Agolli was born to a Bektashi peasant family in Menkulas in the Devoll District near PMS and finished high school in Gjirokastër in 1952. He later continued his studies at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Leningradand took up journalism upon his return to Albania, working for the daily newspaper Zëri i Popullit (English: The People’s Voice) for fifteen years. Agolli was also a deputy in the Albanian Parliament.
Beginnings as a poet
Agolli first attained success as a poet. His early verse collections I went out on the street(Albanian: Në rrugë dolla, Tirana 1958), My steps on the pavement (Albanian: Hapat e mija në asfalt, Tirana 1961), and Mountain paths and sidewalks (Albanian: Shtigje malesh dhe trotuare, Tirana 1965), introduced him to the reading public as a sincere and gifted lyric poet of the soil who already demonstrated masterful verse technique. An attachment to his roots came to form the basis of his poetic credo.
As a prose writer, Agolli first made a name for himself with the novel Commissar Memo (Albanian: Komisari Memo, Tirana 1970), translated in English as The bronze bust, Tirana 1975 originally conceived as a short story.
Agolli’s second novel, The man with the cannon (Albanian: Njeriu me top, Tirana 1975) translated into English in 1983, takes up the partisan theme from a different angle and with a somewhat more subtle approach.
After these two novels of partisan heroism, Agolli produced also some interesting work, his satirical Splendour and fall of comrade Zylo (Albanian: Shkëlqimi dhe rënja e shokut Zylo, Tirana 1973), which has proved to be his claim to fame. Comrade Zylo is the epitome of the well-meaning but incompetent apparatchik, a director of an obscure government cultural affairs department. His pathetic vanity, his quixotic fervour, his grotesque public behaviour, in short his splendour and fall, are all recorded in ironic detail by his hard-working and more astute subordinate and friend Demkë who serves as a neutral observer. Comrade Zylo is a universal figure, a character to be found in any society or age, and critics have been quick to draw parallels ranging from Daniel Defoe and Nikolay Gogol’s Revizor to Franz Kafka and Milan Kundera’s Zert. But it is doubtless the Eastern European reader who will best appreciate all the subtleties of the novel. Splendour and fall of comrade Zylo first appeared in 1972 in the Tirana satirical journal Hosteni (English: The goad) and was published the following year in a monograph form.
All in all, Agolli’s strength in prose lies in the short story rather than in the novel. Sixteen of his short stories were published in English in the volume: Short stories, Tirana 1985.
One early collection of tales, the 213-page The noise of winds of the past (Albanian: Zhurma e ererave të dikurshme, Tirana 1964), had the distinction of being banned and ‘turned into cardboard.’ The author was accused of Soviet revisionism at a time when the party had called for more Maoist revolutionary concepts in literature and greater devotion to the working masses.
Prolific through the 1990s
Dritëro Agolli has been a prolific writer throughout the 1990s, a rare voice of humanity and sincerity in Albanian letters. He has been exceptionally productive in recent years, with numerous well-received verse collections: The time beggar (Albanian: Lypësi i kohës, Tirana 1995), The spirit of our forefathers (Albanian: Shpirti i gjyshërve, Tirana 1996), The strange man approaches (Albanian: Vjen njeriu i çuditshëm, Tirana 1996), Ballad for my father and myself (Albanian: Baladë për tim atë dhe për vete, Tirana 1997), Midnight notebook (Albanian: Fletorka e mesnatës, Tirana 1998), and The distant bell (Albanian: Kambana e largët, Tirana 1998). Among recent volumes of prose are: the short story collection Insane people (Albanian: Njerëz të krisur, Tirana 1995); The naked horseman (Albanian: Kalorësi lakuriq, Tirana 1996), and The devil’s box (Albanian: Arka e djallit, Tirana 1997).
Agolli died from pulmonary disease on 3 February 2017 in Tirana at the age of 85.