Gjergj Fishta (1871-1940) was the greatest and most influential figure of Albanian literature in the first half of the twentieth century. It was he more than any other writer who gave artistic expression to the searching soul of the now sovereign Albanian nation. Lauded and celebrated up until the Second World War as the 'national poet of Albania' and as the 'Albanian Homer,' Fishta was to fall into sudden oblivion when the communists took power in November 1944. The very mention of his name became taboo for forty-six years.
Fishta was born on 23 October 1871 in the Zadrima village of Fishta near Troshan in northern Albania where he was baptized by Franciscan missionary and poet Leonardo De Martino (1830-1923). He attended Franciscan schools in Troshan and Shkodra where as a child he was deeply influenced both by the talented De Martino and by a Bosnian missionary, pater Lovro Mihacevic, who instilled in the intelligent lad a love for literature and for his native language. In 1886, when he was fifteen, Fishta was sent by the Order of the Friars Minor to Bosnia, as were many young Albanians destined for the priesthood at the time. It was at Franciscan seminaries and institutions in Sutjeska, Livno and Kreševo that the young Fishta studied theology, philosophy and languages, in particular Latin, Italian and Serbo-Croatian, to prepare himself for his ecclesiastical and literary career. During his stay in Bosnia he came into contact with Bosnian writer Grga Martic and Croatian poet Silvije Strahimir Kranjcevic (1865-1908) with whom he became friends and who aroused a literary calling in him. In 1894 Gjergj Fishta was ordained as a priest and admitted to the Franciscan order. On his return to Albania in February of that year, he was given a teaching position at the Franciscan college in Troshan and subsequently a posting as parish priest in the village of Gomsiqja. In 1899, he collaborated with Preng Doçi (1846-1917), the influential abbot of Mirdita, with prose writer and priest Dom Ndoc Nikaj (1864-1951) and with folklorist Pashko Bardhi (1870-1948) to found the 'Bashkimi' (Unity) literary society of Shkodra which set out to tackle the thorny Albanian alphabet question. This society was subsequently instrumental in the publication of a number of Albanian-language school texts and of the 'Bashkimi' Albanian-Italian dictionary of 1908, still the best dictionary of Gheg dialect. By this time Fishta had become a leading figure of cultural and public life in northern Albania and in particular in Shkodra.
In 1902, Fishta was appointed director of Franciscan schools in the district of Shkodra where he is remembered in particular for having replaced Italian with Albanian for the first time as the language of instruction there. This effectively put an end to the Italian cultural domination of northern Albanian Catholics and gave young Albanians studying at these schools a sense of national identity. On 14-22 November 1908 he participated in the Congress of Monastir as a representative of the 'Bashkimi' literary society. This congress, attended by Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim delegates from Albania and abroad, was held to decide upon a definitive Albanian alphabet, a problem to which Fishta had given much thought. Indeed, the congress had elected Gjergj Fishta to preside over a committee of eleven delegates who were to make the choice.
In October 1913, almost a year after the declaration of Albanian independence in Vlora, Fishta founded and began editing the Franciscan monthly periodical 'Hylli i Dritës' (The day-star) which was devoted to literature, politics, folklore and history. With the exception of the turbulent years of the First World War and its aftermath, 1915-1920, and the early years of the dictatorship of Ahmet Zogu, 1925-1929, this influential journal of high literary standing was published regularly until July 1944 and became as instrumental for the development of northern Albanian Gheg culture as Faik bey Konitza's Brussels journal 'Albania' had been for the Tosk culture of the south. From December 1916 to 1918 Fishta edited the Shkodra newspaper 'Posta e Shqypniës' (The Albanian post), a political and cultural newspaper which was subsidized by Austria-Hungary under the auspices of the 'Kultusprotektorat,' despite the fact that the occupying forces did not entirely trust Fishta because of his nationalist aspirations. Also in 1916, together with writers Luigj Gurakuqi (1879-1925), Ndre Mjeda (1866-1937) and Mati Logoreci (1867-1941), Fishta played a leading role in the Albanian Literary Commission ('Komisija Letrare Shqype') set up by the Austro-Hungarians on the suggestion of consul general August Ritter von Kral (1859-1918) to decide on questions of orthography for official use and to encourage the publication of Albanian school texts. After some deliberation, the Commission sensibly decided to use the central dialect of Elbasan as a neutral compromise for a standard literary language. This was much against the wishes of Gjergj Fishta who regarded the dialect of Shkodra, in view of its strong contribution to Albanian culture at the time, as best suited. Fishta hoped that his northern Albanian 'koine' would soon serve as a literary standard for the whole country, much as Dante's language had served as a guide for literary Italian. Throughout these years, Fishta continued teaching and running the Franciscan school in Shkodra, known from 1921 on as the Collegium Illyricum (Illyrian College), which had become the leading educational institution of northern Albania. He was now also an imposing figure of Albanian literature.
In August 1919, Gjergj Fishta served as secretary-general of the Albanian delegation attending the Paris Peace Conference and, in this capacity, was asked by the president of the delegation, Msgr. Luigj Bumçi (1872-1945), to take part in a special commission to be sent to the United States to attend to the interests of the young Albanian state. There he visited Boston, New York and Washington. In 1921, Fishta represented Shkodra in the Albanian parliament and was chosen in August of that year as vice-president of this assembly. His talent as an orator served him well in his functions both as a political figure and as a man of the cloth. In later years, he attended Balkan conferences in Athens (1930), Sofia (1931) and Bucharest (1932) before withdrawing from public life to devote his remaining years to the Franciscan order and to his writing. From 1935 to 1938 he held the office of provincial of the Albanian Franciscans. These most fruitful years of his life were now spent in the quiet seclusion of the Franciscan monastery of Gjuhadoll in Shkodra with its cloister, church and rose garden where Fishta would sit in the shade and reflect on his verse.
As the poet laureate of his generation, Gjergj Fishta was honoured with various diplomas, awards and distinctions both at home and abroad. He was awarded the Austro-Hungarian 'Ritterkreuz' in 1911, was decorated by Pope Pius XI with the 'Al Merito' award in 1925, was given the prestigious 'Phoenix' medal of the Greek government, was honoured with the title 'Lector jubilatus honoris causae' by the Franciscan order, and was made a regular member of the Italian Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1939. He died in Shkodra on 30 December 1940.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Gjergj Fishta was universally recognized as the 'national poet of Albania.' Austrian Albanologist Maximilian Lambertz (1882-1963) described him as "the most ingenious poet Albania has ever produced," and Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863-1938) called him "the great poet of the glorious people of Albania." For others he was the "Albanian Homer."
After the war, Fishta was nonetheless attacked and denigrated perhaps more than any other prewar writer, and fell into prompt oblivion. The national poet became an anathema.
The real reason for Fishta's fall from grace after the 'liberation' in 1944 is to be sought, however, not in his alleged pro-Italian or clerical proclivities, but in the origins of the Albanian Communist Party itself. The ACP, later to be called the Albanian Party of Labour, had been founded during the Second World War under the auspices of the Yugoslav envoys Dušan Mugoša (1914-1973) and Miladin Popovic (1910-1945). In July 1946, Albania and Yugoslavia signed a Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance and a number of other agreements which gave Yugoslavia effective control over all Albanian affairs, including the field of culture. Serbo-Croatian was introduced as a compulsory subject in all Albanian high schools, and by the spring of 1948, plans were even under way for a merger of the two countries. It is no doubt the alleged anti-Slavic sentiments expressed in The Highland Lute which caused the work and its author to be proscribed by the Yugoslav authorities, even though Fishta was educated in Bosnia and inspired by Serbian and Croatian literature. In actual fact, it is as ridiculous to describe The Highland Lute as being anti-Slavic as it would be to describe 'El Cid' and the 'Chanson de Roland' as being anti-Arab. They are all historical epics with national heroes and foreign foes. The so-called anti-Slavic element in Fishta's work was also stressed in the first post-war edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia of Moscow, which reads as follows (March 1950):
After relations with Yugoslavia were broken off in 1948, it is quite likely that expressions of anti-Montenegrin or anti-Serb sentiment would no longer have been considered a major sin in Party thinking. However, an official position had been taken with regard to Fishta and, possibly with deference to the new Slav allies in Moscow, it could not be renounced without a scandal. Gjergj Fishta, who but a few years earlier had been lauded as the national poet of Albania, disappeared from the literary scene, seemingly without a trace. Such was the fear of him in later years that his bones were even dug up and secretly thrown into the river.
Yet despite four decades of unrelenting Party harping and propaganda attempting to reduce Fishta to the rank of a minor 'clerical poet,' the people of northern Albania, and in particular the inhabitants of his native Shkodra, did not forget him. After almost half a century of silence, Gjergj Fishta was commemorated openly on 5 January 1991 in Shkodra. (Elsie)