Home > Book Reviews, Fremantle Press > Book Review – The Albanian by Donna Mazza

Book Review – The Albanian by Donna Mazza

There’s something slightly intimidating about Donna Mazza’s The Albanian, which won the 2004 TAG Hungerford Award but wasn’t published until 2007. Perhaps it’s the dark and brooding cover, maybe the title, or even the slightly imposing page length (360+), but I wasn’t certain that I would like or be able to get through this. The first few pages seemed to fulfill my expectations, but it wasn’t long before I found myself hooked into the story. I had a discussion with my sister recently about reading books through to the end (I often read as much as a third or a half of a book before giving up, she usually perseveres to the bitter end) which was fresh in my mind as I began to read. It was with slight surprise that I looked down at the page number and realised I was on page 55 already.

The Albanian begins in the city of Dubrovnik in 1989 in the old Yugoslavia. This is of immediate interest as the Balkan Wars were soon to engulf the area. Rosa is a young woman from Bunbury on her way to Istanbul. Why she is going there isn’t immediately clear, perhaps not even to Rosa herself. And so we get pages and pages of descriptions, emotions and sensations of the city and of Rosa’s thoughts. This is important to note, as there is precious little action or plot in the first section of the book. This might turn some readers away, and to be quite honest it might have turned me away too had I not especially wanted to read this book, owing to the fact that it was a TAG Hungerford Award winner.

It isn’t long, however, before we are introduced to the Albanian of the title. Things don’t start too well for this relationship, which begins on the streets of Dubrovnik. Rosa isn’t too sure what to make of the prematurely haggard, cigarette smoking Albanian, but he obvious thinks a lot of her, because he rapes or at least coerces sex from her more or less against her will. Rosa seems slightly lethargic about this, in the sense that doesn’t seem overly concerned by this turn of events, even though they were against her will. As we discover, Rosa is a curiously passive young lady, who keeps coming back to the Albanian, despite his thieving of her passport (he gives it back) and a threat that he can find her anywhere in Dubrovnik. The biggest surprise for me, however, was the discovery that Rosa was only nineteen. Nineteen? What is a nineteen year old from Bunbury doing by herself in Yugoslavia on the brink of a war that was to span a decade?

Rosa leaves Dubrovnik promising to return to her Albanian (who remains unnamed), not knowing whether she intends to return or not. There is a significant language and cultural barrier between the two, and yet Rosa feels compelled to return to him. The second part of the narrative sees Rosa tagging along with an American woman, Anya. This is where the story seems most conventional and most touristy. Nothing seems to have much of an impact on Rosa; she is dreamy and vague. Her memories of the rape and her feelings about this seem to take a while to sink in, almost as if she had been existing in some half-asleep state. Despite this, her resolve to return to Dubrovnik only intensifies.

Without wanting to merely retell the plot of The Albanian, suffice to say that there is much to-ing and fro-ing. Rosa goes back to Dubrovnik, and then after a fairly miserable time (part of which is spent locked up in a dingy room) she makes it back to Bunbury. The Bunbury section initially seems aimless (which mirrors Rosa’s own feelings) but builds in momentum as Rosa makes plans to return to her (still unnamed) Albanian, who is now in Sweden seeking political asylum. She returns to find herself more isolated than ever. One wonders why on earth she would continue down such a line of action. The Albanian, by Rosa’s own admission, is ugly, sexist, racist (against Serbs) and has little time for her.

One of the most interesting things about this novel is the description of the culture shock Rosa endures, particularly when she arrives in Sweden. Very few people speak English, even fewer want to speak to her, and the Albanian expects her to cook for him and occupy herself while he slaves away at some awful job during the day. If anything, the situation is worse when he takes her to meet other Albanians. This culture shock is especially stark in terms of how women are treated in this culture. Women are expected to cook, wait on the men until very late in the evening (clearing ashtrays and so forth), and eat leftover scraps. In other words, women have a very low standing. While the Albanian recognises that Rosa is different from Albanian women, he still expects her to adhere to many of these principles, such as standing to shake a man’s hand. Rosa has second, third and fourth thoughts about where she is and what she is doing, and this reader does too.

The other major obstacle to understanding is the language barrier itself. What exactly Rosa sees in her Albanian isn’t immediately clear, but it seems to have something to do with the sense of mystery engendered by their communication difficulties. From the Bunbury section, we see that Rosa’s home life is very safe and very boring, and as such her European adventures are in opposition to this. But as the narrative progresses, Rosa begins to understand that the Albanian cares only for his family and country (Kosove), and while these are laudable concerns they are not directly relevant to Rosa. She becomes an unwilling passenger, long overstaying her three month visa as Yugoslavia spirals towards war.

The final straw is the attack on Dubrovnik, which Rosa sees via the news. This was the city where both she and the Albanian were happiest, and now it is destroyed. There is a sense of terrible loss, and the prospect of further misery. The Albanian himself notes that if the centuries-old city is not immune from destruction at the hands of the Serbs, then what hope does a mere mortal of twenty-four years have? The future is grim, but Rosa is leaving. And so The Albanian ends on a depressing note. The lines of communication have been broken. Henceforth, Rosa will travel as an outsider to Europe’s ills, not as a mute and helpless insider.

The Albanian is an impressive first novel. It has a substance and reality that makes the places and people depicted in it seem real. When I say real, I mean I am taking this to be a kind of autobiographical narrative. It is very tempting to read Rosa as Donna Mazza herself, not least because they are around the same age. There is a sense of authenticity here in the details of life in Sweden and in the ways the streets of Dubrovnik are shown. This is, of course, a good thing. On the other hand, I felt that the structure of the narrative seemed problematic at times. The various sections do not always hang together well, and there are points in the story where momentum is lost. Again, this appears to mirror reality. I can only assume that most or all of these events actually occurred, perhaps to Mazza herself. Perhaps I am mistaken. While not my favourite of the five Hungerford winners I have fully read (The World Waiting to be Made remains my favourite), The Albanian is a very impressive debut. The notes in the back of the book say that it took Mazza seven years to write this, and I can well believe it. Hopefully it will not take her seven years to write a second novel. I look forward to Mazza’s subsequent work with interest.

  1. The Albanian
    June 18, 2009 at 8:39 am

    I am the Albanian, the real Albanian. Donna Mazza…is a big lier. Sorry she was my dearest at that time…but she was a big lier.

  2. Ferhat Ymeraga
    December 12, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    My wife Anne, who is an American, and I, an Albanian, went to Dubrovnik to spend our
    honeymoon the last week of March 1988. We both fell in love with that magnificent city
    that has a treasure of Albanian history in its archives. It is easy to fall in love in that magical city. We went back in the summer of 2011, and had a wonderful time. I cannot wait to read the book! Thank you.

    Ferhat Ymeraga
    Kent, Washington State

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