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Devised in a Cell, Kosovo Political Prisoner’s Literary Epic Celebrates Freedom

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Back in 1985, Bajram Kosumi, then a 25-year-old political prisoner, was walking around his isolation cell in a prison in the Serbian city of Nis, where he was serving a sentence for participating in a protest by ethnic Albanian students for more autonomy for Kosovo within Yugoslavia.

“A prison cell is cold, but in the winter it freezes you,” Kosumi told BIRN at his office at Pristina University, where he works as a professor in the Department of Journalism.

Kosumi recalled how, during the frosty winter nights, alone in his cell, he memorised the ideas for what would turn out almost four decades later to be a 770-page experimental novel, Imaginary Encyclopaedia, which was recently published in Kosovo.

“The book initially started as an idea, not on paper,” he said.

This was because, for the first four years of his sentence, he wasn’t allowed any paper or a pen in his cell, so he decided to focus on words and phrases that represented ideas that he could develop later.

“I had to find key words, key phraseologies in Albanian which express the culture, mentality and character of the people [in the book] and their lives with one single word,” he explained.

Kosumi is now 63 and Imaginary Encyclopaedia is his first novel, although he has written almost a dozen other books on journalism, poetry and his prison experiences.

He has been working on the book continuously since he was released under a state amnesty in 1990, but he has had a varied career in journalism, politics and academia in the meantime.

For some years after he was released, Kosumi worked as journalist, before switching to politics when he was elected head of the Kosovo’s now-defunct Parliamentary Party.

During the war between Yugoslav forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army, Kosumi was part of Kosovo’s delegation at the Rambouillet peace conference in February 1999 – an unsuccessful attempt to get Kosovo and Serbia to agree a deal to halt the armed conflict.

After the war finally ended, Kosumi’s Parliamentary Party merged with Ramush Haradinaj’s Alliance for the Future of Kosovo party. Kosumi became prime minister for a year in 2005-6, then served as an MP before starting an academic life as university professor. It was only then that he completed the book project he started all those years ago in prison.

‘A prison cell is the cousin of the grave’

The origins of the book go back to March 11, 1981, when students from the University of Pristina began holding protests for Kosovo’s political status to be upgraded within the Yugoslav federation from an autonomous province to a republic. As the protests continued into April, the Yugoslav authorities imposed a state of emergency and sent in the security forces to crush the demonstrations.

Dozens of students were arrested and sent to prison; Kosumi was one of them. He was jailed for 15 years, serving his sentence first in Nis and then in Belgrade, before he was ultimately released in November 1990 under a state amnesty.

Conditions in Yugoslav prisons were tough for people jailed for political activities against the regime.

“Even though prisons were designed as re-education facilities, Yugoslav communist prisons did not function for that purpose. They functioned as punishment. The prison administration and the state aimed to destroy Albanian political prisoners in all aspects, as human characters, politically and family wise,” Kosumi explained.

After developing the initial ideas for the book in his isolation cell in Nis, he was able to start writing once his restrictive conditions were eased and he was out in a larger room with other inmates. He recalled how writing was the only possibility for him to resist and carrying on living despite being imprisoned.

“A prison cell is the total isolation of an individual, a separation from life. Prison is a cousin of the grave, you get separated from life, from everyday dynamics,” he said.

He believes that writing in prison has a role to play that is outside literature.

“In the book I describe this as a Literary Republic, because only with literature are you yourself. Outside of it, you are a prisoner,” he explained.

‘This isn’t a novel, it’s beyond that’

Kosumi describes his new book Imaginary Encyclopaedia as a “post-novel”, a work of literary imagination whose stories and characters come from several different time periods, start from a historical background and end up in an imaginary reality.

He explained that he chose to write the book as an encyclopaedia because the classic novelistic form is going through a crisis.

“Virtual life has changed people’s lives to such an extent that no reader now can spare two months to sit and read, for example, Tolstoy’s War and Peace,” he said.

“Therefore I used this form of an encyclopaedia, in which does it not matter how voluminous it is. You can start reading it today, finish a part or two or three… then one week later you can reopen the book and continue. All the parts of the book are independent from the others,” he added.

He said he experimented with using elements of the novel, story and essay, and that the book has more than 500 characters and no single line of continuity running through it.

“The book is not about a single event or story. This is not a novel, it’s beyond the novel,” he asserted.

He said that he has worked on the book everywhere he has worked or travelled to since he was in prison in the 1980s and never stopped adding to it until it was published last month.

For Kosumi, the book exemplifies the idea of freedom that he could only imagine when he was behind bars.

“Imagination has no boundaries. If I didn’t have imagination and an ideal of freedom, maybe I wouldn’t have been in Nis prison in 1985. That generation [of student protesters] imagined freedom, they had Kosovo’s freedom as a vision,” he said.

“Maybe they didn’t have that vision in detail; I didn’t have that either. But we were certain that the truth will prevail, freedom will win out over ultra-nationalist and fascist-dominated theories. I’ve always believed that.”

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