Friday, 19 November 2010

The Symbolism of the Empty Chair



Fatos Lubonja does not smoke tobacco but in his apartment in Tirana, he showed me a small pile of cigarette papers. When I looked closer, I realised that they were covered in minute writing.

Of course It's too small for me to read now, without a magnifying glass he smiled, but in those days I was much younger and my eyesight was better.

He was referring to the years he spent in an Albanian labour camp as a political prisoner, during the Hoxha dictatorship, where a Stalinist regime of terror was continued even after Stalinism was discredited in Russia. During these years, he wrote a novel, in tiny writing, on cigarette papers and it is these papers that I was looking at. I asked him where he hid the papers. In a dictionary, he says. I thought that was the safest place, as the guards were unlikely to look in a dictionary.


Fatos Lubonja's account of his years as a political prisoner – Second Sentence - was published in Albania in the 90s after the fall of the communist regime and his release from prison, and the English translation was published in 2009. A copy of this book forms part of Scottish Pen's Writers in Prison Exhibition at the Writers' Museum, Lady Stair's Close, off the Royal Mile, in Edinburgh.


Only a few of the showcased writers hit the international headlines – the Russian journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Nathalie Estemirova, the Armenian writer, editor and publisher Hrant Dink, and most recently the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo. But there are so many more that do not make the pages of western newspapers.


This exhibition gives information on writers supported by International PEN, and its local branch, Scottish PEN, writers who have been persecuted or imprisoned because of what they wrote. Some, like Fatos Lubonja, have been released, but many are still in prison and some have died because of the words they have written.


The specially designed and crafted Empty Chair symbolises all the writers who cannot be present and speak freely, because of their imprisonment.


You can read more about the exhibition at the Guardian online article,

and on Scottish Pen's website.


The photographs at the top show a list of names of Russian journalists who have been killed, assaulted or disappeared since 2000. At Le Livre sur les Quais event in Morges, Switzerland earlier this year, a Russian writer who lives in France, gave it to me.


Another name will need to be added to this list, the Russian journalist Oleg Kashin, who was attacked [but survived] in Moscow, earlier this month.

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