Biografi: A Traveller's Tale

Paperback | November 25, 2008

byLloyd Jones

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Peter Shapello is a village dentist in Albania until one day he recieves a visit that changes his life - and an offer he can't refuse. He will become the double for Albania's Great Leader, Enver Hoxha, the man who stands in for him on official engagements. As the unnamed narrator of Biografi goes in search of Shapello, the bizarre reality of his country reveals itself. A highly original travel book first published in 1993, Biografi is about the creation of new lives, apparitions and subversive histories. It is at once an adventure quest and a tour de force of imaginative writing - mysterious, shocking, poignant and sometimes grimly funny.

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Peter Shapello is a village dentist in Albania until one day he recieves a visit that changes his life - and an offer he can't refuse. He will become the double for Albania's Great Leader, Enver Hoxha, the man who stands in for him on official engagements. As the unnamed narrator of Biografi goes in search of Shapello, the bizarre real...

LLOYD JONES was born in New Zealand and his novel Mister Pip was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book. He lives in Wellington.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:288 pages, 8 × 5.2 × 0.75 inPublished:November 25, 2008Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0307397572

ISBN - 13:9780307397577

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1I was looking for Petar Shapallo but the face that had been Petar Shapallo’s had vanished under a surgeon’s knife. So I was left with the name which few people remembered, and a face fewer still had seen.The shoemaker in Rruga November 17, for instance, said, ‘Yes, I know this man. We were at school together.’And after that?The man shrugged. ‘You asked if I knew him.’He thought some more.‘Petar,’ he said, ‘was very good at gymnastics.’Kindly and well disposed towards his mother, the shoemaker added.‘He was a dentist,’ I said.‘I did not say that,’ said the man.‘I know. I’m saying it. The Petar Shapallo we are looking for was a dentist.’‘If he was a dentist, then go to the dentists’ union. As you can see, I am a shoemaker.’The dentist had had the misfortune to have been born in the very same month as the Balkan dictator, Enver Hoxha.A shared birthday wasn’t necessary — but one can see how it might have helped in making the dentist a persuasive candidate. The moon entering the third phase, the alignment of the planets…that sort of thing. More important was the fact of Shapallo’s size. He was over six feet tall, and broad across the shoulder. The dentist and the dictator had perfect matching shadows. And twin smiles designed to reassure. I had heard it said: People who saw a smile cross Enver’s face were often surprised to learn that he was ordering their execution. But just as misleading was Shapallo's smile — that grin of a man caught in the rain without a coat or umbrella the moment he learned he was required to perform a special duty at the highest level.Height, breadth and smiling lines — these are the vital ingredients. The rest the surgeon sculpted. Hairdressers and tailors worked on Shapallo to improve the resemblance. The dictator occasionally looked in on the work-in-progress. His glance moved between Shapallo and his own reflection in a hand-held mirror. Once satisfied that the reflection could not be improved, he had Shapallo’s family killed — his wife and two daughters, ages eight and ten. Next to go were the surgeon, hairdressers and tailors. They were in the bus that toppled over the cliffs which spill down to Dhermi on the Adriatic Coast.The years passed. Shapallo, as it happened, was spared the assassin’s bullet and the dictator died in the mid-eighties, disabled by Parkinson’s, a frail shadow of the comparatively robust Shapallo filling in for him on the podium. There was a ceremony for retired border guards at which Shapallo pinned medals to the chests of the veterans at the very same moment that the dictator lay on his deathbed. The death notice arrived several days later. The announcer’s voice on Radio Tirana was solemn and grave. The grieving process thus began.To commemorate the loss of the Great Leader an extra ‘attack day’ was declared in the countryside. In Tirana people lined up to give parting kisses. They wept and threw themselves over the coffin. A woman screamed for her heart to be torn open and for Enver to be fed with her blood. This ‘correct’ display of emotion was shown many times on Albanian television. Each time, a soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder prises the woman from the coffin. The woman is led to a chair, and the line of mourners takes a step forward. On it went — until the day of entombment arrived with the rumoured sighting of the Great Leader; like the ‘Christ figure’, Enver had risen from the dead.The sightings spread out from Tirana to the countryside, along the coast: Vlorë, Himore, Borsh, Sarandë. Eyewitness reports spoke of a man with ‘film-star looks’. It was quiet for a spell; then a woman in Korcë recalled that, before she fainted, a man exactly like the Great Leader had tapped her on the shoulder and asked for water. This man, she said, had been exceptionally polite.There were several more mountain sightings — the last one in a small village tucked at the bottom of the Coraun range, which is the peaked hat on the Karaburun peninsula separating the muddy Adriatic from the Ionian Sea.The last sighting, and one that lent credence to all the others, had come from a German embassy official in the aftermath of the rush on the foreign embassies in Tirana. In June 1990 the regime casually announced that passports could as of now be obtained from the Ministry, the extraordinary implication being that everyone was now free to travel. The controls along Embassy Row were relaxed. At first no one wished to appear too eager. Second or third in line was okay, but to head a line was risky. Along Embassy Row people began to gather. For the time being everything was orderly. But then the rumour spread beyond Tirana that the embassies were taking people in, and the dribs and drabs grew to a torrent of new arrivals. All through the night and the following day the crowd built. People arrived by train, by bus, by cart; they walked in from outlying villages. They were a crowd now and as such a powerful new voice emerged. Graffiti appeared on the stone walls comparing Hoxha with Hitler. Outside the embassies the crowd chanted the new words: ‘Freedom. Democracy’. The police fired shots in the air. They tried to shout the crowds down with the use of megaphones.It was during the second night that Shapallo managed to climb over the iron fence into the grounds of the German embassy. A good number of fellow travellers were already huddled under blankets and Shapallo was able to wriggle down in a bed of gravel.He came to at first light with a boot in his ribs. Then something hard — a fist or paling — struck his forehead. A woman screamed in his face: ‘Murderer!’ He was barely awake to the fact that he was being kicked, shoved and punched back to the iron railing. Word passed among the crowds camped along Embassy Row that the ghost of the late dictator had come back to haunt and burden with guilt those seeking to leave. There was a terrible commotion. Soldiers fired shots in the air to try to break up the crowd. Shapallo was pinned to the fence inside, and those on the outside waiting to get into the embassy reached through the fence to rip his clothing. It was left to embassy officials to haul the concussed dentist to safety inside the building. A doctor was sent for — and an earlobe was sewn back on and several cuts stitched above Shapallo’s right eye. Two ribs had been broken and a plug of hair ripped out from his left temple.