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“Flama” of Tom Kuka: The story of a city taken hostage by death, for a debt owed to the dead

If I had to sum it up the book in one sentence, “Flama” of Tom Kuka (Enkel Demi), winner of the European Union Prize for Literature, is “The story of a city taken hostage by death, for a debt owed to the dead”.

A collective punishment, not only for the grave sins of some of its inhabitants but for its collective sin, which hangs over this city populated by mice like the fog between dream and reality. I can consider the book a spiritual caricature of today’s Tirana.

Written as a classical narrative, intertwined with crime fiction and a bit of magical realism sprinkled here and there in the main character’s dreams, called Di Hima, “Flama” is a dignified attempt to break away from the winning, complaining and the and moralist literature, which characterizes today’s Albanian literature.

We can consider this a strong point in favour of this book, which in the press is being called a novel, but it is a novella. It does not have the genre on the cover, and this is probably done deliberately to avoid the “persecution” that the novellas have in the Albanian fiction market; a great handicap this, be it real or fictitious when you consider that Hemingway’s “The Elder and the Sea” has 27,000 words and Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” 21,800.

The narrated story could have held, without adding excess “water”, even 70 or 80,000 words. This would have made the reading more enjoyable, by giving time to the two-dimensional characters to build up, further emphasizing the distinctiveness they already have. However, this is not be a shortcoming, because, perhaps, the author has left them somewhat vague, to let the readers imagine them as they wish. I would have preferred to read this story as a full-fledged novel, but in the time of 140 characters philosophy, not all of us have the luxury and time to sit and read long books.

The author is in love with Tirana that is no more. This shows in the names of the characters and the language used. Di Hima, the “detective” educated in Europe, speaks Tosk, and his wife is Gheg, like most characters in the book. Despite the dialectical flavour of the characters’ language, the author’s narrative too has archaisms that often tend towards mannerism, but stop short of becoming pathetic, which makes reading enjoyable and interesting.

The fragmentary, journalistic style pulls its head out from time to time and, although this makes the narrative fluent, here and there damages the literary style, which the author seems to have structured well.

I would have loved seeing the text cleansed of parasitisms and with more polished verbs. Excessive use of the personal pronouns at the start of the sentence often interrupts the narration and becomes detrimental to its fluency.

The present tense constructed with auxiliary verbs + infinitives, although it does not appear too often, just like with the personal pronoun, should have been avoided. The transition from the present tense to past tense in the same paragraph leaves the same wanting taste, that the text should have received more attention. However, these are, in most cases, things that stand out to a linguistically educated reader and do not spoil the narrative.

The story has no authentic heroes. This highlights the idea of ​​the initial, collective guilt of an underdeveloped society without no great ideals, where people live just to eat and have children. The only signs of light in this darkness of Tirana is the nostalgic presence of the image of Europe in the memories of the main character, the religious indifference of the society and prostitutes, turned nurses, who take care of the body of the sick because for the souls there is nobody left.

The narrative is violent but honest. This makes the nostalgia that Enkel Demi often expresses in interviews about his “lost” Tirana unjustified; no one would want to live in such a time, even with the romantic old red roofs of the city.

The work is a continuation, not a sequel, of the author’s previous books, not only for the characters, times and geography, but also because of the style and taste it leaves when the reading ends. This makes you curious to read the other books of Tom Kuka, which appear both as author and character.

Enkel Demi is one of the few Albanian authors whose books I have gone through to the end. He writes about the long-gone past, which makes the work comfortable, by avoiding the moral and political burdens of the present, but we can consider it at the same time as a lack of courage. This is not to be seen as a handicap though; it adds value to the creativity sincerely, because, as expressed in his last interview in the quarterly literary magazine “Revista Letrare – Vjeshtë 2021”, he “still feels the internal conflicts of the recent past”.

The story has all the elements to satisfy the reader’s ego, but the last page leaves you with the thought: It should have been more!

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