Dritëro Agolli: Shkëlqimi dhe rënia e shokut Zylo [The Rise and Fall of Comrade Zylo]
The title may say Zylo but our hero/narrator is Demkë. He works in the Albanian Ministry of Culture and has ambitions to be a writer. Sadly, he has no time to write, as his bosses – Comrade Q, Comrade Chemchedin and Comrade Zylo Kamberi – continually get him to write reports. At the start of the novel, he is at home writing a long report, when he gets a phone call from Comrade Selman, who needs him to write another report. He finishes the first one and there is a fight between Comrade Zylo and Comrade Chemchedin as to who should present it. Comrade Q, their boss, gives it to Comrade Zylo. Comrade Chemchedin is furious but can do nothing, not least because he is about to be shunted sideways.
Comrade Zylo presents the report at the important meeting. Demkë is there, sitting next to Comrade Zylo’s wife, who tells him how hard Comrade Zylo worked on the report. Demkë can only smile wanly. The report gets considerable acclaim and Comrade Zylo gets all the credit for his brilliant ideas.
Demkë is now moved to Comrade Zylo’s office when Comrade Chemchedin is moved. Once again he is called on to produce a host of reports on various subjects. These reports seem to be read out at important meetings and then disappear.
With Comrade Zylo as his new boss, Demkë gets to know Comrade Zylo better, not least because he is working with Bakir who was at school with Comrade Zylo and has worked for him subsequently. The pair are invited to Comrade Zylo’s house for dinner and Bakir warns him that when they arrive, Comrade Zylo will have his head in a large book and his son Diogenes will be working with sheet music. (The boy is ten years old and has apparently already written a symphony.) This is indeed the case.
When Demkë goes to Comrade Zylo’s office to take notes for the next project he has to carry out, Comrade Zylo gives him some paper to write on, on which he has already written. These pieces of paper contain The Thoughts of Comrade Zylo (example: If we have female animals, why not female plants, e.g. oak and oakess?), various notes he has written, e.g. on the origin of the word saxophone and on the world’s smallest man (who does not appear in this list) and quotations from various worthy people. We will see more of his great thoughts later in the book. His information on the report he wants Demkë to write is equally unhelpful.
Things do not always go well for Zylo. He is expecting an invitation to an important conference and pretends that it is waiting for it at home. He hovers round the conference centre, where Demkë sees him, as he accompanies his wife, who does have an invitation. Demkë sees Zylo sneak off to the cinema and then reappear at the end of the conference, pretending he had been there all the time.
As well as his thoughts we also learn that Zylo has written a book of stories. The publishers were urging him to publish but, of course, he declined.
It is poor Demkë, of course, who accompanies him on a field trip to a remote village, where he urges more cultural activities on the villagers, who are exhausted with all the agricultural work they have to carry out. He also urges on them the value of taking baths.
Zylo is urgently called back to Tirana by Comrade Q and soon finds out – too late – that Q is not in favour of foisting cultural activities on the hard-working peasants. As Zylo rose, so he can fall.
We follow Zylo’s gradual fall. Much of it takes place when Zylo is ordered to go on holiday to rest and he heads off to the seaside, where he is joined not only by Demkë but most of the other main characters. They spend their time gossiping. Who is in and who is out? Who will get what job? Is Zylo doomed? Is Q due to be fired?
This book had considerable success in Albania, undoubtedly because the Albanians, like most other peoples, enjoy mocking their officials. We follow most of the story from the point of view of Demkë. Demkë is mild-mannered and would really like to concentrate on his own writing but he is also weak, as his wife often tells him, and does whatever he is told. However, he is not too impressed with Zylo and nor are we, when we look at his thoughts and his comments to Demkë. However, he is ambitious and knows how to play the game, till he gets caught out in a power struggle.
This book has, not unsurprisingly, been translated into five languages but not English.
First published by Naim Frashëri in 1973
No English translation
First published in French as Splendeur et décadence du camarade Zul by Gallimard in 1990
Translated by Christian Gut
First published in German as Zylo oder die abenteuerliche Reise durch die wundersame Welt von Bürokratien by Neuer Malik-Verlag in 1991
Translated by Oda Buchholz
First published in Italian as Ascesa e caduta del compagno Zylo by Argo in 1993
Translated by Fernando Cezzi
Also translated into Chinese and Greek