Ylljet Alicka was kind enough to answer our questions following the release of his latest novel (La valse du bonheur).
What was the trigger for writing this novel?
An article in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in 2002. It was about an Albanian family that had sought refuge in the Italian embassy in Tirana. I built my novel around their story, which is closely connected with the events that were sending shockwaves through Albania at the time. Through the story I express my views and feelings on themes such as courage, dignity and human cowardice.
Can you give us an overview of the plot?
In anticipation (though they do not know it) of the ‘future consequences’ of the fall of the Berlin Wall, six Albanian citizens seek refuge in the Italian Embassy in Tirana. The totalitarian Albanian state is shocked: such an action is unprecedented, not only in Albania but across the post-Communist zone. The six refugees will not leave the embassy for the next five years of international negotiations. They are obliged to live an isolated life under constant surveillance, housed in two underground rooms and oscillating between hope, disillusionment, the Italian dream and psychological pain. Meanwhile Italy and Albania lock knuckles both politically and in the media. This was the second time political asylum had been sought at a foreign embassy. The previous occasion involved the Hungarian Cardinal Mindszenty: following the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 he sought refuge in the American Embassy in Budapest and did not leave until 1971.
In real life did this family ever reach Italy?
In May 1990, following protracted international negotiations, the crisis was resolved and the six Albanians arrived triumphantly in Italy. Following ecstatic media coverage of their release, they found themselves caught up in government red tape in order to register as refugees. To their great disappointment, they finished up sick and isolated in a communal building on the outskirts of Rome.
And did they successfully settle in Italy in the long term?
After a decade spent in Italy, their situation can only be described as disastrous. One member of the Popa family committed suicide by jumping off a ferry travelling between Durres and Bari. Another died following a quarrel with neighbours. One of the sisters traded her dreams of Italian luxury for a far harsher life, moving in with a Senegalese woodcutter she’d met in the refugee camp. One of the other sisters was in and out of psychiatric hospitals. The one ‘survivor’ was the 75-year-old Ileana. Living in a retirement home in Rome and rapidly losing her memory, her one subject of conversation is the marriage she might have had with an Italian police officer at the Italian embassy in Tirana.