Fatos Kongoli (66), a powerful voice of contemporary Albanian prose, was happy to meet Southeast Europe: People and Culture on a cold winter day in Tirana to share some thoughts about his work. Kongoli has published eleven books up to now.
Once a mathematician, Kongoli became known as an author in the 1990s, since the fall of the communist dictatorship. His first major novel, I humburi, Tirana 1992 (The Loser), is set in March 1991, when many thousand refugees scrambled onto a decrepit freighter to escape to the West. At the last moment protagonist Thesar Lumi disembarks and walks home. London's “Independent” wrote about this book that “it 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”.
Kongoli was born in the central Albanian town of Elbasan in 1944 and grew up in Tirana. He has received many awards among which "Balkanika" prize in 2003 for his novel "The Dream of Damocles" (Le reve de Damocles)
Your most recent book isBolero in the Old People's Villa. How would you describe this novel?
After I finished nine novels, most of which were written after the nineties, I realised that it was time to do something different, to change the theme I had embraced for 16-17 years. So, with Bolero in the Elderly People’s Villa, I intended to conclude this cycle. Throughout the process of writing this book, I was under the fear of an eventual failure because the major protagonist of the book is a young girl, a nurse by trade, who is hired by two rich old people who lived in a villa. She is completely different from the crowd. The narration is in the first person. So I had to be inside the skin of a female.
Therefore, throughout the time I wrote this book I was seized by the “nightmare” of not being able to write on this theme. But contrary to my feeling, the book was welcomed, at least in Albania. The book has already been translated into French and I have a contract to have it translated into Spanish.
Your book, The Loser, was inspired by the most dramatic event of the time – the massive exodus of Albanians in 1991.
I got the idea in July 1990 when thousands of Albanians tried to enter into Western embassies in a bid to leave the poverty of their country behind and make their dreams come true. I wrote this book within a record time of six months, between June and December of 1991. Apparently it still captures the attention of readers.
To what extent do your books reflect your personal life? I have in mind your book The Ivory Dragon which depicts the life of an Albanian student in China in the 60s. You were in China in the 1960s.
I have used so many personal elements in my books that the impression that they are autobiographic ones prevails. True, my book The Ivory Dragon is about my student life in Beijing where I studied maths for three years. Other books circle on real people I have met in my life but surely, things are differently treated in literature.
Which authors would you say have mostly influenced you?
Much earlier I was under the spell of Anton Chekhov and Jack London. Every author I have discovered has been a great experience for me. The most recent author I have explored is the Portuguese Fernando Pessoa. I am so sorry that I came to know his work so late because if I would have come across his books earlier, I might have written differently myself.