Foreigners’ opinions about comrade Zylo
Allen Bosque: The other Albanian
Off the beaten tracks, the outrageous and insulting words full of humor from an author of universal scale
“Le Figaro”, dated 26 July, 1990
For 20 years now, Europe discovers book after book an author of universal dimensions, Ismail Kadare. Today, we were given the opportunity to read the first novel of another author translated into French, Dritero Agolli. “The rise and fall of Comrade Zylo” is an impressive novel, especially for the fact that it is a satire from the year 1972; a time when you could not speak of liberalism in Tirana. Only some texts by Dritero Agolli were published until now in our journals without attracting much attention. He was born in 1931, and studied in the University of SSRU as most intellectuals of his generation. His novels gained him a solid fame in his country. His works are translates in around 6 languages, and today he is the chairman of the Albanian League of Writers, even though he is characterized by an extraordinary openness and freedom in expressing his thoughts.
The novel we are reading prevailed with difficulties. It is written with a discretion and classicism which at first sight seems to be abiding to the principles of socialist realism: there is no room for mystery, lyricism or delirium. Even psychology is in agreement with official instructions. As it is mentioned there, nobody is a monster or a wicked human being in this masterpiece of irony. In addition, it can be assumed that the characters are optimist and strongly believe in the joyful tomorrow. Moreover, the hero, Zylo, is a high official or rather an apparatchik with various responsibilities, who does not obey, but on the contrary, he continuously introduces a spirit of initiative. Of course, one must see beyond appearances.
The narrator, Zylo’s main coworker, in charge of culture and shows, reports the comings and goings of his superior. The composition of the whole book is similar to that of a report, record or official biography. In other words, he is a charming tyrant of good will and not at all a caricature. Whatever he thinks, says or does, he strives to guarantee the wellbeing of the employees in his administration and to provide them with amusement: the happy war of classes.
The mindful, subdued and at the same time the amazing paper writer, Demka, the narrator makes everything possible to obey to Zylo. He prepares several reports, which later are appropriated by his master: this is the law of hierarchy. The dialogue serves to ward off grouches: enough that employees accept and submit to the superiority of those who decently and competently have mounted on their shoulders. Zylo explains, warrants, gives orders and gives anyone the impression that he is right about everything. His persuasive force is the kind that makes everybody gladly bow town before his wickedness: from the moment when you become accomplice, you encourage his knowledge and foresight, even though they seem objectively suspicious.
Showing one’s teeth is a rare phenomenon and soon the reader asks himself how is it possible that in front of this persuasive and cunning force, wickedness and blindness are not on Demka’s side: he does not suffer at all from his position as an admired person without conditions. He bends his back proudly. This is how monarchs are. They encounter very civilized and finicky slaves, for whom obedience is less costly than the smallest doubt. Hence, the reader sympathizes with Zylo, and finally Demka personifies the person who is most passively and half-wittedly submitted. On the other hand, Zylo possesses enough power to look more free, brave and almost sovereign. When everything seems to be planned, the unexpected occurs: the most disciplined persons are also shaking in that state shock. One day, without knowing why, Zylo loses his job.
He is not criticized or accused of anything. He wanders to find a new job. There are rumors that he will be sent to work in an embassy. However, nothing happens. Demka does not give up: his feelings of consideration do not wither and his admiration shall have no excuses for Demkas. Servants should serve and should not replace their masters. It can never happen that legend deals with people as irreproachable as Zylo. Hence, the entire legend is insane, and this is the flaw of the system: from the moment that when it starts to be dreamed of, when the good material and psychological organization is extrapolated, and replaced by insanity. Then, satire reaches to the maximum levels. Dritero Agolli writes: “The dog is a loyal animal. Why are we than annoyed and angered when treated as dogs?” to make fun of his character Zylo, he adds: “A child writes with a piece of chalk on Comrade Zylo’s door: “Monument of Culture”.
Off the beaten tracks, this book gives us overflowing joy. It reminds you of the “Auditor” of Nikolai Gogol with the humorous insults that Voltaire and Diderot wanted. There is no need to mention communism. A disclosure could be more brutal, and in fact more easy. Everything here is ironic, perfectly balanced, but without wings. The dynamite is covered with petals. He is an author who deserves European fame.
“The rise and fall of comrade Zylo” by Dritero Agolli
Extracted from the French newspaper “Le Figaro” dated 20 July, 1990 and written by Allen Bosque
After Ismail Kadare, Albania unveils an author of European dimensions, Dritero Agolli whose satiric novel deserves to be compared with the famous novel “Auditor” of Nikolai Gogol. Nothing is more thrilling, more pleasant, and funnier than the portrait of this self-contended apparatchik, who suppresses people for the benefit of humanity with humor and courtesy.
Dominique Fernandez: Comrade Zylo is very zealous
In the French journal “Le Nouvel Observateur”, dated 12 July, 1990
Dritero Agolli, Chief of the Albanian League of Writers, published in 1972 a satiric novel about the absurdity of bureaucracy. This book was very famous in Tirana and spared its author from hostility.
Ismail Kadare is not the only Albanian author! Here is another one, who with his sharp pen gives us some strange ideas about life in his country, which is not regarded as especially liberal. Comrade Zylo (called this way according to the custom of his country and by using it repeatedly it takes a very ironic connotation) is head of cultural affairs the high administration of Tirana. His assistant, who is at the same time secretary and a man to be made fun of, gives accurate account for all his deeds and gestures. The comic spark originates by objectively presenting his behavior. Comrade Zylo, convinced of the importance of his duty, always struggles to a better expansion of culture. He perceives his mission as a continuous battle against the slackers: when you enter his office, you always find him in busy. He should always give his opinion on everything, because “for him every phenomenon is considered as an excuse to make his opinion known”. He dictates some decrees with a unique warlike spirit: “The tragic should be studied in depth. From the point of view of the actual socialist philosophy, the concept of the tragic in everyday life should not exist in the village consciousness of intelligence. The tragic does not exist any more, except as a category. The basic concept is the joy for life.”
Dritero Agolli demonstrates that he has invented nothing, except the fact that he has reproduced extracts from official reports. Various funny episodes you cannot resist. When visiting an agricultural cooperative, Zylo is distressed when he sees the peasants working, who have forgotten the cultural matters, instead of putting his obsessions in parentheses, he insists on fighting. Culture shall not follow blindly wheat and corn. Should the peasants profit from public rest-rooms put at their disposal? He assigns his secretary the job to prepare a report on the importance of hygiene and of the lack of warm water, which opens up the pores.”
In another occasion, he had to deal with the analyses of a theatrical performance. Comrade Zylo went to the theatre and later gave his opinion: “The drama is ideologically faulty. First of all, the negative hero inspires strength. Did you notice him climbing a hill? What does it mean, my friend? This means that he has mounted a pedestal, i.e. the hill. He should get off the hill and be tossed into a well. Is it the positive hero who should climb the hill?” According to Dritero Agolli, these are words were actually spoken by an Albanian official. Comrade Zylo is unlucky: the part that he wanted to ban was considered as excellent by his superiors. This is where the zealous knight of culture begins to fall.
But before his fall, he was not antipathetic to us. The author’s talent is in considering him a victim, a victim of the bureaucratic and ideological absurdity that plays havoc in his country: A very small tool in the large anonymous machinery of state. The book was published in 1972, 5 years after the publication of the book “The joke” by Milan Kundera. These books are similar from their approach to satire. However, while the book of Kundera was prohibited in Czechoslovakia, the novel of Dritero Agolli had a perfect carrier. A year later, the author was appointed Chief of the League of Writers and Artists, a position which he holds even nowadays. At first, parts of this novel were published in a satiric journal: the humor served as lightning-conductor. It is considered humor to legitimize the sharpness of the critique! The book was not reproached due to his success. Comrade Zylo got away from the setting of the novel, to become an every-day Albanian character, a citizen like the others. It seems to imply that: “There is a Zylo” for everyone that is badly rewarded for his loyalty to the harsh, dark and omnipotent political hierarchy.
What better luck could the hero of the novel have had other than to be used in everyday life as a common name? The soldier Svejk and Ati Ubu have also had this glorious fate. Now, comrade Zylo shall complement the trilogy of these touching grotesques who discover the sclerosis and foolishness of a system. In order to review the various opinions we might have for Albania, he must be left free in his own country, to come up with some new titles time after time, to challenge without being punished the nomenclature, through the joy and shamelessness of his laughter.
Francois Nourissier: Dritero Agolli: Tartarean of Tirana
In the journal “Figaro Journal” dated 30 June, 1990
Dritero Agolli whose first book is translated in French, heads the Albanian League of Writers and Artists for 17 years now. Those who know popular democracies are aware that in the state devise important authors were rarely appointed in high positions. For the classic apparatchik, for the ‘laureate poet” who was famous in the East, Milan Kundera has presented a harsh portrait in the novel “Life is elsewhere”, whose hero Jaromil, precedes the comic figure of “Comrade Zylo”. But it seems that Dritero Agilli has nothing to do with the zealous and tasteless novelists that Stalinism liked so much. When I met him last year in Tirana, I was impressed by his profile as a leader and his flowing tone. Now his works have been translated in the valuable collection “From all over the world”, where not everyone is invited to publish. Will he get as famous as Ismail Kadare? This is not impossible.
From the clear title of the novel “The rise and fall of Comrade Zylo” we are reminded of the rise and fall of Zylo Kamberi in Tirana, a high official, director of cultural affairs. It is a stunning and very funny criticism over bureaucracy, intellectual administration, of privileges of socialism and the harsh and sharp language used.
Published in a journal in 1972 and a year later as a separate edition, republished again in 1981, “The rise and fall of Comrade Zylo” forces us to review some of our ideas on the freedom that a novelist in Albania during Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship. It was really a mysterious place! Moreover, behind the characters of the novel, functionaries, paper writers, critics (and their fat and well-behaved wives) the warned readers could recognize the real personalities. We are even more impressed to accept that these ridiculed caricatures were real portraits.
By imitating a famous formula, Dritero Agolli becomes Franz Kafka, with a bit more sun. The Ministry of Culture, its directories, commissions and meetings make up the abstract décor of a buffoon satire. Zylo is a Tartarean of dialectics, a pot full of words, a grandiloquent talker, hypocrite, maybe even honest, but an irreparable fool. In his work “Rober” or “School for Women” Andre Gide describes an exhausted and cunning character in this family. It is envisaged that even Gogol who had lived a century later, had used this subject. Being or not supporters of the “socialist realism”, it is something rare that the authors venture to describe a negative hero. This is a dangerous undertaking but masterpieces may come out of them. A sustainable distance should be kept between the author and the character, and between this latter and the reader. Dritero Agolli has achieved this by using an ideal narrator: Demka who is at the same time slave and parasite of comrade Zylo who is his shield. Being a hopeless writer and cool-headed journalist, Demka is rather the insignificant editor of reports, speeches and interventions of his hierarchic superiors. He is seen only at a lost profile, writing down the inextinguishable sentences of his master and serving him his soup. Soon, both characters, fed by one-another, are inseparable. Demka’s flattering modesty and hypocrisy approaches the grandiosity of Zylo, his arrogance, his empty rhetoric, somewhat a ridiculous grandiosity. This is the epopee of the dogmatic chitchat, apotheosis of nothing.
One should not think that the author is exaggerating. Are we not familiar with the CP intellectuals and artists in the 50s who were not able to speak, and such ideological follies? In this naive euphoria in which we are immersed for 6 months now, the evidence of such power and mockery should slow down the dizzy movement of the pendulum in our country.
Piers Morris: Shock of society
The Albanian author Dritero Agolli harshly criticizes the bureaucracy in his country
Extracted from the Belgian newspaper “Le Soir”, dated 27 June, 1990
Thus, Ismail Kadare is not the only Albanian author whose works are translated in French. In fact, the curious readers who are eager to know what is being written now in this country whose borders are so hard to cross, have already at their disposal an “Anthology of the Albanian prose”, presented by Aleksander Zoto, and recently a book titled “A collection of selected poetries” dedicated to the poetry in his country.
But such a fundamental novel such as “The rise and fall of Comrade Zylo”, has been missing until recently.
The free voice on an official.
The worst may be yet cross our mind: Dritero Agolli Chief of The League of Writers and member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, given the fact that Albania is one of the last fortresses of this ideology on the verge of destruction; wouldn’t his novels have the only tendency of protecting this outdated regime?
It is a great wonder: there does not exist such a harsh criticism of the organization in the Eastern countries as in this book, where the devises of the power are valued with such cruelty, mitigated somewhat by a sense of humor draws the characters nearer to us, which transforms them in puppets manipulated by a system that is so “perfect” that could not give them a great freedom to act.
However, Dritero Agolli, a handsome man, with grey hair, who speaks Russian fluently, a more communicative language than Albanian, has benefited much from the freedom of publishing since 1973, despite his official functions and some hesitations from high personalities; he has presented us with a typical portrait of the institutions of his country:
“Dritero Agolli points out that the fact that they can be criticized. An author should have a brave consciousness and should not fear of everything. Writing does not mean to merely represent the principles of the government. Writing should be able to teach the government how to lead and command.’
He has thus written this novel out of the conviction that he had a duty fulfill. The novel was ordered by one of his friends, editor-in-chief of a comic journal which he wanted to give another form.
The narrator is not “Comrade Zylo” but a writer who is not able to create, and who deals with the administrative work of editing official reports. Others take pleasure in considering them as their own writings depending on the reception they are offered.
“The risk of becoming a bureaucrat or opportunist existed in all ex-socialist countries. But if a writer has a very high consciousness, it is better for him to recognize the situations, because in this way he shall be encouraged to write better.”
Humor, the only weapon
To describe such situation, where Comrade Zylo quickly climbs the steps of official power, then to climb them down even more quickly, he must use the only available but extremely effective weapon: the humor.
“Humor allows you to overcome a difficult situation. If one evening among close friends, somebody makes fun of you and says something offensive, the situation might become unpleasant if a serious response is given. But if you answer playfully, you shall come out of that situation perfectly.”
Some passages in the novel “The rise and fall of Comrade Zylo” approach the grotesque. Zylo along with his circle, which is composed mainly by his closest coworker and writer, Demka, go to the village armed with the socialist theory on the cultural progress. Later on we see that the farmers make fun of them and didn’t give them a warm welcome. That is, by observing the customs (raki was offered to the delegates from the capital city, who had much to drink), but carefully avoiding all topics of discussion, and at the same time giving the impression they are carrying out a serious discussion.
In fact, the more suppressing a power is over its people, the weaker it is. Maybe its only power would be that of an army. In case some sectors such as culture which is directed by Zylo’s administration, escape the military rule, such thing can only be achieved through gradually and of course not through clear-cut action, which in this case is completely in conformity with the existing ideology. The latter, however, can take sharp and at the same time various nuances, such as the case of inconsistent actions taken against folk festivals, which are sometime encouraging and sometimes inhibitory. These are trivial facts which discover a line in seeking support from various advocates.
Such a book, written in a country we consider solid in an unchangeable position, is perhaps a sign of delicate evolution: to criticize the actual situation means that it is changing or at least is about to change.
“There was a tendency to avoid reality existing for a while in our country. Later, a lot began to be written about it. But in fact, there was a period when no one would speak about the present.”
Due to the critical role that Dritero Agolli along with several authors worldwide attributes to writing, it is interesting to make a comparison between the evolution of the society and that of literature.
“The situation in Albania evolves at this particular moment, but I think that It would take more time for literature to reflect this reality. Some negative aspects such as bureaucracy are criticized by literature. Some writers are in the avant-garde of this evolution, such as Ismail Kadare.”
Going back to Albania, Dritero Agolli whose books were printed out in 20.000 - 30.000 copies, with experience a new success due to the immediate impact of the translation his novel into French, which also gained him a greater prestige.
“Regarding the Balkans writers, it is important that their works be translated in French; France enjoys a great authority in the literary field, while the publication in French presents a new interest for the writer himself”.
Pierr Gamarra: A novel that surprises
“Europe” Magasine, August 1990
The Albanian writer, Dritero Agolli has written a surprising satiric novel, “The rise and fall of comrade Zylo” (Galimard) translated pretty well by Kristian Gyt. We can think of what the translator has gone through with the great artistry of this writer; the narration and the ambiguous dialogues, scorns mixed up with compassion; which the reader had to feel intensely…We were told that this satiric novel was published in 1972 in fascicles, in an Albanian weekly and that “it was the most successful, regardless of some reservation from some high officials”. It is for sure that, to our opinion, “comrade Zylos” must exist in many places with similar or different political systems.
Who is this comrade Zylo? A high official, in charge of cultural matters, some kind of Mr. Prydome, vested with some kind of power to delegate and take actions. In his duty he sometimes reveals a comic character, a preposterous majesty, he just like us, loves the defining formulas in appearance, but to his good luck, the best day of his life is not the saber, but it would be better the penholder. He goes back to his thoughts…We are given here some pages: “Beardless: the person who has never had the pleasure of shaving…The toothless is not bothered by the fact that eating plums may cause a numb feeling to his teeth”!
I have a remark here: comrade Zylo’s ideas are not always in vain or silly. Some kind of exaggeration, and bantering, mixed with less critic remarks. The truth about the main character is that he is not a toy, void of sensitivity and common sense. Behind some unpleasant discussions and fake attitudes, an unquestionable human character is revealed. Than we ask ourselves, does comrade Zylo’s misfortune really come from the remaining sensitivity and common sense of his character that make him search for justice?
So we will follow Zylo in his daily life, in his activities, when in holidays … This novel contains some chapters where the comic character flows naturally, more or less a serious satire, such chapters as: “The bright appearance of Comrade Zylo in the big meeting”; “Comrade Zylo writing essays and draft novels to forget his troubles”; “Comrade Zylo receives an urgent call from Tirana”; “Something is up with Comrade Zylo” … etc. I will leave you enjoy the rest, and the nice local taste, just like the taste of wine or a typical fruit. Be careful though, as there is another trick: in believing that the excessive boastful behavior, the claims or ignorance of a political person, especially in the field of culture, exist only in Albania, a country which is more or less far. Dritero Agolli’s novel is far interesting for its universal values, his hero, comic and vital at the same time, mocking and mocked at the same time. We envision him as a poor Don Quixote who rides his horse in his country but also elsewhere, victim of a world he has helped to build up but not always in a naïve manner… Don Quixote’s figure is always welcomed, as long as comrade Zylo is frequently accompanied by a secretary-editor who adjusts the thoughts of his master and corrects him from time to time in his way. It is well known a fact that Don Quixote and Sancho do not go around only in La Mancha.
This book is for sure the first sign of what is happening in Albania in the moment that I am writhing.
Note: The writer Pierr Gamarra, the editor in chief of the literary journal “Europe”, published in August-September edition the article “Kemal, Agolli, Vargas Ljosa”. This article is about a novel of the Turkish writer Jashar Kemal, two novels of the Latin-American writer Vargas Ljosa and the novel “The rise and fall of comrade Zylo”.
UBU in Albania
From “L’illustre” of Lausanne Switzerland, August 1990
Albania, if you would have been there, but luckily you haven’t, is recognized thanks to the talent of the novelist Dritero Agolli in satirical writing. “Socialism implies the accounts of service and accounting”. This phrase uttered by comrade Zylo, in charge of the office for Cultural Matters gives tone of the whole novel: a ridiculous and yet bitter portrait however without mechanism of the Albanian official, zealous in all his socialist glamour.
From “Figaro Journal”, 26 May 1990, written by the publicist Robert Lacontre in an article about Albania
Dritero Agolli, Chairman of the League of Writers and Artists, is also a prominent case; “The rise and fall of Comrade Zylo” is a terrifying satire to those who enjoyed a privileged status in the system.
A sharp and witty novel
from “Le Nouveau Currier de la presse”, 23 August 1990
The most comic and one of the most intense novels coming from communist countries. It is surprising how it got published in Albania. This fine diabolic analysis of the hypocrisy of bureaucratic officials through the extraordinary figure of the director Zylo, applies to all countries and times. In our case, individuals like Zylo are produced even in universities. There is no power existing without some kind of absurdity.
Mario Biondi: An elegant novel from the most isolated country in Europe
From the Italian newspaper “Corriere della sera”, Sunday, 23 January 1994
Albania, summer 1982, the province of Devoll, the most extreme edge situated between the Yugoslavian and Greek Macedonia. A popular festival: The representatives of the region presented the best achievements in their production. Among the little food, too many bottles of raki, a terrible local beverage produced at home with all sorts of ingredients. At 11 a.m is like drinking kerosene. But the foreign guest cannot abstain from this tradition. At his table, a well-built man who had the sympathy of everyone, with a well intonated voice, started cutting a small green pepper in the form of glass, filled it up with raki and lifted it up. After a short speech accompanied by some laughs and winks, he gulped down the drink. But what did he say in his speech?
He drank a toast to a woman who is sitting at the table in the center with the high authorities – we were explained latter. She is the Deputy Minister of light industry, and he told her: “Do you see comrade vice minister what we are constrained to do for a drink? We have to use a pepper. When will our victorious industry, etc., etc., manage to produce glasses?
This was a dangerous toast, at least to the ears of a foreigner. But maybe not. The ultra-communist Albania of Enver Hoxha was a very strange country, very difficult to comprehend and categorize. The author of the toast was Dritero Agolli, solder of the antifascist war, an unyielding soul, president of the League of Writers and Artists, and maybe, the second literary authority in the small country in the Balkans, after Ismail Kadare.
A book by Dritero Agolli, a character with an amazing humanitarian power, is in sale in bookstores in Italy: “The rise and fall of comrade Zylo”. It is by no doubt a very special book. A picture with an almost schizophrenic intensity – which is hard to grasp – the country and the culture it comes from. Albania is an almost unraveled mixture of byzantine solemnity with Muslim dervish-like fatalism which should by all means come to the light of historic researches. These two components-plus the third one, the relentless Northern-catholic stubbornness, linked with the Skanderbeg’s myth and the symbol of resistance against the orthodox and Muslim penetration – were forced to coexist at that time by the most absurd of Marxist-Leninist teachings. Such a strange ideological byzantine mixture, thedervish-like fatalism and Catholic stubbornness, (plus the so called Marxism-Leninism), is what makes this novel a rare picture.
The little brother of many wretched “officials in career” served in Eastern-European literature at their “rise and fall”, together with the vain ideological debates, the miserable games for power, the hypocritical courts of spies and eavesdroppers, comrade Zylo, represents the mindless careerist and the harmless naivety, who will be long remembered by those who have the chance to read the book. This book is like a graceful and merciless literary ballet in between Chekhov, Kafka and Solzhenitsyn (plus any fragment from Lenin and Zhdanov) and is of course worth reading it. There is yet another book from this author, entitled “Memo Commissary” published and printed out in French in Albania, which is in sale for the western readers.
It would be best for this book to be published in Italian as well, to provide a complete and intense cultural panorama of Albania which until now has been a mystery.
Ralf Schuler: The wriggling nature of the socialist machinery
From the German journal “Neue Zeit”, 22 September 1994
We have literature coming even from Albania. To many it might seem unbelievable that such a small and pitiful country with fewer inhabitants compared to Berlin, which experienced an isolating dictatorship and a bitter poverty, is capable of producing literary works of a worldly format. Even he who at least understands this, may for sure brag, because usually the western reader, sensitive and with a rich knowledge is most interested in the contemporary writers, who dig up in the actuality of their sphere. If a Nigerian, such as Vole Sojinka, is awarded with the Nobel Prize for literature he may rejoice for this honor but this may not lead us to believe that his books will be read and his plays will be staged.
Here, the literature fan would through away, without any second thought as a national and folkloric literature, everything that does not reflect the dullness and the gloomy atmosphere in his psychology of civilization or does not serve this reflection. Although it is completely understandable that the alien way of life that does not even interest us personally, does not get us emotionally involved, nevertheless, it is inacceptable that some bibliophiles, who regard themselves as highly acculturated, use the same mechanisms used usually in economy and politics. In literature, same as in these two fields, it seems like that the power of the most successful (in most cases success is measured by the sound of jingling money) defines the borders for measuring art. We may call this controversial inability to penetrate deep in the life conditions of others and in their literature, “cultural imperialism”.
Albanian writers and poets are very famous in small cycles. Their rich and vigorous language penetrates in us even through various translations. With his book about Zylo, published in Albania since 1972, Dritero Agolli enriched the world literature with a brilliant satiric novel – regardless of the fact that the Publishing House that managed to publish this book here would not be making money with this novel, for the above mentioned reasons. However, the story of the very important comrade Zylo is narrated ironically and plainly and it has nothing in common with the limitations of the ordinary criticism of the real socialism.
Demka, the unfortunate writer, victim of his own sluggishness and of the empty social life around him, is submitted to the fate of a mere speech-writer who sits and watches the battle for high positions and promotions in a cultural institution in Tirana. Thanks to the delivery of a particularly successful speech, comrade Zylo is promoted to a high managerial position and now on he is interested about everything, from the maintenance of cultural monuments to the Turkish baths in the village.
What is striking in this novel is not the fact that the bureaucratic mechanisms described by Agolli are common in the western bureaucracy; it is the fact that Zylo, at a closer look, is a legend that doesn’t even exist. He is some kind of man who sits in his post, he is irreplaceable and it seems like he himself is the post. Zylo doesn’t actually write the speeches, someone else writes them for him, he gets instructions from up above him and it looks like he vegetates through servility and blind submission from those who are below him. It is like a web-building that is not depending on anything, and yet standing. The entire bureaucratic building, which used to be called a socialist building regardless of how much the individual would suffer under its load, existed in a kind space which was alien to reality – this is exactly the space revealed in a perfect manner by Dritero Agolli.
Although the writer is equipped with a clear writing technique, he yet attempts, for the sake of his tranquility, to convince himself for the existence of these phantasmagoric visions that surround him, in order not to rise against them. With an unbelievable accuracy, the writer has depicted the specific type of repressed judgment which ruled the eastern administration and which is so hard to understand today. In this case there cannot be such thing as belief, because in reality, no one believed in anything. However, it is exactly the accusation for a complete lack of beliefs and to be able to accept it, which the senior officials refer to as the top of all injustice.
The wriggling nature of this machinery is exactly what makes any type of changes inside it so painful, because the worthless turning this gigantic wheel is blocked until the likes and preferences of the new man sitting in the old couch are again made known – until the aimless turning wheel starts functioning again lubricated and in all its might. At the end of the novel, Agolli has presented us with the cult of individual which the writer has depicted with such sarcastic notes, and this is maybe because he had in mind Balkan stereotype. The writer born in 1931 in Devoll, a southeastern province in Albania, must have been familiar with other such derivatives of this phenomenon during his studies in Leningrad in the 50s.
The “monumental style” of narration makes us almost feel magnanimous towards our relaxed bureaucrats and towards ourselves, the ex-inhabitants of the ex-Eastern Democratic Germany who sought for a way of survival in dictatorship. In this book, no one is accused, crushed or reproached, which would be even the case, if we consider the devastating consequences of the deeds of bureaucracy. After having read this book, we shake our head in regret, mirth and grief, having been reminded of the past by experiencing it again through this vivid example.
The German Press on Zylo:
The critic B.Kalnoky in his article “Being the boss is a matter of character”, published on the newspaper “Die Velt”, writes: “Agolli’s novel, a vivid satire – presets with an open tone through a sad but yet sincere chronicler, the fate of an affronted official, comrade Zylo, a high party official in charge of cultural matters. With all that servile behavior, nothing will ever stop him in his quiet and relaxed walk even in changing political currents or in treacherous waters. The book becomes thus an excellent and amusing study on the character of superiors. Whoever has a superior, will be able to discover him in the character of Zylo”.
While in the newspaper “Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung” Eckart Krumhols in his article entitled: “A hasty step towards the saga”, writes: “The truth is that the novel has no easy tones, however the events are depicted with an extraordinary skilful and yet sensitive style. The author narrates the events with a great mastery, a skill that cannot easily be found. The novel seems to have a satiric style, however it seems like the author has shifted from this style by revealing the vital spirit with no pedantry, convincing us with the truthfulness of his writing. With a deep conviction he attacks the scheme and formulas of that time.
All the events are strangely presented by the author with high tones with and at rare flow. Nothing can be left out of this novel and nothing falls out. The reader follows attentively the way the situations are depicted, the way they are solved, the irritations and oppositions, coming to the conclusion that those designed portrays are paid dearly with this dangerous undertaking. The author experiences what he writes, no one forces him to provide such portray of the socialist machine where he used to live. Our hero, Demka, always accompanies his superior Zylo and other hierarchs, in important services, in conferences, discussions, theatrical premier and even in the streets as a clown. In the end of the novel, superior Zylo becomes a legend, at a time when no one knows how he was dismisses from his post. What will happen to the humble Demka? He will continue to prepare speeches and discussions for others”.
The article goes on: “It is hard to forget this novel after reading it. Whoever wants to learn about life in Albania, after gazing at her general facade, must read Dritero Agolli’s novel, its chronicle.
In its column about the important cultural events, the biggest newspaper in Zurich, “Tagesanziger” in its article “Satirical journey through Albania”, writes: “A powerful novel over bureaucracy and the state. The story of comrade Zylo, always devoted to power, overzealous, with a sneakiness typical of a villager, opportunist and thirsty for power, as well as the story of his grotesque events, - as highlighted by Agolli, - with the real bureaucracy, reads as a satiric response against the absurd world. A tough, clear and amusing novel about bureaucracy and above all, the state device. In Albania the Zylo’s character has penetrated in the everyday life. We smile at this tragic-comic hero who reminds of some contemporary figures in our country, but it makes us very serious when we realize that unfortunately, Agolli’s amusing story was (and still is) a very bitter truth.”
In his high consideration of the novel, the critic M. Verner Frank in his article: “War for freedom, democracy and satire” published in the newspaper “Der Kline Bund”, writes: “The world of bureaucracy is not without obstacles and whoever stumbles falls on the ground. This way, Zylo finds himself aside, replaced by another comrade. Demka, who very often gets nostalgic about his freedom during his activity as a writer, becomes suddenly free. A very tragic fate indeed! Because Demka fears freedom, he doesn’t know what to do with it. So he thinks of something, which in his situation is the best thing to do: he writes a chronicle about Zylo, about this uniquely adapted character and bout the world of bureaucracy. With a fine irony and humor, Dritero Agolli, one of the most read Albanian writers, criticizes the intrigues, hypocrisies, abuse of power and ticks. He makes it clear that bureaucracy is not a phenomenon existing only in Albania, but is a world-wide phenomenon.
The critic V.Platzuk, in his article entitled “Flexible”, published in the newspaper “Vestdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung”, among other things writes: “The novel “Zylo” by Agolli, published in 1973, written in a laconic language and seemingly with a the naïve point of view of Demka, stands in the tradition of the great satiric-humorous novels.
Below he points out: “the conservative thought, the political vest, abuse of power, the arrogant behavior - no country can make any strong and original declarations about these matters, existing in one county alone. Albania is located in the Balkans. Bureaucracy exists everywhere.
The critic, Fred Olsen, in his article entitled: “The rise and fall of an Apparatchik” published in the newspaper “Subvest Presse” writes: “When reflecting contradicting phenomena, typical of a totalitarian regime, it often happens that artistic writings which offer a faithful reflection of the political relationships, escape the vigilance of censors. Otherwise it is unlikely that the novel “Zylo…” by D. Agolli, would have been published in 1972, in a satiric journal in Albania. Agolli’s main viewpoints about the activity of a socialist bureaucracy in the early 70s, were not of that time.
An article entitled: “Satire against nomenclature”, published in the newspaper “Deister und Veserzeitung” states: “Such a dazzling satirist as Dritero Agolli is no longer a stranger here. His novel “Zylo”, which is now published by the publishing house Malik, is a very amusing and popular satire against the “cadre’s politics” of a socialist country. With his novel he goes beyond the borders of Albanian, where the story takes place. Reading through the paged of this novel one is reminded of the great Russian satirists.
With an opening article entitled “A brilliant satire against bureaucracy”, the “Haller Tagblatt” newspaper writes: “In the background of political changes happening now in Albania, which brought this small country to the center of the attention of the world opinion, this satire against bureaucracy and the vest of the high official enters into a very interesting dimension. After an analysis of the content the article ends with: “It is a fresh novel, full of humor, a sharp insult against the abuse of power, the arrogant and presumptuous behavior, a testimony of a real achievement, with values beyond time and beyond the borders of Albania.
In the newspaper “Mittelbayerische Zeitung” of Regensburg, the political writer H.Obermayer, compares the East-German bureaucracy with the Albanian bureaucracy, discovering the common features between them in his article “Satire, a weapon against the circulation in a rigid cycle”. He writes: “Zylo stands in the tradition of the great comic novels.” Demka, the narrator, is a small civil servant of the cultural bureaucracy, the permanent writer of speeches, for which he gets a lot of praises by everyone, if it pleases them of course. If Demka goes “off tracks” he gets punished. Zylo is his supporter and antagonist, he stands in a very high position in the hierarchy and bow before his superiors, but with his employees he behaves with arrogance. His relationship with employees which often changes is characterized by abuse of power, arrogance and presumptuous behavior. Agolli develops such characters which are not only found in the caricatured situation of Albania. This is why “The adventurous journey through the world of bureaucracy” or “The rise and fall of comrade Zylo” does not only take us in Tirana, in Albanian province by the Adriatic coast. Te bureaucracy depicted by Agolli can be found everywhere, there where the ordered action is confused with development – and this is not an isolated case, typical of Albania. The characters of Zylo and Demka go beyond time and geographic borders. In Demka’s character, who finally wants more than writing speeches for others, Dritero Agolli has precisely depicted the distortion of the creative potential. The fact that he does this through farce and irony, the fact that his Demka becomes a simple figure and the fact that he cannot avoid the comic aspect, with all the tragedy in it, make this a very valuable novel and very famous even after two decades”.
The article: “Comrade Zylo and his writer Demka” by the critic Peter Korte presented in the pages of “Ultimo” newspaper, writes: “What happened in Albania? Not much time has passed when we had to consider Albania as the last museum arena of socialism which used to exist for real. But in 1973 a novel was published there, which marked many bitter truths in their Popular Party badges. Agolli’s novel is full of employees who serve with love, sycophants, egoists and contrivers of ideology. Demka draws up the speech, becoming thus servant of two masters, for whom he produces things which are quite contrary. Zylo, fresh and zealous, wants to give a new tone to the sector “N” that of art and culture. But the new is old. The phrases for “a methodological-scientific points of view”, which most of the time existed in a written form and were rarely spoken for, were used in phrases typical of the base, the cadre and the people. Thus, life in Albania was as vital as imagined. The absurdity of events derives exactly from the simple narration style of Agolli. It is not by chance that Agolli is precise in his style. He depicts every situation at the highest top and it never sounds exaggerated. The hard tone of presumptuous officials, making extensive use of the phrases by Marx and Engels, is considered here in Germany, as the noise of factories in Honecker’s eastern empire. The comicality here does not arise from casual humorous episodes, but from the inconsistency between what Zylo says with self-confidence and his actions. Based on our historical experience, such a satiric portray as depicted by Agolli, would be hard to find mercy from the censurers. So is it merely a mistake of the censure? Or rather a very evil trick used by Enver Hoxha?”
In his article: “Warning in the East”, published in “Szene Hamburg” newspaper, Nikolas Schroder writes: “Demka opposes Demka. The writer presents the destiny of a speech writer. In fact Demka is a writer and wants to write short-stories. But as men must live and Demka is not strong enough to say “no”, when it comes to it, than he slowly signs for peace. In the politic environment in Albania, Demka personifies a talented person that aims to climb up the stairs.”
Among others, “Byerische Rundschau” newspaper highlights the fact that: “Demka, an unsuccessful writer and a simple modern person, is the chronicler of the colorful fate of comrade Zylo in the supernatural and rare world of bureaucracy described in the novel, testifying of an achievement which goes beyond Albania, the birthplace of the author and the setting of the events.
The novel “The rise and fall of comrade Zylo” was first published in 1972 in “Hosteni” journal with the initiative and insistence of the Niko Nikolla, the editor-in-chief of the journal at that time. Niko Nikolla was a newly appointee and wanted to change something in the tradition of the journal to make it more attractive to the reader. Thus he had been thinking of publishing long stories and satiric novels in every edition of “Hosteni” journal. He asked me about any story or novel which belongs to the comic genre and I told him that I was writing something but it was not finished yet. He insisted and I gave him 70 pages of typescript with a long title “The rise and fall of comrade Zylo”. I told him that it was a novel in process which was intended to be shared among family and my journalist friends, rather than published. To cut it short, I gave him to read for himself not to get it published. Without my consent he sent it to the press with the note: “we’re starting to publish Dritero Agolli’s novel “The rise and fall of comrade Zylo”.
Sadija, my wife, called Niko and asked him to give us back the unfinished novel, saying that those 70 pages were not a literary work but just a funny piece of writing which was written in Shengjin beach in Lezha during summer holidays.
.-Don’t put us into trouble Niko! – she begged but it was too late.
Niko Nikolla sure had his own way of doing things and also the editorial office regulation.
.-You are a journalist at “Zeri Popullit” newspaper. You work with serious people; you don’t go around with comedians! In those pages you handed to Niko without thinking much you made fun of everyone, with your friends and other above you …you will see when Niko publishes those comical writings! She muttered, putting some doubtful thoughts in by head, knowing that women are the first to sense the social and political dangers.
All these didn’t stop comrade Zylo’s march. In the editorial office the script was read out loud and accompanied with ‘laughing’, a reaction which showed that the laughing would continue among readers.
Illustrated with Bardhyl Fico’s cartoons, the novel started to get published. After two or there editions in “Hosteni” journal, the literary work was considered a novel with a note in it saying: “any similarity to actual events or characters is purely coincidental”. This note was put as some of my acquaintances started to bear grudges against me because they found some similarities with some of the characters.
I went on writing the rest of the novel as it started to get published and at the end of every edition of “Hosteni” journal it would read…”to be continued in the next edition.” The publication of the novel in the journal went on for almost a year, causing to much noise, probably more than any of by other works. The prime minister of that time, Mehmet Shehu, one of my best readers, was in Paris for some health problems. One day he called Niko Nikolla from Paris, asking him for the next editions of the journal to follow Zylo’s story. Sometimes later in one of the meetings of the Council of Ministers, where I was attending for some cultural issues, Mehmet Shehu he said to me:
- I haven’t told you this because you’re my friend, but with your Zylo you have made my administration look ridiculous!”
Due to his consideration for me, I noticed that it was not easy for him to make that remark as he didn’t want to offend me. I tried to defend myself to come out of the situation by explaining:
-The novel criticizes some bureaucratic behaviors aiming to improve the administration.
-We’ll meet again, Dritero!, replied Mehment Shehu with an expression from comrade Zylo addressed to the chief of the agricultural cooperative, taken out from the novel.
Thus, the critic of the prime minister was considered as a joke. The novel itself was considered in general as humor. The honorariums I would get for every edition were spent that very day at the bar drinking and making jokes. At the bar, I and Niko Nikolla would invite those “real characters” by coaxing them. One of them was Coti Papuli, the character of Cute Babulja in the novel. To cut the long story short, the honorariums would become cigarette smoke, raki fume and jokes. When four or five last editions were yet to be published, Sadija pleaded with Niko:
- Dritero is going abroad and he needs a good costume. Give him the honorariums of the last four or five editions Niko, so that we would buy at least a costume as a memory from Zylo!
So with the money I got from that entire novel, a costume was all I could buy. No honorariums were given for the other two publications, as the rule at that time was that only one literary work would get paid, it didn’t matter how many new editions you published.
When the novel had been published in “Hosteni” journal, in the beginning of year 1973, Niko Nikolla and I went to “Naim Frasheri” publishing house and met with Dhurata Xoxa the deceased wife of the great writer Jakov Xoxa, who at that time was chief of the official office for prose. She assigned Niko Nikolla as editor, as he was the first publisher. In the novel there was a chapter about comrade Zylo’s trip to Africa to spread out Marxism-Leninism. But after a friendly talk with Dhurata, I made up my mind to take out this part and not get it published. I left only some phrases about Africa, about the languages lingala and munukutula in particular, which comrade Zylo would learn. The part about Africa was written after the impressive trip I had in Kongo-Brazavil in 1971. Niko Nikolla with his courageous carelessness wanted to get that part published. I was hesitant as I didn’t want any troubles on the critical content of the novel, this is why the part about Africa wasn’t even included in the new editions of 1972, 1973 and neither in 1981. However, sometime ago as I was going through a load of papers and notebooks, I found the writing and I decided to include it in the fourth edition of “The rise and fall of comrade Zylo”.
Except for the part about Africa, the new edition of the novel does not have any significant changes from the previous editions. There is some editing and some minor additions in chapters to strengthen the connection between them. As I mentioned earlier, the name of a character has been changed. Cute Babulja was the name of this character in the first version of the novel published in “Hosteni” journal. But when the novel came out as a book I changed his name to Kristofor, because my friend Coti Papuli was holding grudges against me. Later Coti Papuli asked me why I changed this name. But the truth is, he was annoyed by the version in the journal, with a phrase in the novel, where it was said that Cute Babulja ate eleven doves. He was mad at me and said:
-I didn’t eat eleven, I ate seven doves!
All these are vicissitudes of the novel, just like the adventures of comrade Zylo, his hero.
February, 27, 1999
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