The Loser, By Fatos Kongoli, trans. Robert Elsie & Janice Mathie-Heck

How to determine the calculus of freedom using non-Marxian geometry
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Come on, try: name one other living Albanian author apart from Ismael Kadare. No? Well, here's one more you really need to read. Not just because the French press repeatedly describe Fatos Kongoli as "a mixture of Beckett and Dostoyevsky", but because The Loser is among the best new novels published this year. Thanks to Albanian expert Robert Elsie, working with fellow-Canadian Janice Mathie-Heck, this edition is also to be ranked with the best of translations. The Loser is not only bleak and bald but unexpectedly humorous and humble: not an easy tone to achieve, and one that emanates from a fresh and unique voice.

The Loser is Thesar Lumi, who exercises his existential choice by descending from the boat in which he is planning to escape the collapse of Communism in 1991. The chance to leave behind decades of political repression, including prison, torture and the untimely death of loved ones, suddenly doesn't weigh, even as the warm pee of his best friend's little son, "who I was still carrying on my shoulders, trickled down the back of my neck". This decision to end his "Odyssey" and pass up a future in Italy is all the more poignant since Thesar is no Homeric hero. He is an everyman described as insignificant, inept, incongruous, inferior: one of life's losers.

Thereafter Thesar's story is told in flashback: "a life in a matchbox". With no room for manoeuvre, he ricochets off his diminutive walls, constrained by a system that allows no distinction between the personal, professional and political. Every desired change is bound to be thwarted.

Worse still, as Thesar pursues his two loves, the shy, introverted Vilma and the dynamic, mature Sonia, he pulls them into his own doomed orbit. Thesar spends much of the novel increasingly drunk on cheap cognac and strong coffee, alternating between comatose collapse and febrile activity. Increasingly, the latter becomes directed to physical self-preservation, fending off dark forces masterminded by secret-police chief Grey Eyes and executed by Fagu and his sinister gang of thugs.

Such an account does little credit to the powerful and disastrously funny atmosphere Kongoli evokes. Under Communism, he chose a career as a professor of mathematics, there being "no Marxist concepts in geometry". The Loser has the pared-down aspect of an intricate geometric design in which everything is necessary and connected. Yet it is rich in vivacity and surprises.

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