Carry-on up the Balkan backwaters

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ALBANIA IS still terra incognita. The Albanians were always a race apart, cut off from their Greek and Slav neighbours both by the high mountains ringing much of the country and by the Islamic faith to which most of them - loosely - adhere. Isolated even inside the Communist Bloc by Enver Hoxha, their peculiar, violent dictator, who enjoyed shooting his political enemies himself, they have continued to pursue a separate, disastrous path since the fall of Communism.

Enter Robert Carver, an Englishman brought up in Cyprus, whom we encounter in the summer of 1996 trudging his way along paths full of broken glass, past roofless factories and uprooted orchards, in this post-Communist wilderness. For this is a land where the fall of Hoxha's Orwellian dictatorship had resulted in the extraordinary spectacle of a nation descending on the carcass of the state - stealing, breaking, tearing up and unscrewing everything within reach. Before, they had worked all the time and lived regimented lives under the feared gaze of the secret police, the Sigurimi. Now, the arrival of "freedom" was widely interpreted as freedom to smash and grab what they could, and do no work at all.

Gabriel, Carver's guide, is that familiar East European figure, the frustrated intellectual. From the vantage point of a front seat in the town cafe, he spends his days grimacing at the uncouth peasants strolling past, railing against the folly and venality of officialdom, and bemoaning the lack of "culture" among his compatriots.

Naturally, he never lifts a finger to do anything about it. Visiting a school that has been ransacked, like all the other official buildings, he complains bitterly about the devastation, but is nonplussed when Carver suggests that the teachers and pupils might themselves start cleaning the lavatories, painting the walls, replacing the windows and pulling up the weeds outside. "Gabriel looked away from me, embarrassed. `This is the government's job. It is a scandal ...'"

Carver's is the first British account that I know of life in this surreal landscape, possibly since Edith Durham wrote High Albania just before the First World War. But Carver is no Durham. She could spot a rogue but loved the Albanians, too, and it is precisely that love, albeit tempered by wit and by judgement, that lends her book its enchantment.

Carver, on the other hand, falls for the English travel writer's familiar, annoying vice - summing up entire nations in witty, wounding little put-downs. This, for example, is the history of Albania: "Albania was a professional client state. It had been bankrupt since its inception in 1913 and had just gone on borrowing money and scrounging goods and aid ever since. None of this was ever paid back; instead, new patrons of a political hue were sought. Albanians would wave any flag you liked as long as they were paid for it." Get the picture?

Carver cannot resist caricatures and the grotesque. But what might be entertaining as an after-dinner speech ("My Adventures among Rascals in the Balkans") is hard to sustain through 337 pages. Half-way through I was groaning as the parade of gold-toothed dolts, leering whores, cackling baba-yagas, sinister, smiling murderers and mad professors wended its way on and on. He clearly thought that he had got the better of them.

Many of his encounters end with our English hero stalking majestically from the scene of conflict after delivering some fantastic verbal thrust that has left his Albanian foe whimpering. I think we are being invited to chortle gleefully at the comedy of such a people as this pretending to be on the same level as us. Instead, I felt embarrassed.

There is too much Greek propaganda here, too, most of it incomprehensible to an English audience and wasted on us. What is the point of constantly referring to the neighbouring state of Macedonia as "Slavo-Macedonia"? This nonsensical phrase, culled out of the Greek newspapers, is designed to belittle the Macedonians and reassure a purely Greek audience that that republic has no right to the northern Greek province of the same name. At the end of the book we are gravely informed that Carver was "lucky to get out alive". I think he would certainly be lucky to get out alive, if he were ever to go back there.