KRASZTEV Péter - Bunkerque

If ever I decide I've had enough of perpetual reincarnation, and long for a secure eternity, I'll have my immortal soul transported to the concrete interior of an Albanian bunker. For it would be wrong to think that these buildings, with which the whole country is overrun, have no heart or soul; and neither is it just a handful of perverse tourists that continues to take pleasure in them. The superficial visitor doesn't normally take in more than the basic configuration: a crenellated ring of concrete half-sunk into the ground, with a hemisphere of reinforced concrete on top. Pay the necessary attention, however, and you will soon be aware that no two bunkers are the same.
     There's a historical distinction to be made between Italian proto-bunkers (which are more spacious, and can be turned into temporary living quarters, but whose height makes it easy to blow them away) and the practical but less user-friendly micro-fortresses constructed locally. The country is divided into lightly- and heavily-armed sectors, depending on the local residents' military expertise. In some places they just poured the cement into the hillside, in others, for example where they planned to defend gorges, they preferred to take their inspiration from the winding entrances to the urinals of peacetime. You cannot appreciate the spirit of the bunkers without taking a good look at the way they are laid out: linear formations are the most popular (all along the coast and the principalroads; most can only hold one person); also common are nestlike arrangements (to defend the odd outlying village or two, their dimensions distinctly family-size); there are also a good few outposts which are scattered like the meandering piss of the proverbial bull, designed to achieve the ultimate confusion of the enemy; much less frequent is the citadel (watch-tower) kind of bunker, or its variant in the lowlands, the proud solitary bunker, far removed from its friends. Destined for glory, but robbed of their triumph, most of these structures are now overgrown with weeds and millet, while a few have temporarily been transformed into public lavatories by the odd insensitive passer-by. And there are those whose stem gazes up at the sky like that of a carelessly uprooted mushroom,and whose concrete helmets sink pitifully into the coastal sand.

       Whether or not they happen to be the right way up, these buildings cannot be worn out. Their material is still immaculate - nowhere can you find a bulge or a crack. The roofs are so smooth, I'll bet even T-34 shells would slide off them. They would have done, had there ever been a play-off between Albania and the rest of the world (minus China), and the locals had humiliated the opposing side, as planned. In the event of an attack on the country from all sides - on water, by air and on land - the population was, from the safety of its concrete trenches, to defend its territory inch by inch, while the imperialists' hail of bombs transformed the rest of the Albanian motherland into a gigantic modern-day Dunkerque. It would have fallen to the rugged little strongholds to keep the population from extinction; thus did the bunker become a synonym for safety, and for the immortal spirit of the Albanian people. With no awareness of this symbol, we would never come to appreciate Ismail Kadare's metaphor in his historical novel The Citadel, a book he made sure to write well enough for it to get translated into more or less every language in the world, and thus to let everyone know that the nation of citadels (read: bunkers) will send any modern-day Turkish infidels packing.
     Whether because of Kadare, or other (possibly even objective) historical forces, we don't know, but it is certainly true that since the Italian invasion in World War Two no enemy has ventured into Albania. As it later turned out, there was little need: in 1991 the masses were so stunned by their sudden new-found freedom that within hours they took their already suitably eroded country to pieces with their own hands.
     If Albania's metaphor for safety and survival is the bunker, then its new symbol for rebuilding and renewal is the pub. The catering trade has tended to set up shop in privatised ground floors of buildings ruined in the revolution (if not earlier). Today's superchic restaurant is a relatively new phenomenon, but its geographical strategy is a spooky remnant of the principles of bunker-building: there are citadel-like eateries (under the ruins of Krüje castle, for example), and pubs, similarly, are located in linear or nestlike patterns, on their own, or scattered like bulls' piss. Unlike its counterparts in other countries, the Albanian pub performs a wider function than just the provision of food and drink. At night, the pub window is the only source of illumination in the town. This is important not so much for public order as for the physical well-being of passers-by. For once it was realised that water-pipes in neighbouring Macedonia were built to the same specification as in Albania, all man-hole covers were rounded up off the streets and smuggled across to lend an enterprising hand to the renovation of Skopje. There are streets (linear formations) where you have to close the door of one joint to be able to get into the neighbouring one. There you can make another futile attempt to taste the local poison, or raki rushi: you'll find they aren't too keen on serving domestic produce. The entrances to these linearly-arranged pubs tend to be decorated with Italian ceramic tiles, providing a great service to the city council, forever spared the expense of renovating the ground floor masonry. The leafy district of Tirana once occupied by the party élite is now overgrown with a dense network of bars (nestlike formation), equipped with garden terraces, whose non-stop activity gives a considerable sense of security to those strolling by late at night. On the banks of the Prespa lake by the south-eastern Albanian border, next to a barracks for border guards, I stumbled across the region's loneliest restaurant. The lake is surrounded by a 5000-strong Macedonian minority whose lifestyle is still based on late medieval relations of production, and which is separated from the outside world by a two thousand metre highrange of hills. There is nothing on the mule path leading there to suggest that by the lakeside, far from the trees, such an establishment has opened. Having taken our order, the proprietor yelled across to the barracks, from where some soldier immediately emerged carrying potatoes and what-have- you: with this our good man had sorted out his supplies for the day.
     Past and present, eternal truths and everyday mundanities meet in the rounded shape of the bunker-pub rising up out of the sands of Durrës beach. Around the dome of the roof they have built a wooden terrace, above it red tiles have been flung up to form another roof, while below they have left the concrete double-doors, together with their enormous hinges and lock, intact. When the head waiter admitted that they had received a brotherly injection of capital from Kosovo for the renovation, the pieces of the picture suddenly began to fit together: finding new applications for the bunkers is no longer just a question of of symbolism and conscience, but one of the Albanians' very survival as a nation. This, no doubt, is why a law was recently reintroduced making both men and women liable to military service for more or less the whole of their natural lives. What's more, those who did not pay their dues under the previous regime can now make up for it. At the news of these old military traditions undergoing a renaissance, the Albanian minority in Kosovo immediately began to invest in their fellow Albanians' bunker development programme: I'm sure they knew in advance that if Milosevic moved the Krajinan Serbs to Kosovo, they would chuck them out of rump Yugoslavia, the war would begin, and if there was war, they should at least have the chance to feel themselves at home in rejuvenated fortifications. Then, after so many reincarnations, their souls could also find eternal peace, entombed in concrete.

Translated by David EVANS

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