The Country Where No One Ever Dies

By Ornela Vorpsi
Translated by Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck

Dalkey Archive Press Eastern European Literature Series
November 2009, Paperback
120 pages
978- 1564785688

The  Country Where No One Ever Dies

Reviewed by Josh Maday


Albanian life in Ornela Vorpsi’s The Country Where No One Ever Dies revolves around sex, communist rule, and—despite the book's title—death. The book is separated into titled vignettes, reflecting the fissured self of a young girl living among the ruins of reason. Constantly accused of being or becoming a whore and dealing with her father’s disappearance and imprisonment as a political prisoner, this protagonist escapes into the otherworld of books, where even tragic novels and the darkest of Grimm’s Fairy Tales are a reprieve from her absurd world (where, for instance, a method of checking vital signs in an unconscious person is to stab them with a scalpel). Against this backdrop, Vorpsi creates a world where black humor and delusion are necessary tools for survival.

In the compulsory paradise under an oppressive and ridiculous communist rule—known affectionately (and ironically) as The Party—priorities appear to have changed, but the old religious priorities have simply been replaced by The Party’s version of enforcing obedience and indoctrinating the young. In the chapter entitled “Yolk,” the narrator (calling herself Ormira this time) tells of her mistreatment by a teacher named Dhoksi.

Besides speaking against The Party, directly or indirectly, one of the gravest sins is to maintain one’s own religious beliefs, which Ormira finds out when she brings a postcard with angels on it to school. This “gave Dhoksi the perfect opportunity to leave the imprint of her yardstick on [Ormira’s] thighs and back,” leaving “little pustules . . . here and there, where [her] skin was burned.” At home, she does not tell her mother what happened, but goes to bed and cries in terror that her mother, too, will be arrested and thrown into prison like her father. Feel here the heat in Vorpsi’s prose:

Comrade Dhoksi had given me a good beating. Her hands never got tired. Come on, Dhoksi, keep going! The yardstick is still hot, Dhoksi. I swear I won’t tell my mother. I understand now. Angels are enemies of the Party, the Mother of Us All.

But Dhoksi couldn’t stop herself. Her hand swept through the air as though she were dancing in the ballroom she’d always dreamed of. Go ahead, Dhoksi, teach me all about the Party! Otherwise I’ll turn into a whore. Save me, Dhoksi, with your virtuous bowlegs. You’re saved already, since no one wants to screw you.

The next piece, entitled “Christ’s Thorn,” continues the fission of Vorpsi’s young female narrator, splitting her into at least three girls: Elona, the narrator, full of wonder and curiosity; Rudina, whose “living room was covered with books”; and the beautiful Christina, visiting her grandmother (much like Little Red Riding Hood, the narrator’s favorite bedtime story, which explains the recurring element in almost every vignette), who “prayed in secret to Jesus and Mary.” Christina’s mother died after having “gone to bed with someone, the whore . . . Her belly had already swollen up. She wanted to get rid of it. Blood, blood, and more blood had flowed down her thighs. Until she was empty.” All of this while Christina’s father was “in prison”:

He had stolen something or other. No one knew exactly what, but it was probably leather. Leather to make shoes from, because he was a cobbler by trade, and I think he wanted to start making shoes on his own, at home. That meant he wanted to make a bit of money on the side.

Just as the narrator’s name and age morph, this piece moves from the sin of being religious to other forbidden fruit when the father falls to the temptation of capitalism, causing his theft of the leather. Elona learns a similar lesson when she is tempted by the Turkish delight that a dirty old man named Babako uses to lure little girls into his hut so he can see their “little mouse.” Vorpsi sugarcoats nothing in these twisted tales, glowering with all of the darkness found in the Brothers Grimm, where two children are lured into an oven, where a wolf eats a little girl’s grandmother and tries to do the same to her, at one point alluding to the way those tales have entered this world, even as the book that contains them was taken from it: “Grimm’s Fairy Tales . . . this type of book no longer exists in Albania. Fairy tales with princesses and magic wands are counterrevolutionary. But forbidden things are so enticing!”

Aided by a fractured book-fed imagination and possible psychosis, Vorpsi’s young narrator attempts to make sense of her world, her name sliding and morphing—Ormira, Ornela, Ganimete, Ina, Eva, et al—similarly to the protagonist in J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, a fitting comparison since Vorpsi’s debut novel is indeed a guided tour through the madness of a blasted-out reality under the crushing disappointment and oppression of a failed communism. The different vignettes take on an almost phantasmagoric nature as a kind of psychological fission—binary fission being, ironically, a form of asexual reproduction—takes place in the young narrator that allows her to tell stories to herself, to step outside and examine the atrocity of everyday life around her with a sensitive detachment and black humor. Ornela Vorpsi’s unforgettable first novel pulses with an undercurrent of black energy, thick with sarcasm, cynicism, and, in the end, a recognizably tender and wounded humanity.