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Bunkeristi

Until recently I thought that Enver – Enrico Veronese’s nickname – was due not only to the initials of his real name, but also to the intention of paying homage to the legendary Enver Hoxha, leader of Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985. Only a few days ago I heard back from him and he explained that no, it was just a coincidence (and a perfect one for those ostalgic years, which also marked the rise of Offlaga Disco Pax).

Enver the Albanian was in some paradoxical way a creature of Italian fascism, as he emerged as a leader from the resistance to the colonialist occupation decided by Mussolini in 1939. The invasion had been quick and easy, within five days leading to the exile of King Zog I and the inclusion of Albania in the Italian empire.

In 1941 the Albanian Communist Party was founded, which called the population together to fight against the fascists. The Albanian partisans constituted themselves in 1942 as the National Liberation Movement of Albania, which brought together different ideological orientations and also included the anti-communist nationalists of Balli Kombetar. But in the end the communists largely prevailed and after the liberation of 1944 Enver emerged as the sole leader of Albania, outlawing all other political forces and not failing to eliminate his own former comrades in struggle who might threaten his power.

Enver was famous for his unyielding orthodoxy, for being “more Stalinist than Stalin” and during his life – but also after his death – he was worshipped as a secular god. He was so Stalinist that after 1956 he moved away from the Soviet Union, which had become too reformist, and instead moved closer to Mao’s China. Unlike the other communist countries of Eastern Europe, Albania never allowed itself to be subjugated, and even left the Warsaw Pact in 1968 in protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. After 1972, however, he also broke with Mao in protest against Nixon’s visit to China. Enver remained hostile to Tito’s overly moderate government in Yugoslavia, and never concluded peace agreements with Greece after the end of the Second World War.

On the other hand, relations with Italy were quite good, which apparently did not leave a bad memory and is still considered a friendly country by the Albanian population.

Today, one of the most visible signs of Enver’s forty-year rule is the omnipresence of the bunkers built to resist foreign invasions and nuclear wars. The bunkering of the country began in the 1960s, and by 1983 had led to the total construction of 173,371 units, an average of five per square kilometre (an impressive density, in a country with, moreover, less than 3 million inhabitants).

In October 2018 I was in Albania, and a friend of Alessia’s took us to visit one of them, which was particularly huge and has now been turned into a museum. You get there by car through a tunnel.

It would take several hours to go round it all.

The bunker-museum reconstructs many aspects of Albanian national history, in particular the resistance to Italian fascism and then the Enver regime. There are also various art installations to intrigue visitors, which also gives the place its name:

However, this case is not usual: today most of those bunkers are abandoned to ruin.

Alessia’s friend also explained that in Albania ‘for every rule, there is always an anti-rule’, because they tend to be anarchic, and you can see this in the way they behave in traffic: very similar to Italians, but worse. It is paradoxical that it is here that one of the most inflexible political regimes in history has developed, and that even before communism a sort of chivalrous code – five centuries old – was in force to regulate social behaviour and disputes. It was called Kanun, or Canon, and it incorporated local traditions that may seem almost monstrous to our eyes. In the north of the country, for example, there was the tradition of the Sworn Virgin, which was later recounted in the book by Elvira Dones (an Italian-speaking Albanian writer) and in the film of the same name by Laura Bispuri, starring Alba Rohrwacher: a very free but more powerful adaptation of the original, which was presented at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival.

According to this tradition, typical of mountain environments, when there are no male children in a family, one of the females can decide to “become a man”, not to have sexual relations and to take on all the functions, roles, duties and rights of a man (which women are precluded from doing, being an extremely macho society). And once she has made such a choice, she has to stick to it for the rest of her life.

In a way, the protagonist of Sworn Virgin has decided – after the death of her uncle, the only person who cared about her – to protect her heart by closing it hermetically and definitively to the outside world, just like the bunkers that in Albania would have protected their inhabitants from any foreign danger.

In the Albanians and Calabrians I have met, I have found the same hardness of character combined with an extreme sense of hospitality, which suggests an infinite tenderness for those few who are allowed to enter their bunker.

My first indirect impact with the Albanian people dates back to 1991. I was in high school, communism had just fallen, and that summer a ship carrying cane sugar from Cuba to Italy called at Durres. The ship was peacefully attacked by a huge number of men, women and children, who took advantage of the absence of the police after the collapse of the regime to escape from Albania. So the ship left and landed in Bari. It was the beginning of the phenomenon of unauthorised mass migration to our country, which over the past 27 years has won the hearts of Italian public opinion (which has finally reacted as we know, giving all the power to Salvini). The story was told in 2017 by a documentary by Daniele Vicari, La nave dolce (which can be seen on Youtube).

In those days instead, I remember the headline of Cuore – the satirical weekly “of human resistance” that was my information reference point – of 12 August: Notti Maaaagiche / Inseguendo un goool!. Obviously it was a reference to the still recent World Cup in Italia 90, but also to the fact that that huge crowd of refugees had been imprisoned inside the stadium in Bari. In fact, the headline read ‘Italia 91 better than Italia 90: sold out stadium in Bari’. And next to the headline, the famous World Cup mascot appeared equipped with helmet and truncheon, referring to the authoritarian handling of the affair by the Italian police forces.

By the way, part of the 1991 Cuore archive can be read online, and it’s like visiting a cemetery: many of those who wrote for it have since died, while others have fared worse (e.g. Beppe Grillo and Michele Serra).

Returning to the bunker, it is more generally the symbol of isolation from everything. Compared to hermitism, the idea of the bunker is more military and only apparently defensive. One stays in the bunker, of course, to avoid external threats, but also to plan projects and revenge.

J.D. Salinger, the writer born on 1 January 1919, chose to live in total isolation for most of his life. He welcomed with a rifle anyone who wanted to approach his residence: his bunker, we might say.

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