The Last Journey of Ago Ymeri is a story of ghosts, and not all of them are dead. The world created by author Bashkim Shehu in his novel is surreal, stifling, frightening—a place that, while lacking the charms of the mythical Brigadoon, feels as though it, too, will slip away into the mists of memory once the telling of the tale has ended.
The Last Journey of Ago Ymeri is an ambitious work that demands much of its reader in terms of referential background, both contemporary and classical. The title refers to an Albanian folktale about a hero, Ago Ymeri, who is released from the underworld to visit the living for a day. Like Ago Ymeri, a man long believed dead has appeared in an Albanian village, and his appearance sets off a chain of events that reveal the actual and imaginary terrors of living in a totalitarian state. The story does not belong only to Viktor Dragoti, the man who has returned from the dead, but to a different character in each chapter—the emotionally frozen Mira, who first encounters Dragoti on the street in Tirana, to which village she and her family have been banished by the State for real or imagined crimes; the misogynistic Qemal, member of the Sigurimi secret police, who epitomizes bullying, ineffectual petty tyrants as he hounds Mira for information about the stranger; Ferhat the Interior Minister, whose favored status with the Director of the Politburo hinges on his willingness to see enemies wherever he looks, even in a dead man; the Minister’s mistress Magda; the woman Ana, whom Viktor Dragoti has come back to see; the Lord of the Underworld, who philosophizes about his own role in the dark realms of the Underworld. Shehu’s narration shifts consciousness in every chapter, residing now in Mira, now in Qemal, and within each of several characters in turn. At first glance, the only cord that binds them is the appearance of the dead man Dragoti; upon reflection, one grasps that the real tie binding them with one another and with us is life.
This shift in narration is not the most challenging aspect of the novel. Shehu blends overt allusions to Homer’s Odyssey and to the tale of Ago Ymeri with obscure undergirdings of folk customs and beliefs peculiar to Albania or even to the area around Tirana, Albania (where the author’s father died in mysterious circumstances after serving under Enver Hoxha in the former Communist regime and where Shehu was born). Like Joyce’s Ulysses, The Last Journey of Ago Ymeri is filled with symbols and motifs that may or may not mean the same thing from one sentence to the next—a blind villager sitting on a curb, a blind professor living in obscurity after an illustrious career, the blind Lord of the Underworld who wonders if his blindness is the result of the dark Underworld or the cause of it. All is related with a Kafkaesque grimness, at once both surreal and ploddingly pedestrian in the ways it portrays a closed society.
This novel is not a “quick read,” nor one that can likely be digested in a single reading. The tale is compelling if perplexing, and readers would do well to keep Google open for quick references. A few passages seem to lose subtlety in the translation, hitting readers over the head with self-explanatory references to Ulysses and other works, but translator Diana Alqi Kristo (also born in Tirana) has deftly maintained the dreamlike vision and nightmarish telling of The Last Journey of Ago Ymeri.