The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo by Paula Huntley

Reviewed by Karen S. Lynch

April 17, 2008


   Paula Huntley wrote what she called, “an accidental book.” Paula, a former teacher, had been working in marketing when her attorney husband, Ed announced they were leaving their ocean view home in northern California to live in Kosovo.

   Paula never expected the journals she wrote in pencil each day by candlelight, while living and working in Kosovo would eventually become a published book. She had turned down two previous book offers to publish her experiences and those of the Albanian people she came to love. Paula felt the journals she kept for her own memoirs were personal. Persuasions prevailed convincing her one of the best ways to help the people of Kosovo was to share their stories with the world.

   Before writing her book, Paula and Ed returned to Kosovo in the spring of 2002, determined to obtain permission from each person to share their stories. Paula received not only their permission but also enthusiasm and encouragement. “The Albanians wanted their stories told.”

   The Huntley’s first arrived in Kosovo in September of 2000, months after the 1998-1999 escalation of the war of Serbian terror and ethnic cleansing. NATO-led troops including Americans drove the paramilitary and all but an estimated 200 Serbs from the newly independent nation of Kosovo (the recognized UN spelling. The Albanians use Kosova.)

   Ed and Paula found rural Kosovo of 2000 in ruins, with 75% poverty and little infrastructure. For much of their lives, the Albanians had been victims of vicious apartheid and poverty. Torture and murder was common. Serbian armies committed an estimated thirty thousand rapes of Albanian girls and women – some rape victims never seen again. One student told Paula, “The husbands or fathers see rape as a crime against their honor.”

   The Serbs burned and looted most homes, leaving the Albanians with no windows, torn roofs and broken bricks that lie in piles on the ground. There were no working landline phones. Cell phones lacked “Alcatel” chips to make them work. The satellite internet often did not work. There was no heat and only occasion electricity, powered mostly by generator.

   Garbage, dust, and pollution had become the normal way of life. Clean water was scarce, sold by bottles to non-government organizations. Going to markets or walking in certain areas was dangerous with many explosive devices all over the countryside.

   Ed Huntley was determined, through the American Bar Association, to help the fledgling government build a modern legal system. Paula had been a teacher for a brief time of several subjects, including art history and geography. She received an English teaching certificate and job offer at the Cambridge School, a privately owned English-language school in Kosovo. The students Paula taught had been middle-class urban Kosovars before the war. They were able to pay the twenty-five dollars each month to attend the Cambridge School.

   The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo (Penguin, ©2003) was born in much the same way as the actual book club itself. Paula had found one copy of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. “It’s the right length, the prose is simple enough for the intermediate level, and its story, I think, will resonate with these brave young people.”

   Paula had photocopies made for all her students, who told her it was the first book in English they had owned. Her student, Leonard came up to her. “We cannot believe anyone would be so kind to us. You encourage, you spend time with us. You give us the books. No one else does this for us ever.”

   The first book club meeting, held in her home began with reading the opening paragraph from Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea. Paula wrote she did not know if the elegance of Hemingway’s language, with its rhythm and power would translate well to Albanian speakers but she was certain the story would.

   Paula asked her students what Hemingway meant in the first paragraph. The students said he could not catch a fish or was old and poor. One student said he had a boat. The simple language Hemingway used brought simple answers to her questions.

   Paula probes her students to look deeper by asking if the old man really had nothing. “Teacher, says Senti, “he has the little boy, Manolin, who loves him.”

   “Yes,” says Granit 2, really interested now, “and the old man has, I think, great courage. Even though he has not caught a fish, he has not stopped. He keeps trying.”

   Paula asked if they could identify with anyone in the story. “I see light coming into their eyes as they begin to understand that the old man’s struggle, his endurance, describe their own lives, the recent history of their country. Will they come to see that they are the heroes of their own stories?” Paula said the young people knew about “undefeated” as they lived it everyday.

   “If Hemingway had been alive in 1998 and 1999, I’m quite sure he would have come to Kosovo.” Paula asked her students why. They said he would admire their struggles and he liked to fight.

   Paula added, “Hemingway knew that war was a terrible thing. But he knew that sometimes you have to fight. I think he would have agreed that in Kosova (Albanian spelling) it was necessary to fight.” Paula added she thought Hemingway would have respected that they never gave up, even when things seemed hopeless.

   Hemingway himself said there was no symbolism in his book – “the sea is the sea and the fish is the fish.” Paula told her students, “The sea itself is perhaps the most powerful image in the book.” After much discussion, the students agree, “That the sea is everything, it is our world, it is life.” There is agreement among the students that the sea holds both good animals and bad. “The sea gives the old man happiness and it gives him sorrow, and he must do the best he can with all of it.”

   “And how about the big fish the old man wants to catch,” I ask, “What is Hemingway talking about here?”

   “Ah that is an easy one,” Faton says. “The fish is the goal we all try to reach. Everyone wants one big fish.”

   Paula wrote, “The Hemingway Book Club of Kosova has changed everything. Before I started the club, we were just a class… but now something remarkable has happened. We are a club, a group of people who share a special link with each other.” The book club had overcome barriers in language for Paula as a teacher. “Even those whose English is not strong enough to follow the book easily know that the book club has connected us in a new, more intimate way.”

   The book club had opened possibilities and career choices students discussed with Paula. The students began asking her for more American literature. “The class now is the club, and we’re beginning to feel like a family.”

   Ed and Paula Huntley try to return to Kosovo every couple of years. “I’ve already begun to think of presents to take – The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway for everyone, and maybe English translation of their great Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare, whose works I have grown to love.”

  At the suggestion of her husband, Paula had made T-Shirts with a picture of a Marlin leaping from the sea and the words, “The Hemingway Book Club of Kosova” on the front. Her students had reprimanded Paula because she spelled “Kosovo” wrong, insisting she use the Albanian spelling, “Kosova.” Huntley explains in her book why she decided to use the traditionally known spelling for her book, written for her “English” readers. It is one of the ironies of translation between two worlds.