CULTURE

‘Humor with a cargo of tragedy’

I started out to write an essay, but my heroes took on a life of their own,» is Gazmend Kapllani’s disarming explanation of how his «Small Diary of Borders» changed genres. «In that sense,» he continues, «it is a novel, not a work of sociology, and I wanted it to be read and accepted, or rejected, as such.» Given the writer’s background (he was born in Albania), his subject – the crossing of borders real and imagined but in particular the mass crossings from Albania into Greece in the early 1990s – and the fact that he has written the book in Greek, it is not surprising that extra-literary concerns sometimes dominate the response to his work. Label At the presentation of his book at the Hellenic-American Union on September 26, and in conversation with Kathimerini English Edition on Tuesday, Kapllani spoke of the «label» he often gets stuck with. In his column in Ta Nea daily, he regularly tackles issues relating to immigration, and now he has also chosen to write about the topic in his book. «People accuse me of being fixated on immigration,» he said. «I’m not, but I cannot close my eyes to such an amazing event that shapes communities.» Above all, he points out, the border crossings he describes have a deeper, broader meaning. For him, good literature means going beyond your subject and into the wider realm of human existence. «I wanted to reconcile the individual and the collective, the temporary and the timeless,» he explains. «Migration is something that I have experienced, but it is an experience that allows me to write about that tragicomic creature, man. «I believe that if literature has a virtue, it is that it enables us to imagine the other. Racism is an eternal tautology, because it doesn’t allow us to imagine what it is like to be the other.» Kapllani has brought to his «Small Diary of Borders» a winning combination of storytelling skills, innovative structure and a wicked thread of humor. At the book launch, academic Yiannis Yiannopoulos aptly described how the author uses humor «as both weapon and solace, and sometimes as an instrument of subversion.» Irony, self-knowledge As the author sees it, that humor is not just a matter of seeing the funny side of things in even the darkest situations: «It is a kind of irony that is linked with self-knowledge. Without it you’d be crushed,» he says. «It is a technique of conveying what is tragic. Imagine humor like a boat, carrying a cargo of tragedy.» Whether it is the «sex-kid» recounting his feat of drugging his parents with valium so he could watch pornographic videos while they slept, the hapless villager trying unsuccessfully to get through an automatic door for the first time, or the wildly inaccurate expectations of Greece that many incomers have brought with them, shafts of humor bring a sense of balance to the human drama. What led Kapllani to the format of chapters that alternate between real events and more general observations and argument? «I wanted to be original. I wanted readers to feel free to read however they want, to hand them the literary remote control and allow them to zap between narrative channels. After all, isn’t zapping to and fro what we do anyway these days? The story is a journey, with rhythm, breaks, stops and like a road movie.» And so it is, a journey, and not only one of migration but, as Kapllani says, «of people who have crossed borders of any kind.» And the occasion for this road story was that extraordinary moment in history when the Albanian state, after three generations enclosed within hermetically sealed borders, started to leak. Timidly at first, then in ever-increasing numbers, Albanians began breaching the borders, heading away from the repression and poverty of home and toward the richly imagined countries beyond the borders. Kapllani was one of the thousands who poured into Greece, and his report from the front is chilling. Leavened though it is by irrepressible humor and occasional examples of humane behavior, his account of those early days of disappointment, ill-treatment and humiliation make grim reading. But Kapllani doesn’t indulge in a jeremiad. First, the resilience of his characters is inspiring. He explores the reasons why a country like Greece, which once furnished migrants in abundance to other countries, could prove a cruel host to new arrivals. He investigates the political and economic factors at play. But most of all he delves into what borders of all kinds – physical, mental, emotional and psychological – do to people. Kapllani insists, in person and in writing, on the necessity of overcoming rage and rancor at perceived wrongs, of avoiding the trap of becoming a victim. «If you fall into the trap of being a victim,» he says, «you lose the ability to create.» Asked how he himself managed to transcend the bitter experiences of the past, he explains, «Because I have succeeded in doing what I want.» Indeed Kapllani has succeeded in his adopted country in anyone’s terms. Apart from being a successful journalist and writer, he has also studied at Athens University, where he wrote his doctorate on the image of Albanians in the Greek press and of Greeks in the Albanian press. Wasn’t he infuriated by the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Albanians? «No,» he replies calmly, «if you are a researcher, you’re supposed to be able to keep some distance.» What does he plan to do next? «The three strands – the academia side, journalism and literature – all enrich each other. And, of course, I have to make a living,» he laughs. Border syndrome Here’s a taste, in an extract from Kapllani’s foreword to «Small Diary of Borders.» «I’ve got used to borders eyeing me with suspicion. I look on them with yearning, impatient to cross them, while they nearly always look on me with hostility or suspicion. I try to reassure them, to convince them that they are in no danger from me, while they always fabricate some pretext to repel me or avoid meeting me on equal terms… for some time, I have suffered from border syndrome… «It is not a recognized mental illness like agoraphobia, acrophobia or depression… It’s largely a matter of luck whether one suffers from border syndrome: It depends where you were born. I was born in Albania.»