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A. Brittan, G. Miller
The Terrible Beauty of Post-Communist Albania
In his essay The Terrible Beauty of Brain Surgery, Karl Ove Knausgaard recounts the stunning and intricate details of his visit to Tirana, Albania. Knausgaard’s travel to the small country is for the purpose of observing a ground breaking surgical procedure pioneered and performed by renowned English neurosurgeon Henry Marsh: awake craniotomy. While the primary focus of The Terrible Beauty of Brain Surgery is the graphic evocation of the procedure itself and his depiction of Marsh, the essay is laced with a great number of anecdotal reflections upon post-communist Albania. Knausgaard heavily illustrates the country itself because of the symbolic parallels it holds to the complexity and stark beauty he finds in brain surgery, as well as the mystery that encompasses both the human brain and post-communist society in the eyes of someone foreign to both.
Knausgaard’s spectatorship of Marsh’s surgery is mimicked by his observations of Albania throughout the essay. Towards the beginning of his journey, Knausgaard explains his attraction to the “aura” of communism and how its presence and absence affect the dynamic of societies. As he rides the train from the airport into the city, he reveals, “If there is one thing I have a weakness for, it is the Communist Era, especially the secretive culture behind the Iron Curtain”- “I don’t know why it appeals to me, because in actual fact I oppose everything it represents: the veneration of the collective, the industrialization of everyday life, the monumental aesthetics. I believe in blundering man and in the provisional moment. But something about the aura of the Soviet Age attracts me, sometimes with an almost savage force.” (Knausgaard 32). Most Albanians who have outlived the Soviet Era accept that life during the period was joyless and regimented, but Knausgaard alludes to an underlying glamour or beauty of communist society. Knausgaard’s assertion of his fascination with the Soviet Era despite his individualist and romanticist oppositions to its principle elements is arguably unnecessary in an article expectedly dedicated to the complexity and mystique of brain surgery. However, it is beneficial to the piece as it foreshadows the experience of finding allure in the slicing of the human brain; which is something that can often be considered gruesome and temporally vulgar, similar to the traditional lack of appeal in communist society.
Along with his bittersweet interpretation of the Soviet Era and the societal dynamic it perpetuated, Knausgaard finds himself intrigued by the natural beauty of Albania. On his way to witness the first surgery, he admires the landscape basking in sunshine, “stripped of its mystery”, that enveloped it in the darkness of the previous night. He describes a modest yet charming scene: “We followed a river, framed...