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Dritëro Agolli: Komisari Memo (The Bronze Bust)
This is by no means the first obscure Communist partisan end of World War II novel on this site. Ladislav Mňačko‘s Smrť sa volá Engelchen (Death Is Called Engelchen), from Slovakia, is one I remember particularly well and which, like this one, few people will have read.
This tells the story of Memo Kovaçi. We know what happens to him because the framing story is set after the war, as a group of men – his brother, his parents and fellow partisans – are trying to get a large bronze bust up a hill, where it will be placed in his memory. We follow their struggles as well as following the story of Memo and his fellow partisans in the latter part of World War II.
The action is set around Lajthiza and, later, Korçë. The country is under German and Italian occupation, who are supported by nationalists. Naturally, in this book, all of those forces are deemed to be wicked and painted as such. They are opposed by the heroic and brave communists. Memo and his brother Rustem are with the communists and are trying to organise resistance in Lajthiza. However, Salih Protopapa and his nationalist forces seem to have a certain influence in Lajthiza and it is this Memo and his associated are trying to counteract.
Agolli skilfully shows all the various types of people in this book. In Lajthiza, we meet Qano, who had been village headman and sympathetic towards the communists but now seems to have turned towards the nationalists, primarily for pragmatic reasons, to defend his lands and family and because the nationalists seem to have more influence in the area
Once Memo and his brother arrive in the town, they see Mazllum and Tasi’s son selling salt to the villagers. Mazllum is a profiteer and has done well out of it. Salt is normally plentiful but is now in short supply so they can sell it at inflated prices. Memo makes them give it away. Naturally, they are not too happy with this, though the local women are.
Memo and friends are planning a meeting late that night in the town. However, during the meeting, they hear the dogs bark and then hear a shot. This shot is fired by Arif and he tells us how and why he fired the shot (as a warning) as he is one of the men carrying the bronze bust up the hill. He is Salih Protopapa’s aide-de-camp but has changed sides but remains as a spy in Salih’s camp.
We meet Salih, as he is feasting wih Arif’s uncle and we see him as a beast of a man, violent, drunken, brutal. When he learns of Memo’s presence in Lajthiza, he is eager to kill him. The shot warns Memo and the others and they manage to get away but, in the escape, Memo is hit in the leg. They manage to flee and Memo is sent, with difficulty, as he cannot walk, to Korçë, where Dr Borova lives with his wife, his son, Andrea (later sculptor of the bust and present in carrying it up the hill) and daughter, Alma (later a partisan and also present in the bronze bust section).
After a difficult journey – Germans, spies and so on – they get to the doctor’s house. He is another type, the fence sitter. He is a doctor, so treats everyone he has to, including Germans. He does not really want to get involved but does. However, he will later change and become a key supporter of Memo and the communists, as will his children. His wife wants no trouble so she wants Memo to go.
Part of the problem is Spiro, Alma’s fiancé. He is currently in Tirana but is expected to return in ten days. He is a supporter of the Germans and says that they are merely in transit, not occupiers and says that their treatment of the Jews is a little unjust but history forgives it for the sake of a greater justice. Meanwhile, the Germans know that Memo is in Korçë and say that anyone who helps him will be shot.
Memo has been appointed commissar to Commander Rrapa but this is delayed by his injury. Things become more complicated when Spiro returns early and suspects that something is going on. However, Memo does join Rrapa and the rest of the novel is the account of Rrapa’s force and their exciting battles with the Germans and the nationalists. We follow their tactics and the tactics of the opposition in detail. We also follow the relationship of Memo and Rrapa, which often leads to disagreements, for example over the use of women in combat. While they have to deal with both the Germans and nationalists, snow (it gets very cold in Albania during the winter) and treachery, our brave heroes come through.
It is not all fighting. We learn that Memo, Alma and others are involved in teaching the illiterate partisan (which include Rrapa himself) to read and write. They also steal a printing press and set up a propaganda outfit headed by Thoma, invariably known simply as the teacher, another participant at the bronze bust ceremony.
We know Memo is going to die because of the bronze bust story, which continues to the last page, and we learn how and why he does die.
Agolli tells his story very well. It is full of excitement. Things do not always go well for our heroes, and not just because of the death of Memo. One interesting aside: one of the characters praises Stalin (because of the Soviet forces pushing into Eastern Europe and driving out the Germans) though, as we know, Stalin would later be hated by the Albanians. While clearly not of the same calibre as Ismail Kadare, it is good to know that there are other Albanian writers translated into English.
First published by Naim Frashëri in 1969
First published in English byNentori in 1975