The Oxford English Dictionary defines dystopia “as an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.” It is hard to argue with the OED, which acts as the ultimate reference work on the English language. Nevertheless, I feel one corrective is necessary. Rather than “an imagined state or society”, what about a real one. A prime example immediately comes to mind: Albania from 1944 – 1985. These dates delineate the reign of Enver Hoxha, a man who crafted a state that was the very definition of dystopia. There were collective farms so unproductive that they led to malnutrition and near famine. Widespread shortages of almost everything except for concrete bunkers. The range of communal activities included mass purges and labor camps. Scores of crumbling apartment blocs, a nightmarish reminder of an existence characterized by bleakness and blight. Hoxha’s Albania was an ideological apocalypse on a national scale.
Albania’s dystopian society also produced its fair share of mad tales. How could it not? The system inverted human nature and created a logic all its own, infecting everyone and everything with Hoxha’s own peculiar brand of sinister paranoia. Suspicion was the driving force behind the government’s actions and Hoxha was the driving force behind the government. His actions were spectacularly malevolent. Hoxha went through Ministers of the Interior the way King Zog went through cartons of cigarettes. Hoxha, once an instructor of morals at a Tirana Gymnasium, shuttered churches and persecuted priests with a demonic virulence that would have made Stalin proud. It was Hoxha, or perhaps it was his double, who smiled and waved at the Albanian people he treated with complete contempt. It was also Hoxha’s double, or the lack thereof, which became the most spectacular story to leak out of the country following communism’s collapse.
Extreme Makeover – A Twin Killing
While doing research on Enver Hoxha a few weeks ago, I was perusing entries found under his name in the index of Robert Carver’s insightful travelogue, The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania. Thumbing through the pages, I soon came across a story so startling that I read and reread it multiple times. According to the book Hoxha had a double (sosi in Albanian), a man who impersonated him in public to ensure the chronically paranoid dictator’s safety. His job included more than just handing out awards, attending parades and celebratory events. The double had also been forced to give up any pretense of his former life. His wife and daughter were no longer allowed to see him. He underwent cosmetic surgery that transformed his face into a mirror image of Hoxha’s. He was given intensive training so he could speak and act like Hoxha. He was force fed a daily diet of the same food, in the exact same quantities that Hoxha ate. Those who had helped transform the double into a mirror image of Hoxha were sworn to eternal secrecy by being placed in a bus and driven off a cliff into the Adriatic Sea.
Perhaps the most horrifying part of this tale was the double’s life after the real Hoxha died in 1985. His first instinct was to go searching for his wife and two daughters. The double’s family had been the one hope left in his life during decades of forced servitude. Tragically, he was told by his handlers not to bother since they had been murdered a week after he was forced into servitude as Hoxha’s double. As if his life could not get any worse, it soon did. Wherever the former double went, he was either feared or despised. He was nearly hounded to death by irate Albanians, being either attacked by those who loathed Hoxha or shunned by those who ran away frightened. It seems the only place he could find respite was in a labor camp surrounded by prisoners who had never seen Hoxha’s likeness. Eventually he attempted to flee Albania by entering the West German embassy, but other Albanian refugees attacked him with barely disguised hatred. Left to his own dismal devices, the double mutilated himself to alter his looks once again. With his raison d’etre long since stripped from him by fate and misfortune the double returned to the labor camp where he lived out his life.
Too Bad To Be True – A Traveler’s Tale
The story was so intriguing that I forgot it might be too bad to be true. I began to research other sources that would support the tale of Hoxha’s double. Instead, I was soon doing a double take. The story turned out to be an infamous fit of fiction courtesy of New Zealand novelist/travel writer Lloyd Jones. I should have known better since Hoxha and hoax go together quite well. The fabulous Mr. Jones had concocted a story from a kernel of truth that fit the ambitions he had for “Biografi: a traveller’s tale”. While traveling around Albania for work on the book, Jones had heard about Hoxha’s double. He supposedly spent a great deal of time hunting him down. He finally found the double, a former dentist by the name of Peter Shapallo, then interviewed him at length. This resulted in the core story of Biografi, which was picked up by publishers in several major markets. Only when reviewers and publishers began to question the veracity of his tale, did Jones come clean. Well sort of. He stated that the book was a combination of fiction and fact. He left the reader to decide which was which. This did little to derail Jones’ career and may have given it an added boost. As for Shapallo, he most likely never existed.
Did Enver Hoxha have a double? Almost certainly and probably more than one. A man as paranoid and suspicious as Hoxha would be especially attuned to his personal safety. Whether or not Peter Shapallo ever existed seems beside the point. The fact that such a story could come out of Albania and be taken as the truth is a telling sign. The dystopian world of Enver Hoxha’s Albania was one where the real and imagined interbred. The incestuous relationship between fantasy and reality, fact and fiction made one indistinguishable from the other. The fictional Peter Shappalo was the product of this relationship, so was the real Enver Hoxha.