company, which had once abandoned him to his fate. He was later employed by the administrative services of the new Albanian parliament, in the building of the former Central Committee of the Communist Party where,as fate would have it, he shared an office with one of the writers who had denounced him many years earlier.
In 1996, Visar Zhiti was elected himself as a member of parliament but, shaken by the sombre realities of Albanian party politics, he soon withdrew from political life. In 1997, he joined the Albanian foreign service and was appointed cultural attaché to the Albanian Embassy in Rome, where he lived and worked until 1999. This appointment gave him an opportunity to make up for lost time, to devote himself to writing and to pursue personal and literary objectives which he would not even have dared to dream about adecade earlier.
Visar Zhiti's first volume of verse "Kujtesa e ajrit" (The memory of the air) was published in Tirana in 1993. It contains some of the so-called prison poems as well as verse inspired by his first journeys outside the 'big prison' that was Albania. The second collection, "Hedh një kafkë te këmbët tuaja" (I cast a skull at your feet), published in Tirana in 1994, contains the full cycle of 110 prison poems composed between 1979 and 1987, verse which survived miraculously in the recesses of the poet's memory. Both volumes were well received in Albania and by Albanian-speaking readers in the former Yugoslavia. Someone had finally given voice to the hundreds of silenced and broken intellectuals.
Among Zhiti's subsequent verse collections are: "Mbjellja e vetëtimave" (Sowing lightning), published in Skopje in1994; "Dyert e gjalla" (The living doors), published in Tirana in1995; "Kohë e vrarë në sy" (Time murdered in the eye), published in Prishtina in 1997; and, most recently, "Si shkohet në Kosovë" (Whereis the road to Kosova), printed in Tirana in 2000. The latter volume mirrors,among other things, the poet's horror at the sufferings of Kosova and its people during the ten years of oppression and the two years of war leading to NATO intervention and final liberation in 1999. Several collections of Zhiti's verse have also appeared in Italian translation.
In addition to his poetry, Visar Zhiti is the author of numerous short stories which have been compiled in the volumes "Këmba e Davidit" (David's leg), published in Tirana in 1996, and "Valixhja e shqyer e përrallave" (The battered suitcase of folk tales), published in Prishtina in 1997. He has also published translations into Albanian of the works of Mother Teresa, Federico Garcia Lorca and Mario Luzi. His recent prison memoirs, "Rrugët e ferrit: burgologji" (The roads to hell:prisonology), published in Tirana in 2001, have been widely read and commended.
Despite the paucity of literary translations from the Albanian, Visar Zhiti's verse has been appreciated abroad and he has received notable international recognition. In 1991, he was awarded the Italian "Leopardi d'oro" prize for poetry and in 1997 the prestigious "Ada Negri" prize. He is a member of the Alfonso Grassi International Academy of Art and has taken part in many international poetry festivals in recent years.
Eifel mountains, Germany