Millosh was born in 1911, in Shkodër, Sanjak of Scutari, Ottoman Empire (now Albania), into a family of Slavic origin, which spoke Serbo-Croatian at home. In Albanian his full name during the 1930s was written in two forms, Milosh Nikoliç and Millosh Nikolla. In Serbian, his name is written Miloš Nikolić (Милош Николић). The surname Nikoliç (Nikolić), later changed into Nikolla, derived from his grandfather Nikola (d. 1876), who hailed from the region of Upper Reka (present-day northwest R. Macedonia) from where he moved to Scutari in the late 19th century where he practiced the trade of a bricklayer and later married Stake Milani, from Kuči, Montenegro, with whom he had two sons: Gjeorgje (Migjeni's father) and Krsto. The family owned a bar in the city. His father Đorđe “Đoko” Nikolić (1872–1924; Albanian transliteration Gjeorgje “Gjoko” Nikoliç, Albanian form Gjergj Nikolla) was mentioned in 1905 as the head of one of the Orthodox Serb-Montenegrin households in the Vraka–Scutari area, and he was also one of representatives (signers) of the town for the establishment of the Orthodox Church of Albania in 1922. His mother Sofia Kokoshi (d. 1916) was educated at the Catholic seminary of Scutari, run by Italian nuns. His maternal uncle Jovan Kokoshi taught at the Orthodox seminary in Bitola. Milosh had a brother that died in infancy, and four sisters: Lenka, Jovanka, Cvetka and Olga.
Angjelina Ceka Luarasi, daughter of Migjeni's younger sister Olga stated in her book Migjeni–Vepra, co-authored with Skënder Luarasi, that Migjeni was of Albanian and not of any Slavic origin and Migjeni spoke only Albanian as his mother tongue and later learned to speak a Slavic language while growing up. Angjelina states that the family is descended from the Nikolla family from Debar in the Upper Reka region and the Kokoshi family. Angjelina maintained that the family used many Slavic names because of their Orthodox faith.
Millosh attended a Serbian Orthodox elementary school in Scutari. From 1923 to 1925 he attended a secondary school in Bar, Montenegro (in Yugoslavia), where his sister Lenka had moved. At 14 years of age, in autumn 1925, he received a scholarship to attend secondary school in Monastir (Bitola) (also in Yugoslavia), from where he graduated in 1927, then entered the Orthodox seminary of St. John the Theologian. He studied Old Church Slavonic, Russian, Greek, Latin and French. He continued his training and studies until June 1932.
His name was written Milosh Nikoliç in the passport dated 17 June 1932, then changed into Millosh Nikolla in the decree of appointment as teacher signed by Minister of Education Mirash Ivanaj dated 18 May 1933. In his identity papers dated to 11 October 1933, his name is spelt Milosh Nikolic. In the revised birth certificate dated to 26 January 1937, his name is spelt Millosh Nikolla.
Teaching, publishing and deteriorating health
On 23 April 1933, he was appointed teacher at a school in Serb-inhabited village of Vraka, seven kilometers from Shkodra, until 1934 when the school closed. It was during this period that he also began writing prose sketches and verses. Arshi Pipa notes that “He did not know Albanian well. His texts swarm with spelling mistakes, even elementary ones, and his syntax is far from being typically Albanian.”
In May 1934 his first short prose piece, Sokrat i vuejtun apo derr i kënaqun (Suffering Socrates or the satisfied pig), was published in the periodical Illyria, under his new pen name Migjeni, an acronym of Millosh Gjergj Nikolla. Soon though, in the summer of 1935, the twenty-three-year-old Migjeni fell seriously ill with tuberculosis, which he had contracted earlier. He journeyed to Athens, Greece in July of that year in hope of obtaining treatment for the disease which was endemic on the marshy coastal plains of Albania at the time, but returned to Shkodra a month later with no improvement in his condition. In the autumn of 1935, he transferred for a year to a school in Shkodra itself and, again in the periodical Illyria, began publishing his first epoch-making poems.
In a letter of 12 January 1936 written to translator Skënder Luarasi (1900–1982) in Tirana, Migjeni announced, “I am about to send my songs to press. Since, while you were here, you promised that you would take charge of speaking to some publisher, ‘Gutemberg’ for instance, I would now like to remind you of this promise, informing you that I am ready.” Two days later, Migjeni received the transfer he had earlier requested to the mountain village of Puka and on 18 April 1936 began his activities as the headmaster of the run-down school there.
The clear mountain air did him some good, but the poverty and misery of the mountain people in and around Puka were even more overwhelming than that which he had experienced among the inhabitants of the coastal plain. Many of the children came to school barefoot and hungry, and teaching was interrupted for long periods because of outbreaks of contagious diseases, such as measles and mumps. After eighteen difficult months in the mountains, the consumptive poet was obliged to put an end to his career as a teacher and as a writer, and to seek medical treatment in Turin in Northern Italy where his sister Ollga was studying mathematics. He set out from Shkodra on 20 December 1937 and arrived in Turin before Christmas Day. There he had hoped, after recovery, to register and study at the Faculty of Arts. The breakthrough in the treatment of tuberculosis, however, was to come a decade too late for Migjeni. After five months at San Luigi Sanatorium near Turin, Migjeni was transferred to the Waldensian hospital in Torre Pellice where he died on 26 August 1938. His demise at the age of twenty-six was a tragic loss for the modern Albanian letters.
The author had chosen the nom-de-plume Mi-Gje-Ni, an acronym formed by the first two letters each of his first name, patronymic and last name.
His slender volume of verse (thirty-five poems) entitled Vargjet e Lira (“Free Verse”) was printed by Gutenberg Press Publisher in Tirana in 1936, but was banned by government censorship. The second edition, published in 1944, was missing two old poems Parathanja e parathanjeve (“Preface of prefaces”) and Blasfemi (“Blasphemy”) that were deemed offensive, but it did include eight new ones. The main theme of Migjeni was misery and suffering, a reflection of the life he saw and lived.
Migjeni made a promising start as a prose writer. He is the author of about twenty-four short prose sketches which he published in periodicals for the most part between the spring of 1933 and the spring of 1938.
He possessed all the prerequisites for being a great poet. He had an inquisitive mind. Though his verse production was no more voluminous than his prose, his success in the field of poetry was no less than spectacular in Albania at the time.
The main theme of Free verse, as with Migjeni's prose, is misery and suffering. It is a poetry of acute social awareness and despair. Previous generations of poets had sung the beauties of the Albanian mountains and the sacred traditions of the nation, whereas Migjeni now opened his eyes to the harsh realities of life, to the appalling level of misery, disease and poverty he discovered all around him. He was a poet of despair who saw no way out, who cherished no hope that anything but death could put an end to suffering. “I suffer with the child whose father cannot buy him a toy. I suffer with the young man who burns with unslaked sexual desire. I suffer with the middle-aged man drowning in the apathy of life. I suffer with the old man who trembles at the prospect of death. I suffer with the peasant struggling with the soil. I suffer with the worker crushed by iron. I suffer with the sick suffering from all the diseases of the world… I suffer with man.” Typical of the suffering and of the futility of human endeavour for Migjeni is Rezignata (“Resignation”), a poem in the longest cycle of the collection, Kangët e mjerimit (“Songs of poverty”). Here the poet paints a grim portrait of our earthly existence: sombre nights, tears, smoke, thorns and mud. Rarely does a breath of fresh air or a vision of nature seep through the gloom. When nature does occur in the verse of Migjeni, then of course it is autumn.
If there is no hope, there are at least suffocated desires and wishes. Some poems, such as Të birtë e shekullit të ri (“The sons of the new age”), Zgjimi (“Awakening”), Kanga e rinis (“Song of youth”) and Kanga e të burgosunit (“The prisoner's song”), are assertively declamatory in a left-wing revolutionary manner. Here we discover Migjeni as a precursor of socialist verse or rather, in fact, as the zenith of genuine socialist verse in Albanian letters, long before the so-called liberation and socialist period from 1944 to 1990. Migjeni was, nonetheless, not a socialist or revolutionary poet in the political sense, despite the indignation and the occasional clenched fist he shows us. For this, he lacked the optimism as well as any sense of political commitment and activity. He was a product of the 1930s, an age in which Albanian intellectuals, including Migjeni, were particularly fascinated by the West and in which, in Western Europe itself, the rival ideologies of communism and fascism were colliding for the first time in the Spanish Civil War. Migjeni was not entirely uninfluenced by the nascent philosophy of the right either. In Të lindet njeriu (“May the man be born”) and particularly, in the Nietzschean dithyramb Trajtat e Mbinjeriut (“The shape of the Superman”), a strangled, crushed will transforms itself into “ardent desire for a new genius,” for the Superman to come. To a Trotskyist friend, André Stefi, who had warned him that the communists would not forgive for such poems, Migjeni replied, “My work has a combative character, but for practical reasons, and taking into account our particular conditions, I must manoeuvre in disguise. I cannot explain these things to the [communist] groups, they must understand them for themselves. The publication of my works is dictated by the necessities of the social situation through which we are passing. As for myself, I consider my work to be a contribution to the union of the groups. André, my work will be achieved if I manage to live a little longer.”
Part of the ‘establishment’ which he felt was oblivious to the sufferings of humanity was the Church. Migjeni's religious education and his training for the Orthodox priesthood seem to have been entirely counterproductive, for he cherished neither an attachment to religion nor any particularly fond sentiments for the organized Church. God for Migjeni was a giant with granite fists crushing the will of man. Evidence of the repulsion he felt towards God and the Church are to be found in the two poems missing from the 1944 edition, Parathania e parathanieve (“Preface of prefaces”) with its cry of desperation “God! Where are you?”, and Blasfemi (“Blasphemy”).
In Kanga skandaloze (“Scandalous song”), Migjeni expresses a morbid attraction to a pale nun and at the same time his defiance and rejection of her world. This poem is one which helps throw some light not only on Migjeni's attitude to religion but also on one of the least studied aspects in the life of the poet, his repressed sexuality.
Eroticism has certainly never been a prominent feature of Albanian literature at any period and one would be hard pressed to name any Albanian author who has expressed his intimate impulses and desires in verse or prose. Migjenis verse and his prose abound with the figures of women, many of them unhappy prostitutes, for whom Migjeni betrays both pity and an open sexual interest. It is the tearful eyes and the red lips which catch his attention; the rest of the body is rarely described.Passion and rapturous desire are ubiquitous in his verse, but equally present is the spectre of physical intimacy portrayed in terms of disgust and sorrow. It is but one of the many bestial faces of misery described in the 105-line Poema e mjerimit (“The poem of the misery”).
Though he did not publish a single book during his lifetime, Migjeni's works, which circulated privately and in the press of the period, were an immediate success. Migjeni paved the way for a modern literature in Albania. This literature was, however, soon to be nipped in the bud. Indeed, the very year of the publication of Free Verse saw the victory of Stalinism in Albania and the proclamation of the People's Republic.
Many have speculated as to what contribution Migjeni might have made to Albanian letters had he managed to live longer. The question remains highly hypothetical, for this individualist voice of genuine social protest would no doubt have suffered the same fate as most Albanian writers of talent in the late 1940s, i.e. internment, imprisonment or execution. His early demise has at least preserved the writer for us undefiled.
The fact that Migjeni did perish so young makes it difficult to provide a critical assessment of his work. Though generally admired, Migjeni is not without critics. Some have been disappointed by his prose, nor is the range of his verse sufficient to allow us to acclaim him as a universal poet.