Reviewed by Jeff Waxman
In this bleak but sentimental work, Ornela Vorpsi writes a bitter letter home to Albania, The Country Where No One Ever Dies.
Vorpsi's book, though described as a novel, does not fit tidily into anyone's sense of that form. There's no common narrator in this fragmented series of recollections, just a metamorphosing girl. Sometimes she is named Ornela—yes, like the author!—or Ormira, or one of several other variations; the only consistency is her voice. Her age, also, wavers indecisively from childhood through adolescence and back again, but she's always young, a girl or a young woman. These chapters are like pictures in a series, connected only thematically, and by a constant sense of place.
Set in the 1970s in Albania, these are the stories of a country and a people in shambles. It would not be a remarkable stretch to call this book somewhat autobiographical, nor would it be wrong to say that it reveals an uncomfortable homesickness. Nonetheless, the place seen through Vorpsi's lens is desolate and repressed, something born of both Soviet communism and poverty. This is a stark portrait, painted in dust from memory. In Vorpsi's Albania, we find a culture that punishes sexuality and aches for it; a place where comfort is bestowed only on those unable to appreciate it; where bad things happen every day, but to other people (who probably had it coming). Vorspi writes:
"Blerta was skinny and had thinning hair that she wore in a ponytail. She was so obedient by nature that she did whatever anyone told her to do. This is probably what got her in trouble. Someone made a move on her and she didn't know how to refuse."
An endemic fear of sex pervades, verging on a virulent mistrust of women, and of female sexuality. These people have a hostility to the natural, a discomfort with the body and its pleasures that's paired with an inconvenient and constant lust. Women here are the harshest critics of other women, and we see scene upon scene of this conflict. There is the arrest of two women who had "bad habits."
They were accused of being immoral. . . . How the women in the neighborhood pitied them now!. . . The cracks in the window panes were sealed with brown adhesive tape. The tape proved strong enough, apparently, to suspend the bodies of the two emaciated whores, hanging chin to chin.
Other scenes prompted similar reactions. When a woman becomes pregnant out of wedlock and dies from a poorly performed abortion, the news is met with whispers and smugness. And every character in this book is obsessed with virginity. Vorpsi writes:
"Papa got married. His wife is thirty-eight years old. He told me she was still a virgin. The Albanian chorus laments: 'The beautiful virgin! Who knows how many times she's had herself stitched and unstitched?'"
There's so much of this hostility and conflict that it seems to saturate every view of every woman in this book. And the author, no longer a child, knows what to look for, what to look back on, and what to anguish over; she's complicit then, but something else now. These scenes are painful, damaging for the characters as well as the reader, and our narrator is so confused and, sometimes, disturbed by them, that this book, this collection, becomes Vorpsi's exorcism of her country's still-living demons.
Vorpsi remains nostalgic though, for something that she's lost, some intangible sense of home. The Country Where No One Ever Dies is obviously not a sweet novel, but it is permeated by a powerful sense of place, of homesickness. And there's something about this book, something heavy and overripe, a sensuousness that softens an otherwise harsh and upsetting book. It's a book of longing, of desire for something impenetrably sad and impossibly far away. And it is this intangible and inconceivable warmth that makes this book something far better than what it first appears to be.
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