As a child, Alice Munro read Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Little Mermaid — a “dreadfully sad” story, as the Canadian author remembered in a video shown at the 2013 Nobel Prize Award Ceremony. The tragic ending of The Little Mermaid, in which the titular character cannot marry the prince she loves, set Munro’s power of imagination free: she rewrote the fairy-tale with a happy ending. This was the beginning of her literary activity, as the 2013 Nobel Laureate said in the same interview.
This power of imagination permitted Munro to incorporate the phenomenon of the Albanian sworn virgin into a tale called The Albanian Virgin and published in her 1994 short story collection Open Secrets.
A foreign traveller, a girl named Lottar, explores the northern Albanian region “Maltsia e madhe”. Her only confidant in the village, a Franciscan monk, tries to protect her from a forced marriage by making her abandon her female identity and becoming a male member of society: an Albanian sworn virgin. One day, the Franciscan decides to escape the patriarchal society with Lottar by leaving for a Bishop’s residence in Shkodër. Over the course of these events, their relationship remains obscure — maybe due to her male social identity.
Lottar’s adventure takes place at the beginning of the 20th century and represents only one narrative circle in The Albanian Virgin. Claire, the other main character, visits Charlotte — a Canadian woman married to an Albanian — regularly in hospital. Over the course of Claire’s visits, Charlotte makes Lottar’s adventure up. Claire herself is torn between two men: her husband and her neighbor. Finally, she makes a “desperate change and in spite of the regrets [she] suffered every day, [she] was proud of that”. Two women living in completely different circumstances, but having that one parallel formed by their relationship to men, and pursuing the same objective of autonomy is the main conflict depicted by The Albanian Virgin.
Blurred boundaries between fiction and reality
From the first sentence, Munro recklessly plunges the reader into this conflict. She relates the short story without chronology and without equipping the reader with any background knowledge. The reader jumps from contemporary Canada into the Albania of the early 20th century, not knowing which elements are historically derived and which ones are purely fictional. Claire’s last remark in this short story embraces the destiny of both main characters:
“We have been very happy.
I have often felt completely alone.
There is always in this life something to discover.
The days and the years have gone by in some sort of blur.
On the whole, I am satisfied.”
The 82-year-old Alice Munro has never been to Albania. She learnt about life in 20th century Albania through Edith Durham’s 1909 anthropological study, High Albania. Durham travelled through the Albanian mountains at a time when she was not even allowed to vote, and thanks to her meticulous account, Munro obtained a sound understanding of Albanian habits and peculiarities that is reflected in her work.
Perhaps if Munro did not know the work of Durham, The Albanian Virgin would have never been written; it is Durham’s angle on Albanian society that makes the “Munrovian” point of view possible: the consideration of Albanian interpersonal relationships from a female vantage point. Moreover, Lottar exhibits — incidentally or not — several similarities to Edith Durham.
The stoicism of Albanian women
Munro does not victimize the Albanian women in her short story. Neither does she condemn the patriarchal circumstance of Albanian society. Instead, she highlights the women’s strength, splendor and joie de vivre. Munro sees a stoicism in Albanian women: even though they are living in inequality, nobody can temper their delight.
Nonetheless, she repeatedly shows how this patriarchal society is constricting for women, allowing them to be in their element only when they are among themselves. When Lottar meets a sworn virgin for the first time, she turns to a woman next to her, but this one “shook her head, not willing to speak where the men might hear them”.
Mosaic of 'The Albanians' on the facade of the National Historical Museum. Photo: Stelios Lazakis via Flickr.It is no coincidence that Munro paraphrases “Albanian” several times with “the language of the Ghegs”, putting nationality aside. Her intention is not to exalt the Albanian nation; she rather filters the universal aspects of Albanian peculiarities and makes literature out of it. Munro “gets to the heart to what it is to be human”, as BBC Arts director Will Gompertz put it when talking about the Canadian’s literary oeuvre.
The incarnation of this “being human” is unmistakably the disinterested and submissive book admirer Gjurdhi, Charlotte’s husband. This man emits a lovely wretchedness. Through Gjurdhi, we come to understand the appraisal of American writer and Munro-admirer Jonathan Franzen, who stated that “more than any writer since Chekhov, Munro strives for and achieves […] a gestaltlike completeness in the representation of a life”.
Authenticity through minimalistic elegance
Munro’s language is decent and discreet. Her formulations are trenchant. It is, however, notable that she renders certain passages of her short story more dynamic through the repetition of words. I can’t help but be stuck by Munro’s minimalistic elegance, which intensifies the story’s authenticity. It makes reading her short story a very intimate experience, comparable to hearing an exciting story from a friend.
Another recurring figure in The Albanian Virgin is 19th century British author Mary Shelley, and Munro draws careful parallels between Claire’s circle of friends and those of the Frankenstein author (who served as the first audience for her story). Moreover, attentive readers of Munro’s story also come across further references to female writers who are worth-reading, from Anaïs Nin to Elaine Dundy.
Women dance at a Kosovan wedding. Photo: MyBukik via Flickr.With The Albanian Virgin, Munro shows that the short story is not only a “warm-up” exercise for the large-scale novel. Her short story is a masterpiece – Jonathan Franzen’s statement that he would need 800 pages to express something Munro could do in 30 is amply illustrated here. In The Albanian Virgin, Munro manages to portray — apart from a sound image of Albanian characteristics — the varied lives of two different women living in completely different circumstances within 57 pages.
Alice Munro: 'Open Secrets.' Short story collection. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 293 pages, 1994.
This article was first published on Kosovo 2.0.