Thursday, 30 September 2010

Continuing the Gjirokastra theme

The poem below, 'In The Citadel', refers to one of the odder remnants of the Cold War: a 'captured' USAAF Lockheed jet fighter which is still on display in the citadel of the southern Albanian city of Gjirokastra. There's a picture of it here (not taken by me). There are various conflicting stories about how it got there - these range from it having been shot down by either the Albanian air force or anti-aircraft fire (which would have been difficult, seeing as Albania had no ground-based air defences at the time) to it having landed at Tirana airport following a navigational error by the pilot.
What does seem to be certain is that, in December 1957, the pilot, Howard J Curran, strayed into Albanian airspace twice. According to the American version of the story, he was taking the Lockheed T-33 from Chateauroux airbase in France to Naples in Italy when, thanks to a combination of bad weather and instrument failure, he arrived over Albania by mistake. Running out of fuel, he searched for a nearby airfield and spotted what was, in fact, the as-yet incomplete Tirana International Airport. Once on the ground, he was promptly arrested and taken away for interrogation. In yet another version of the story, his arrival was greeted by a chain-gang cheering political prisoners who were working on the airport's new runway at the time and assumed that the plane heralded a full-scale American invasion of the country and therefore the end of Enver Hoxha's totalitarian regime.
Several accounts of this 'incident' claim that what became of Curran is 'unknown' (the implication being that, rather like Michael Caine in the film version of The Ipcress File, he was held prisoner by the Albanians and brainwashed) but his release and return to the USA via Yugoslavia was reported in Life magazine in January 1958 (see here). His aeroplane, meanwhile, was kept by the Albanians - on the pretext that it had lost a tyre on landing and they couldn't replace it - and taken to Gjirokastra citadel to become part of Hoxha's 'trophy cabinet' of captured military equipment (a selection of Italian howitzers and a tank from the Second World War - all of which are also still on display in the citadel).
Whether Curran really had made some grievous errors or not is a matter of debate. Tirana is a long way from Naples, Curran himself was an extremely experienced pilot - a Second World War and Korean War 'flying ace' - and, of course, America wouldn't have been keen to admit that it was flying reconnaissance missions over Albania at the time. That said, the coasts of Albania and western Italy follow nearly parallel bearings, and if he was flying without instruments, Curran might well have mistaken the one for the other.
Either way, the Lockheed remains at Gjirokastra (although most of its moveable parts had been removed by the time I saw it in 2006), an unlikely memorial to the Cold War.
Howard Curran himself died in August last year and his obituary, including a short version of the Albanian 'interlude', is posted here.
One reason for posting this and the poem below is that Gjirokastra was also the birthplace of Albanian writer Ismail Kadare (see post re: his recent Lerici Pea Prize). Kadare's most famous novel, The General of the Dead Army, was inspired by a statue of 'Mother Albania' in the Military Museum inside Gjirokastra citadel (it shows Albania sending both the Nazis and the Italians packing, their arms weighed down by skulls), while one of his most lyrical, Chronicle in Stone, offers a child's eye view of the city during the Second World War - and, as a results, gives an illuminating insight into the follies and horrors of war in general.
Gjirokastra was also the birthplace of Enver Hoxha, and although the plinth where a gigantic statue of the 'heroic leader' once tood now lies empty and looks, from the citadel walls, like a redundant heliport, the house where he was born has been turned into an 'ethnic museum'. The Kadare family house, meanwhile, has yet to be 'museum-ified', possibly because, as the Albanian who took me to Gjirokastra phlegmatically observed, "we won't know what we think of him until he dies".

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

In the Citadel

Above so much traditional stone housing
squatting into the mountainside,
the football stadium and a hexagonal blank
like a heliport (the emptied plinth
of a statue which surveyed far more
than it would ever command),
we are stepping over shed fuel tanks
to photograph the captured plane.

Downed in the Cold War,
by whatever means, it sits now
on a lawn on the edge of a rampart,
its turbine an empty mouth,
its stripped-out cockpit open.
We take turns to stand
with kids on the wing
while tourists from elsewhere
count medieval cannon.

Not far west of Gjirokaster
lies Hamara, Saranda, the Adriatic,
beyond that the Mediterranean,
and, beyond that, the Atlantic.
Sometime in the 1950s,
a Lockheed strayed off course.

Driving down white marbled streets
where celebratory excuses are enough
for men who shouldered state relics
all the way up to the citadel,
we’re turning out onto the plain,
disputed territory not that long ago,
where old simplicities ended.

News re: Albania

Albanian writer Ismail Kadare has won this year's Lerici Pea Poetry prize. This may come as something to a surprise to readers in Britain since, here, he's only really known for novels such as The Successor (which won the Booker Man International Prize), The Siege, The General of the Dead Army, The Ghost Rider etc.
Kadare, however, has published a series of poetry collections in Albanian, including several career-spanning 'selecteds'. Some of these have been translated into French as part of an ongoing translation of his collected works (and, given the origin of this latest prize, some have also presumably been rendered in Italian) but the only samples I can find translated into English are a good but modest group on Robert Elsie's site. These and some very rudimentary readings of his poetry in Albanian suggest that, unsurprisingly, this strand of his work demonstrates similar qualities to his prose - clarity, precision, allusiveness, versatility - and to the poetry of other European late-modernists.
More than anything, perhaps, the awarding of this prize is a reminder that, even though a dozen of his novels have been translated into English, these only represent a tiny proportion of Kadare's work (his novels, poetry, essays etc occupy two whole bookcases in the International Bookshop in Tirana); that the proportion of Albanian literature in general which has been translated into English is even smaller (although again Elsie's site has a good selection, as well as details of other Albanian translations which have been published); and that even when an individual writer or an entire literary culture appears to be well-represented in translation, the translated works rarely represent more than the very tip of the proverbial iceberg.
The other question which this award raises relates to Kadare's prospects as a putative Nobel laureate. His name has been 'connected' with the Nobel Prize on several occasions but the truth is he remains a controversial figure, both in Albania and South Eastern Europe as a whole, largely because of his ambiguous departure from Albania to live in Paris immediately after the end of communism and because of his perspective on Kosovo. You can get a flavour of the controversy at the LRB's website from this letter and my response, originally published three years ago.