JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Siglio Press (here). Hardcover, 100 pages, with color illustrations throughout. Translated by Elizabeth Zuba with an introduction by Eliot Weinberger. Originally published in 2014 by Editions Xavier Barral as Amitié Éternelle. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Pariah nations often develop a cynical affinity for one another. When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, your only hope for a partner is with another outcast state. North Korea has no friends among the world’s democracies, and so Kim Jong-un must extend his pudgy hand to fellow dictators in Burundi, Zimbabwe, and Syria. No one else will have him. Stranger bedfellows have enjoyed brief hook-ups in global politics. During the 1970s, for instance, as much of the world was shunning Israel and South Africa, they allied, gradually and then closely, and shared nuclear secrets. If others won’t let you into their club, you may have to start your own.
The odd couple in Eternal Friendship, a non-fiction graphic novel, is the People’s Republic of Albania and the People’s Republic of China. The time is 1970, when the leaders of both nations—Enver Hoxha and Mao Zedong—were desperate for aid in developing their back-ward, struggling rural economies. In 1961 Albania severed ties with its former sponsor, the U.S.S.R.; and China soon did the same. They couldn’t afford to be that choosy. Neither country had any support in the anti-Communist West either. Their public expression to the world of “Eternal Friendship” masked the abject convenience of the marriage.
Against this historical backdrop, the French artist Anouck Durand reconstructs the story of the photographer Refik Veseli, a Muslim Albanian, and his fellow photographers (men and women) during their four-month visit to Peking (as Beijing was then called.) As he died in 2000, before she could interview him, the words that Veseli speaks here are from her own imagination. It is therefore fiction but based on documentary facts.
The Chinese had invited this contingent in the mistaken belief that they could sell the dirt-poor Albanians their ridiculously clumsy and outmoded tri-chrome process: a way to produce color prints from black-and-white film. As the Albanian photographers were already printing in color and quite satisfied with Kodak Ektacolor film, when they could obtain this capitalist product, the purpose of the trip was a non-starter.
Events are told in the first person, through Veseli’s eyes. His imagined words are used as captions for archival color and black-and-white documents of the period—the postcards, posters, official news photos and reports generated by the governments of Albania and China; and the snapshots, photo-collages, and hand-written letters saved by the Albanian participants on this trip. The intercutting between these two visual rhetorics—the bombastic propaganda of totalitarian states, and the more tentative, personal imagery of individuals—reinforces the theme of the book.
The iconography of Communism was uniform over many decades, regimes, and continents: its photographs or illustrations pictured a smiling populace eager to take up arms; bountiful wheat harvests; sturdy new infrastructure (factories, docks, iron bridges) and lots of lethal weapons, preferably missiles on parade along immaculate boulevards. Albanian and Chinese propaganda were strikingly similar, both borrowing from the symbolism produced in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Color photographic prints of the period, in every country, what-ever its politics, tended to be oversaturated or out-of-register, adding to the campiness of these staged scenarios.
The story of Veseli’s life isn’t larky fiction, however, and the details that he relates about the perils of daily existence under Communism are all too familiar. He is terrified of his own government. In a series of panels, he speaks of the “stains” on one’s record (having a relative who did fight for the Albanian Communists during WWII, or who has a link the Russian “imperialists”) that can lead to a jailing—or worse. He is equally aware of brutal scrutiny by his Chinese hosts. After asking an innocent question of a woman guide, he senses that he has said something wrong and never sees her again. Security protocol before a visit with Mao dictates that cameras be disassembled to make sure they don’t contain explosive devices.
Three-quarters of the way through the book, Durand switches gears and takes us from Mao’s China, back to Europe during WWII. This lurching transition concerns Veseli’s friendship with Mosha Mandil, a Jewish photographer who was hidden (along with his two children) from the Nazis by Veseli’s family in 1943. Mandil had survived and emigrated to Israel.
The hinge in the narrative that suddenly carries us into the past is a letter that Veseli, during his visit to Peking, wants to send to his friend Mandil. He believes it has a better chance of finding its way to Israel uncensored if posted in China rather than in Albania. Another Albanian photographer, heading home, is enlisted to mail it during transit, in Moscow. The innocuous document—purely a message of friendship, as we read—is nonetheless loaded with potential dynamite. If read by a government official, Veseli or his friend could end up in prison.
This is the dramatic highlight of the China portion of the book. It ends, as Durand carries us into the future toward the inevitable dissolution, in 1978, of the eternal bonds of friendship between Albania and China. A 24-page “Letter from the Central Committee of the Party of Labor of Albania” makes it official.
Enmity soon replaces handshakes. Photographic evidence that the two countries were ever at all close is destroyed. Durand presents us with prints where the faces were scratched out of group portraits. Documents had to be shredded. It is only by chance that the personal photographs from the China trip survive: one of Veseli’s colleagues, Pleurat Solo, was put in prison in 1984 for “pornography” (he had photographed an actress in the nude.) The authorities burned his entire professional archive but were unaware of his family album, which contained the pictures that appear in this book. Without these accidental records of a forgotten episode in 20th century history, no one would be the wiser.
In telling this story, perhaps because she confined herself to working with found materials, Durand has skillfully avoided a number of visual clichés about China during the Maoist era. Red is an accent color in these pages rather than pervasive, as in a poignant photograph of Veseli and a colleague visiting an elementary school. They tower over the children, each dutifully clutching the little red book of the Chairman’s sayings. We learn that Veseli runs a photo studio in Tirana, the Albanian capital. The glowingly wholesome color portraits he composes (and retouches) for his middle-class clientele add another layer to his biography, and may be seen here as its own kind of disinformation. Photography in this book obfuscates as much as it illumines.
The year 1970 in retrospect marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War. The fear that monolithic Communism would conquer the world was already fading. Nixon’s epochal visit to China was only two years away, and the country was charting its own course. “As a Marxist-Leninist party, the Chinese Communist Party is not at all afraid of being isolated, and will never be isolated,” Mao boasted.
The title of the book underlines its theme. The conclusion—that totalitarian states can never be friends with each other for long, whereas ties of love and respect between individuals can survive the worst forms of systematic oppression—may be too heart-warming and pat for some readers.
Tales of moral courage are uncommon, however, and the shared heritage of Muslims and Jews, both targets of historic persecution, is too often overlooked, even in the vast literature of the Holocaust. The final pages of the book reproduce a letter from 1987 in which one of Mandil’s children nominates Veseli’s family to Yad Veshem in Israel for being “righteous among nations” in risking their lives to save complete strangers from the Nazis. As he notes here, of 120 Jews exiled from Yugoslavia during WWII, none “failed to find shelter within the Albanian local population, whether with poor villagers or with owners of estates and manor houses.”
If we hadn’t realized it earlier, this section makes it clear that we’re reading this story only because some people chose to behave honorably and to value friendship above all else.
In the last pages of Eternal Friendship. Durand cites (and thanks) all of the people who contributed archival material for her touching and original book—a reminder that writing and preserving history is always a collaborative effort.
Collector’s POV: Anouck Durand does not appear to have gallery representation at this time.