Thursday, February 02, 2012

ON THE AVENUES: Two books about truth and housing.

ON THE AVENUES: Two books about truth and housing.  

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

Among those who know me, it will surprise none that the Albanian-born novelist Ismail Kadare (kah-dah-RAY) is a longtime personal favorite.

Kadare came of age in the Albania of Enver Hoxha’s hardline Communist dictatorship; in fact, the two men hailed from the same small city in the mountains, Girokaster, which I was able to visit when touring the country in 1994. My two clear memories of the occasion are touring the old Turkish citadel, and climbing atop the pedestal that formerly supported Hoxha’s statue.

Communism forcibly grafted onto any dirt-poor country during the international tensions of the Cold War never was going to be a polite parlor game, but in the mysterious Balkans of clans, blood feuds and ancient memories, Hoxha’s magnetism, paranoia and xenophobia contributed to a particularly toxic brew.

In essence, the Albania of Hoxha’s early career functioned quite similarly to the hermetic, crazed North Korea of today. Understandably, for a writer like Kadare to continue functioning in such a system required mental agility and frequent, nimble recourse to metaphor and allegory, as less penetrable by spying bureaucrats.

At the very same time, any overt exercise of caution in navigating the treacherous eddies of the Hoxha dictatorship ran a concurrent risk of muffled accusations against Kadare that he was nothing more than a stooge, and a tool of the regime.

Could there even be dissidence in such a stifling climate?

Hoxha eventually died, but Kadare remained in Albania during the transitional period of Ramiz Alia, finally leaving his native country for exile in France just before the final collapse in 1991. Once there, in a twist of multi-lingual achievement virtually unfathomable to a Knobs boy like me, he began writing in French.

Whatever the original language of composition, many of Kadare’s books have been translated into English, with the ones I’ve read including “The General of the Dead Army”, “The Palace of Dreams”, “The Successor”, and most recently, “The Accident”.

With Albania now a generation removed from its final, implosive Communist period, Kadare’s perennial fascination with what might be termed the nature of truth and its variability in situations of extreme duress has migrated outside the boundaries of his own small nation. While the plot of “The Accident” concerns two Albanians, a man and a woman involved in a long-term love affair, little of the story takes place in Albania.

Rather, their relationship unfolds in the contemporary, post-Communist European Union, set against a backdrop of those peripheral countries still on the fringe of the EU’s harmonized modernity (itself perhaps a grand illusion, as witnessed by current economic travails). Among these is Albania itself, and the lands of the only recently war-torn former Yugoslavia.

What actually happened in Serbia, and what does it have to do with the protagonist’s job as EU functionary? What is his lady to him, a girlfriend or a prostitute? What do the kinky games mean? How did the fateful accident happen, and who was to blame?

I won’t give away anything else. While not my favorite work by Kadare, “The Accident” is suitably unsettling, succeeding by reminding us that what appears simple typically isn’t, and that truth is subject to a kaleidoscope of differing perceptions and prejudices.


The late Vaclav Havel famously referred to them as “rabbit hutches,” and even today, more than two decades after the end of the Communist period, one-third of all Czechs inhabit pre-fabricated, modular housing blocks, particularly ones erected with increasing haste and decreasing art from the 1960’s through the 1980’s.

To stand on Castle Hill in the middle of architecturally glorious Prague and look outward toward the suburbs is to view what first appears to be a gray wall around the city. Actually, the wall is an optical illusion, a composite of these modular housing blocks in seemingly endless rows.

All across the former East Bloc, the Communist period witnessed the construction of high-rise housing units like these, quickly manufactured elemental housing that left travelers with an indelible image of a commensurately grim and manufactured life, but as Kimberly Elman Zarecor explains in her book, “Manufacturing a Socialist Modernity: Housing in Czechoslovakia, 1945-1960”, the story was at least a bit different there.

Because Czechoslovakia was the industrial heartland of the deceased Austro-Hungarian Empire, its income levels and educational attainment were above the norm during the period between the wars. Avant-garde and modernist schools of architecture in German, Scandinavia and France were represented by Czechoslovak architects in their projects of the time, and overall, the future seemed bright for the country’s development as a stable, liberal democracy.

Successive Nazi and Soviet occupations deferred this dream for almost a half-century, with a lasting and sometimes quite ugly contribution to the area’s physical landscape.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, with a pressing need for housing reconstruction, and amid the forced imperative to organize the economy according to Communist principles of heavy industry, Czechosolvak architects fought gamely, for the most part as socialist loyalists, to retain their interwar aesthetic. There were some initial successes, but their influence steadily declined as Communist rule tightened and five-year production quotas submerged all other considerations.

After Stalin’s death put an end to the worst excesses of enforced socialist realism, which in practice meant emulating the Soviet dictator’s grandiose, leaden, Commie Gothic personal tastes, housing in Czechoslovakia became an exercise in the rapidity of modular manufacturing, with assembly-line construction far more utilitarian than any purpose-designed building, and on the cheap, with sloppily pre-cast concrete panels bolted together in stacks as high as engineering principles permitted.

Manufactured housing in Communist Czechoslovakia may have been inevitable, but Zarecor deftly shows that the route from free-form blueprint to rabbit hutch was more winding than commonly assumed, even if the end results were the same. What will the outskirts of Prague look like in twenty more years? I can only hope I’m still around to return there, and to experience the visceral reaction at another, perhaps less jarring, time.

These books can be ordered through Destinations Booksellers in New Albany.

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