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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Shkëlqimi dhe rënia e shokut Zylo

Dritëro Agolli

general information | our review | links | about the author

Title: Shkëlqimi dhe rënia e shokut Zylo
Author: Dritëro Agolli
Genre: Novel
Written: (1973) rev. 1981
Length: 288 pages
Original in: Albanian
Availability: Splendeur et décadence du camarade Zulo - France
Zylo - Deutschland
Ascesa e caduta del compagno Zylo - Italia
  • Shkëlqimi dhe rënia e shokut Zylo was first published serially, in 1972, and then in book form in 1973
  • Shkëlqimi dhe rënia e shokut Zylo has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a bit tame, but amusing, and an interesting glimpse of early 1970s Albania

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

[Note: this review is based on the German translation of Shkëlqimi dhe rënia e shokut Zylo, by Oda Buchholz and Wilfried Fiedler, Zylo oder Die abenteuerliche Reise durch die wundersame Welt von Bürokratien (1991); all quotes are my translations from that German translation.]

       Shkëlqimi dhe rënia e shokut Zylo ('The splendour and fall of Comrade Zylo') is a novel from Albania from the time of Enver Hoxha's rule, when the country was isolated from most of Europe (even the Soviet-dominated east) and very much going its own way; it is one of the few novels from that period, aside from those by Ismail Kadare, to have reached a wider readership abroad -- albeit only appearing in translation after the death of Hoxha and, indeed, the fall of the Soviet Union (France: 1990; Germany: 1991; Italy: 1993). It pokes (gentle) fun at bureaucracy, in the comic tradition of eastern European fiction about functionaries, and while hardly anywhere near subversive still is a far cry from the drab socialist realist fiction often associated with the Albania of that time; if largely tame in its criticisms, it nevertheless is somewhat surprising to find that this was the kind of thing that could be published (as it was, first serially and then in book form) -- and suggests that far from being a literary wasteland in those times, maybe there's more worth reading by Albanian authors active in that period .....
       Shkëlqimi dhe rënia e shokut Zylo is narrated by Demka, a once fairly well-known author who laments that, while he used to write and publish his own work, he's stopped writing anything original at all and can't seem to find inspiration; instead, he toils away writing speeches and reports for higher-ups (who then get the praise for Demka's hard work, without sharing any of the credit). It is in particular Comrade Zylo Kamberi who takes advantage of Demka, and relies greatly on him, and it is in Zylo that Demka finally finds something resembling inspiration, as he records the (mis)adventures of his supervisor -- while continuing to bemoan his continued role as ghostwriter in this account that sees him reluctantly following (or being dragged ...) along with Zylo, and his wife gently nagging him to get back to his own writing.
       Zylo is a bureaucrat involved in the cultural sector, charged with helping spread culture among the population; when the novel opens he is in charge of the book-publication department. While an important figure, he also answers to others -- and he is constantly seeking to impress and curry favor with his own boss, Comrade Q; he is also rivals with the similarly positioned Comrade Shemshedin. When Zylo is transferred, he makes sure to more or less take Demka along -- so also then on the trips he takes to get a lay of the land (or then even when he goes on vacation). Demka is the reluctant sidekick, but he plays along; he's no sycophant, but he is fairly sympathetic -- he can't help but laugh at Zylo's expense at times, but he tries his best not to hurt Zylo's feelings. He admits he's ambivalent about his situation, both repelled by and drawn to Zylo and what Zylo expects of him.
       Demka clearly has a bit of a confidence problem, even as what he writers for others is constantly being praised. He is also concerned that the stultifying work of writing official reports and speeches has undermined his ability to write creatively any longer. And he worries that the plant-like symbiotic relationship he sees himself being in with Zylo is the kind where if one of the plants is ripped away from the other, one will whither away -- and he worries he will be that one.
       Zylo's own efforts, especially to convey how important he is, are sadly transparent, as he pretends to be closer to Comrade Q than he is and spins, for example, his not getting invited to an event in fairly pathetic form, with a variety of excuses. Zylo is ambitious -- but the path up is a complicated one: he's angling for an ambassadorship, for example, but it has to be the right one, i.e. in Western Europe. So he's eager when he's potentially in the running for the ambassadorship to the Netherlands, but wants to avoid being named ambassador to Algeria at pretty much all costs.
       A counterpart to Demka is Adem Adashi, a successful author and dramatist who is enjoying the writing career Demka aspires to. Adashi's new play, 'The Tornado is Conquered', is the example of how cultural products fare in the Albania of the time, with Zylo, Demka, and some prominent critics previewing it to see if it is appropriate for audiences. Here, again, Zylo tries to show a firm hand, but is outmaneuvered by a critic, and in his kowtowing deference to Comrade Q twists himself in awkward knots about the play and whether it should be performed for the public.
       Zylo does try to make sure everyone knows he is an important person but doesn't imperiously throw his weight around; he's not particularly competent (but not a complete bumbler, either) and obviously generally out of his element -- but blissfully unaware of it, continuing to stomp ahead, well-meaningly (and always with an eye on whether it might be career-advancement-enhancing), come what may. Only in one episode does he pull rank in a (highly) unpleasant matter, when his doted-on young son -- a musical prodigy who is constantly composing symphonies -- goes hooligan and causes considerable damage to a neighbor's apartment. When the police get involved they want to take Zylo down to the station as well -- but he's not having any of that: 'Who ever heard of a functionary of my rank being summoned to a police station ?' he complains, and the abuse of power is entrenched enough in this system that he can keep up certain appearances. Zylo does assume responsibility -- he'll pay for the damages -- but insists it's a personal matter that doesn't concern the authorities (undermining the whole system, much less the concept of equality of all ... -- which is why it is the most surprising episode in the novel, insofar as it would seem to show an Albanian system in which such abuse by officials is this easy (and common)).
       Shkëlqimi dhe rënia e shokut Zylo is a genial account of a well-meaning, high ranking bureaucrat who cares, above all, about appearances -- even staging his domestic life, when he invites Demka over to his home -- but isn't quite talented or clever enough for people not to see through him. With Zylo's focus on spreading culture, it also provides an interesting glimpse of the role of the arts and culture in the Albania of the time, notably also in an early episode contrasting the demands of farm-life with Zylo's unrealistic efforts to bring more culture into the life of the rural locals.
       Narrator Demka, struggling with his own demons, torn between creative independence and the comfort of dependence, is a sympathetic narrator, and his Zylo isn't simply a fool, either.
       It all makes for a neat and quite amusing addition to the literature of the Eastern European Communist systems and their bureaucracies, that, even if obviously written to conform to the system does not simply and uncritically extol it. Beyond that, Agolli tells a good story, utilizing characters with actual depth.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 August 2019

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Shkëlqimi dhe rënia e shokut Zylo: Reviews: Dritëro Agolli: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Albanian author Dritëro Agolli lived 1931 to 2017.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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