Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Artful Albanian: You Should Never Listen to Anything Enver Hoxha Says

La langue de bois, “the wooden tongue,” is a very useful French term for platitudinous windbaggery that combines the worst qualities of politician-speak and bureaucratese. This non-language is generally used when functionaries — up to and including heads of state — have soundbite-sized banalities they want to express and whole paragraphs to express them in, leaving us with something like “The nation’s people desire economic development, and those benchmarks are being met as rapidly as the fundamentals will allow, which is very rapidly, because the people’s desire is invincible and the fundamentals are stronger than ever.” The nouns and verbs are soothing, but the syntax is designed to repel any effort you might make at paying attention.

I was about to write that “langue de bois” is a term every political journalist should know, but then I figured that anyone professionally obliged to treat this kind of sentence seriously must already be feeling quite enough contempt for himself and for the English language, and forcing him to use a fancy foreign term would only serve to compound both. Then I thought a little more about this hypothetical reporter, caught between the two cardinal sins of langue de bois and macaronic pretension, which called up a mental picture of an anguished man sitting at a table with a pile of woodchips on one side and a bowl of macaroni on the other. Best to let that line of speculation wind itself right the hell down.

Communists were the undisputed masters of langue de bois — what is “People’s Democratic Republic” if not the tip of that iceberg? — so it’s no surprise that I encountered the term for the first time in Anthony Daniels’s Utopias Elsewhere, his travelogue of all the Communist autocracies still kicking around in 1989 that he could manage to visit: the PDRK, Romania, Vietnam, et al. (In Christopher Hitchens’s review of the book, he wrote rather scampishly that “Anthony Daniels employs the term langue de bois perhaps a hundred times, which is to say, woodenly.”) And if top prize for excellence in langue de bois must always be given to Kim Il Sung, Daniels gives a well-deserved runner-up laurel to Enver Hoxha of Albania — though whether he was most persuaded by Hoxha’s mastery of the art or the fact that Hoxha’s collected works run to a staggering 64 volumes, I couldn’t say.

Hoxha was a despicable human being, even as dictators go. On the one hand, he elevated Stalin-worship to new heights of repulsiveness by infusing it with an ardent sycophancy that was not at all feigned — he met Uncle Joe a grand total of five times, yet managed to turn those brief encounters into an entire memoir, With Stalin, in which more than one commentator has found traces of homoerotic fascination. On the other hand, Hoxha’s abject hero-worship was entirely compatible with a sickening paranoid egomania that made him the Eastern bloc’s least favorite dictator. He had a habit of abruptly breaking ties with every leader that ventured to underwrite Albania’s economy — first Yugoslavia, then Khrushchev’s Soviet Union, and finally China. Everyone with geopolitical reasons to want to like him ended up hating him.

In the Western edition of his memoirs, The Artful Albanian, ed. John Halliday, which I just finished, the timeline at the front of the book has a laconic entry sandwiched between “Albania leaves the Warsaw Pact de facto” and “Albania leaves the Warsaw Pact de jure”:
1967: Abolition of religion
In fact, Albania abolished religion more zealously than any other Communist dictatorship in Europe (and, given that I’ve already mentioned him, I must say that I wonder what Christopher Hitchens would think of the result). Part of it can be chalked up to Albania’s polygonal xenophobia, which encompasses foreign influences in every direction, but Hoxha’s paranoia was certainly a factor.

But what all of this is leading up to is my critical opinion of The Artful Albanian, which is that it manages to distill the parts of Hoxha’s prodigious output that are definitely not langue de bois, such as this anecdote about Tito in which Hoxha and the Yugoslav dictator are canoeing in a lake outside Belgrade. I should mention that Tito’s previous dog, Lux, saved his life by leaping on his master during a bomb raid and taking a shard of shrapnel that would have killed Tito and ended up killing Lux.
“The dog’s tired.” And Tito called to him, “Climb in!”

The dog scrambled into the boat, and since it was the size of a calf, the boat rocked a bit, but we came to no harm, except that when the dog shook himself the suit which I had for the Paris Peace Conference was soaked.

“We will dry it when we get back to villa,” said Tito.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said to him, giving the dog a hard look.
Still, Hoxha is the kind of sonuvabitch who would write in his memoirs that he, and only he, deserves credit for the deaths of the Albanian freedom-fighters usually considered victims of Kim Philby. Therefore, even the following anecdote from 1942 (p. 57) is powerless to move my sympathy:
Almost stupefied by the thick fog of tobacco smoke we were obliged to take repeated breaks to rest in the other room where, besides drinking coffee, we continued to smoke tobacco.
The scene described is the trial of a party member who dared to think that the British might make a better ally than the Russians; after all the tobacco smoke, he ends up shot.

But King Zog still holds the Guinness World Record for most cigarettes smoked in a single day, so the allegiance of the Cigarette Smoking Blog is clear even before the gut-wrenching atrocities are considered.

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