Azem Deliu, born 1996 in Skënderaj, Kosovo studied Albanian Literature at the University of Prishtina where he was honoured with the prestigious Distinguished Student Award for his first poetry volume The Funeral of Rain (2013). His first novel The Illegal Kisser (2016) became a national bestseller and has already been translated into English. Interest in the author is also growing in other countries. The French press have called him ‘a great author from a small country’ and ‘the new star of European literature’.
Notes of the worm Smolinski
“I am a dishonest worm” was all I could write in my journal on January 24, after Liliana’s burial. It was difficult to define what I really felt. I only knew I was tired. Exhausted after a hard day and with the feeling of Liliana’s unexpected death that was squeezing me within with an unbearable pressure, after I wrote these words, I felt like I was writing for days. Fatigue has priority, I said to myself. Man can feel many things at once, but nothing beats the fatigue. This type of fatigue, not the physical one.
Then, as if I wanted to add something else to that sheet, I turn to it again and threw a glance at: I am a dishonest worm.
I stopped for a moment. Being a dishonest worm had accompanied me throughout my thirty-eight years of life. Now and then I heard it being said to me as a mockery or as an accusation. But I had never taken it so seriously like I did today when, with a convinction that encompassed all that I heard about myself, I labeled myself as such in my journal.
“Man takes seriously only what he said to himself before others say it to him,” I said to myself and without taking off my coat and without putting the paper sheet into the drawer, I went to bed.
THE FIRST PART
I barely caught the bus number 7 of city traffic of Pristina, which should take me behind the National Theatre. In front of it I was supposed to meet a young woman regarding a show, a journalist of culture. Near the bus stop, I saw some black-bearded young men moving strangely their bodies, as if they were dancing. I was astonished for a moment, and then when one of them gave me a very fierce glance, I moved on. Perhaps it is in their rite, I thought, not to be seen by anyone while they dance. I went to the other side of the sidewalk divided by side plants and I ran after the bus until it stopped a few meters behind the station and just before Bill Clinton’s statue. Humbly climbing the stairs, I felt that I had an unpleasant odor. It was my third day staying in Kosovo. I remember having a shower yesterday. I never cared about personal hygiene and my sister, Katrina, has suffered a lot with me at the time of my studies, when we decided to rent a flat together so our father would not have to pay two rentals.
While the bus climbed uphill, a poster caught my left eye along the way. The note was quite clear: “February 24, 18:00. Meeting with Polish writer Piotr Smolinski at the Faculty of Philology.”
My eyes, acostumed with variations of correction, they rearranged eveything in the head and came up with this variant: “February 24, 18:00. Meeting with the dishonest worm Piotr Smolinski, who disappointed his father and betrayed his girlfriend, at the Faculty of Philology.”
If I went on, there was a risk of projecting all the faults of life to my picture on the poster beside the road. I felt, though, a little bit relieved because it seemed to me that he had something different from me in the picture. He was an image, even though it was my image. “Blame the image!” – almost screamed the voice inside my head.
While dealing with this, I felt that the theater station was nearby. I could hardly get off, and when my foot touched the ground, I caught myself thinking that I would like it more if after the bus stairs instead of the ground there was a huge hole waiting for me, an endless abyss. I headed towards the theater. I had difficulties crossing on the other side of the street, because a Mercedes Benz, a very old type, could hardly stop.
Next to theatre, where the square begins, I put my hands in the coat pockets and although I felt that the scarf was not well adjusted, I did not even try to fix it. Perhaps because now I was looking at the young lady that was waiting for me in front of the theater stairs and with all those images of me around the town, it was impossible to believe that she did not notice me. So, it was too late to fix the scarf. Good that I did not have troubles with my pants, I said to myself and I relaxed my hands in my pockets.
Regardless of my opinion, it seems that this miss or misses did not even notice me. It could be that she did not notice me because I went around the square that stretched to the left of the theater, but a man with fragile self-pride as me doesn’t need much to feel neglected. That she did not notice me is related to her carelessness towards me. Every normal person would have the right to call me a crybaby, because I was expecting from a stranger to deal with problems and uncertainties that I had with myself.
As if she had felt that suspicious atmosphere inside me, the moment I apporached her, she said, “Excuse me?” and then she leaned to let the light fall to my face, she added:
Are you Piotr Smolinski?
I reacted with enthusiasm.
Yes, I said with a glitter which I bet was visible in my eyes even from outside. – Liliana? I said to her.
I was happy that I satisfied her with my enthusiastic reaction. But, in fact, I was not enthusiastic about getting to meet her, but because of my expectation that she would refer to me as a “worm” and when she said, “Piotr Smolinski”, it seemed to me as an applauding bonus. It almost got out of my mind that I, the dishonest worm from my neighborhood with thousands of inhabitants, was even Piotr Smolinski, the most prominent writer of Poland, a country which has forty millions inhabitants. Strangely, when debating with myself about these two identities, most commonly the worm was the winner.
Maybe the screams of the neighborhood kids for the worm were stronger than the screams of the national and international press for the writer. Or the screams within me, to my surprise, were more fit with the kids screams.
How can I to know, I thought and only when we approached the theater door, I realised that Liliana was speaking. To avoid embarrasing situations when she would at any moment understand that I was not listening, I said to her:
– I’m so sorry to interrupt you in this important discussion, but I just want to tell you that you look extremely beautiful today, – and by lowering down my hand and with a respectable bending of the body I said: – Please, continue.
It seemed to me that the compliment faded out a bit of what I said in the first part of the sentence.
– Piotr, she said, stunning me by addressing me by my name, I was not saying anything important.
Instead of shutting my mouth or at least changing the subject, I got even deeper into my dialoguing stupidity.
– That’s relative, I said, different things matter to different people.
– Is that what I said really important to you? – she was surprised and by drawing two fingers to her lips, said: – What important thing was I saying?
With that innocent voice, that seemed that as much as it was directed to me, was aimed at her too, made me feel guilty. I was ready to admit that I didn’t hear her at all when, as if she was sparing me from this embarrasing moment, she shrugged and said in amazement:
– Ah, you writers. Always the insignificant details, many times boring for other people, are so important to you.
Look at this, I said to myself. Once again, the fact that I am a writer spared me from an awkward situation. Would it spare me from being a worm? One nil for the writer.
When Liliana told me, after we left the theater, that one of the reasons she had invited me was that I was bisexual, I felt insulted. I was convinced to expect that the reason why a journalist of culture would be interested in me would be my literature, it was a fair expectation. But she told me so bluntly and shockingly: she hated writers.
Perhaps the word hatred was a momentary exaggeration, but she had never felt any respect for any living writer. She called them “a priori arrogant”. The case changed only with dead writers. She liked them. I guessed more or less why she had such a notion.
Within any cultural journalist, a failed writer is hiding. We used to joke around with this saying so many times in the literature students’ clubs, that it was almost demode. But it remained true, according to me.
Each of us had a version of this phenomenon in the head. As for me, it was like this: I imagined cultural journalists as semi-connoisseurs of culture who were glowing in salons holding glasses of wine, while celebrating literary awards, who made mythical introduction to the writer that was invited to an interview, but always being a step away from him. Their beauty was only in the way in which they tried to conceal their intellectual inferiority.
However, I could not wait for Liliana to approve something like that. Trying to make it as objective as possible, Liliana told me that the reason she does not like living writers that, unlike the dead that were colossus of the letters, among the living could hardly find anyone who was not influenced or not gave political stances.
. “Victims of their ideologies and glory,” – Liliana called the writers.
I, however, couldn’t believe that she was defending so fiery an opinion that she had created, according to her, during the studies and she did not change it yet. This was a real problem for me. One should not remain with opinions he had when he was at the beginning of his studies. If so, studies have no value.
Anyway, beyond theories, now as a writer and not as a bisexual, I had the right to tell Liliana that she was completely wrong. Not that writers today were angels or colossus of letters as she was saying about the dead, but neither the latter had been such.
For example, she highly praised the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. You could see her eyes shining when she spoke cheerfully about him and without any critical examination. Otherwise, being an anti-marxist liberal and who bowed before the Holocaust, she could not, under any circumstances, have such love for Knut Hamsun. The latter, though perhaps the greatest writer of Norway, was a die-hard Hitlerian. This would be enough to say to her that her “colossians”, beginning with Dostoyevsky who was extremely infiltrated in Russian nationalism, then Turgenev about whom I’ve been told that has abused his workers and all the way to Hamsun who was Adolf Hitler’s die-hard fan, cannot be removed from the frame of her statement “victims of their ideologies and glory”.
All these names, I agree, were geniuses. These facts, none of them, I did not tell Liliana.
“Anyway, she hates living writers, – I said to myself. – Why make her hate dead writers?” Moreover, it was about the writers that I loved, without exception. Especially Dostoyevsky. Because the worm loves the worm.
When I told Liliana that my nickname was a worm, she became curious, how and why they gave me this stigmatized name. I almost forgot the source of this label. So, searching every nook and corner of the memory I rebuilt the pieces of the confession.
I don’t exactly remember how I realised that Pawel from the neighborhood was homosexual. Maybe he was a bisexual too, but at least I knew he was homo.In Poland of the nineties, when communism has just fallen and the Catholic Church, due to the help it provided in this fall, was quite strong, public calls against homosexuals were becoming more pronounced. Pawel and me had decided to challenge this. Of course, there was still no question to do a public challenge.
We had just finished high school and, when we were eighteen, we were old enough to have sex. We were determined to do this with each other. No other place than in the church premises.
“We need a plan,” Pawel said, half a year older than me, “ monk Smolinski never leaves the church.”
He did not know that monk Smolinski was my uncle. I did not want him to know. For a moment, I felt I made to Pawel a great injustice. But he would not do it with me if I told him. Pawel was quite a coward and if he was not angry because of the stigmatization done by the newspaper close to his father’s church, a prophesor at the Bialystok Institute, I could hardly convince him of this rebellion against the Church.
His proposal was that, on Sunday evening,when all the Masses were carried out, while the side door was still open, we would enter the church secretly and climb up to the bell chamber, where the priest did not go except to ring the bells.
And so we did. As soon as we approached the bell, in the darkness that moon’s dim light just made it look grayish, we started to make love.
“Slide, slide,” – Pawel groaned. Who knows how it came to him when my uncle and three nuns walked through the door and caught us in action, he was saying, “Slide like a worm.”
I don’t remember exactly how we avoided that situation. I don’t even remember what was my uncle’s first reaction. Immediate revolt or attempt to join us, if he wasn’t with nuns. But I know that the next day, across our entire Warsaw district were distributed leaflets liki mini posters, which read “Piotr and Pawel, gays and are hated by God” and “Piotr slides like a worm.”
It was strange that, perhaps because my uncle intervened, I was presented without a surname. So, I was not Piotr Smolinski, but Piotr the worm. That was the main placard because the other one, the one with “Piotr and Pawel, gays and are hated by God”, was immediately removed with intervention of a girl working on the largest Polish supermarket network, Piotr and Pawel. Maybe it was not her intervention. But my memory, more often illusory than earthbound, tells me so.
Pawel commited suicide two weeks later. A few years later, when it seemed that everything was forgotten, in audience at the Palace of Culture, where my book of poems was being promoted, someone shouted, “Piotr the worm” and “Smolinski the worm”. That’s how my hell started.
I do not know if Liliana liked my explanation. In fact, I had no way knowing whether she like it, because I did not give it to her. I retreated at the last moment and, instead of giving her the letter in which I wrote this story of explanation that had some shortcomings, I gave her a part of manuscript of the story that I came to Kosovo. I heard on a train across the Balkans that in the Elbasan district, in Albania, there was a family called “Mark Bala’s family”. They, according to the story I heard, sheltered a Jew in the Second World War and after he abused their hospitality, by making love with their daughter, the latter decided to kill him.
But the mere killing would not satisfy the insulted Mark Bala. After he had protected him from Hitler, Mark wanted to kill him just as Hitler would kill him. Thus, he took a long way to the most knowledgeable old man of the area to ask how Hitler killed the Jews. The journey was almost in the fashion of Don Quixote.
However, when we met next time I had given her the story, she told me she had not only liked it but was beginning to think that the writers were not necessarily “a priori arrogant”. This was for me the greatest success. With my both hands I checked my body, whether I am dead. She got my humour and, surprisingly, she was not embittered as was her custom.
I was not a dead writer, and yet she liked me. Finally, I broke the ice. I did not interest her only because of homosexuality, but because of literature.
“Yet, she reasoned, you have to be careful.”
I did not understand why I had to be careful. However, I would find out when I met Hajdin Bytyçi, the residence coordinator through which I had come to Kosovo. I met him twice. Both times were incredibly uninteresting to be described here. For that man I had only two feelings: intellectual disrespect and sexual attraction.
But we had an official relationship and so we had to stay like that. For the sake of the truth, that intellectual disrespect, more than from meeting with him, I had because of what was said to me about him, but for these there would be another opportunity to say it.
Liliana, extremely beautiful and moderately wise, was worried about me. I do not call her moderately wise neither for the job she is doing nor for her lifestyle. I call her moderately wise because she was stupid enough to worry about a man like me. For someone like me, about whom I almost did not bother to care myself either.
If she was like me, someone who is scorned by society, then I could understand the sense of solidarity..
Here for a moment I stopped. It did not make sense to seek solidarity only from those who were like me. The whole core of solidarity is to solidarize with someone unlike yourself. So a wealthy man can be solidarized with a poor one. So, I said to myself, there is no sense if a poor man is solidarized with a poor man. They are solidarized at all times.
However, in order not to become an irreparable detallista, as they often told me that I was, I no longer have to deal with solidarity. Perhaps she did not have no sense of solidarity, but she was scared. This suspicion aroused in me when, after she followed me to the entrance of my apartment and despite the fact that I wanted to but did not invite her inside, she said, “The novel you are writing is good enough. Unfortunately, many of its parts are of some relevance here.”
I saw from her body language that she was serious about it. What was of relevance here? The hatred towards Jews? Feeling insulted by minutae? Psychopathic murders? Or all together?
I did not care. I was a worm. A worm can be crushed at any time, but its crushing, in addition to the surrounding fluids, also caused an unbearable stink for the pusher.
So, if they killed me, Piotr Smolinski, my fragrance would wander through world literature as a damned ghost. Then I would have much more imortance as a writerthan as a worm or bisexual. Two nil for the writer.
It is not very difficult to say that Pristina is beautiful, but with chaotic architecture. I remember once during my studies, the art history teacher, M.G., told me that it is odd how the chaotic architecture of places indicates the chaotic mentality of the people. Not always, of course, the professor hastened to clarify so he would not be misunderstood.
However, until now I have not encountered any exceptions.
This “however” seemed to me like Giordano Bruno’s famous saying “eppur si muove”, who, facing the trial of the Church, was forced to admit that Sun moves around the Earth and not the opposite, he said while leaving the hall “eppur si muove” – “and yet it moves”.
Anyway, neither when he gave the assertion, nor when he explained the exceptions, my teacher did not take into consideration this small country in the Balkans.
Meanwhile, what was really hard was to talk about my residency cordinator, Hajdin Bytyçi. I met him, seriously, very late; except for two meetings that were quite administrative and short, when he handed me the keys of the apartment that I would use in Pristina and when he gave me the document by which I could withdraw the money. It was the very day that Liliana got a good news about the change of the editorial office and when, in order to celebrate it, she and I went a little further in our relationship.
Hajdin was forty-eight years old. He kept his neck-tie tight against his throat and he did not take off his jacket even in dog days of summer. I never met him when it was hot, but they told me about it. There are some other things I’ve heard about him, but they did not impress me very much. What impressed me in him was his developed physics, despite his age, if his forty-eight years could be called age.
don’t remember where I heard an intersting story about him. When he was a teacher in gymnasium one day some students pranked him by giving him a poem of Adam Mickiewicz, translated into ghegh dialect by a teacher in Pristina, saying to him that it was a poem written by Gjergj Fishta, an Albanian epic poet. Hajdin began to highly praise the text, while the quarrelsome students were sneering. This lasted until a girl in the first row, one of those eager students that make sure to remind the teacher that he had forgotten to give homework, explained to him that he was caught in the trap. Hajdin ashamed by of his students, suspended them from class for two weeks.
He smoked a lot of cigarettes and spoke with admiration about literature. More precisely, he spoke with admiration about writers. As for literature, I do not know if I can tell you that he had any knowledge about it. He was a little nationalist and he had a lot of problems with humor.
“There can’t be a good relationship between ideologies and humor”, – I remembered saying my teacher of art history again. “This is because ideologies tend to launch great truths, while the humor strips them and makes them fall apart. There is nothing more disarming than a laughter.”
And my teacher was right. In the face of the disarming laughter, ideologies strike only moraly, that is, only below the belt. Sometimes acting like a victim, sometimes mocking the humorist personally. There is no nationalism, no religion, or thought, which can face individually, one on one, against the humor.
I was barely waiting to get away from the meeting with Hajdin. With an unpleasant stink, from a beer spilt on my shirt, I walked towards the door. He insisted on paying by explaining that Albanians did not allow their guests to pay. I didn’t mind. Intellectually, Hajdin was completely unattractive. A good part of our the meeting he spent reading to me some of his own poems and I could make a simple evaluation: those poems showed that they were written by a close-minded person.
It is difficult to like the poetry of close-minded person. Morever, knowing the author.
Before my father realized that I was bisexual, he had read and liked a lot some of my high school poems. The ones that were especially caressing his primitive pride. Many times our minds often make a mistake, we do not try to read poetry so we can experience it or not, but we read it so we can agree with it or not.
“What’s wrong with that?” – I told myself as I approached Liliana’s appartment. – “Poetry is not an argument.”
As I was saying back then, my father, now deceased, liked many of my poems, until I wrote a poem which I titled it “Poem of Colors”. My father, though close-minded, was sharp-witted in his backwardness. He understood quite well that within the poem of colors I had declared more or less, as one of the verses said, “I was not only white or black”.
My attempt to explain to him that this is the way how the subject of poetry is felt, that I was not writing about myself, he did not swallow it. Unfortunately, this exceeds his cognitive abilities. What followed was traumatic.
I would continue to remember the case with my father if an orange taxi would have not stopped before my feet. Maybe better so. A man needs a brief break of thoughts from time to time.
It was raining, so I could be labeled not only as a worm, but also as a fool, if for two euros and some change I would not take taxi to Lili’s apartment.
Lili, on her part, did almost everything. She took care of every detail, so I began to feel ashamed because I smelled of spilled beer. The editor-in-chief of the newspaper where she worked, invited her to the office today and gave her good news that the newspaper editorial board has decided to move her from culture section to politics section.
“Culture does not produce any news,” she said full of joy, “now I will be paid almost double.”
I felt empty at the full table. She was celebrating for leaving the culture section hoping for a better life. Would that mean that good life depended on how far you get from culture?
It sounds cynical, I thought, but, unfortunately, that’s how some of the truths are. Deeply cynical.
Translated by Fadil Bajraj