Here's the first of my three reviews for the February 2010 Historical Novels Review.
GRINDING OF THE SOUL
Naum Prifti, East European Monographs/Columbia University Press, $55, hb, 306pp, 978-0-88033-641-3
Prifti's book is a collection of short stories about life under strict Marxist-Leninist communism in the twentieth century. The stories have a casual quality, like a relative or old neighbor telling you stories of their life. The tone underscores the absurdity of life under a totalitarian regime, and how easily the soul can be ground down into pettiness, greed, hopelessness. The collection of characters are drawn very well in a few short sentences, and the emotional impact of each story is immediate.
Though set in Enver Hoxha's Albania from World War II through the 1980s, the stories have a timeless quality, modern folktales about all the ways people can lose their moral center. The translation did not do this book service, however. One gets the sense that reading these stories in the original language would have increased both the sense of immediacy and the feeling of folktale. Unfortunately, as it is, the translation is clunky and inelegant.
Grinding of the Soul is definitely not a comfortable book to read, but worthwhile nonetheless.