Biografi: Tracking Down a Dictator’s Double in Albania

Historical fiction is a popular genre; historical fiction travel writing is not.

And yet, Lloyd Jones has managed to embark on this literary journey and produce a remarkable travel book that expertly combines an insightful travel narrative with a healthy dash of fiction.

Biografi is the story of a man traveling through post-communist Albania in search of a rare animal indeed: a dictator’s double.

Petar Shapallo was a dentist who was plucked from obscurity, forced to undergo plastic surgery, suffers the murder of his entire family, and then spends the rest of dictator Enver Hoxha’s life sitting in on state functions, public appearances, and otherwise doubling for Albania’s communist ruler.

There is little doubt that Hoxha employed the use of a double during his long career as Albania’s leader; the dictator suffered from paranoia after cutting off ties with the Soviet Union, China, and the Western world. In fact, the madman severed all international train lines entering the country and then built 700,000 bunkers–one for every three Albanians–to guard against an inevitable invasion.

If a real Petar Shapallo existed, his name is lost to us. Nonetheless, Biografi takes us on a journey through post-communist Albania and all the troubles and challenges which were facing the nation in 1991 and which continue to face it today.

Despite the fictional accounts of actually tracking down the double, the book reads much like a travelogue; Jones obviously spent much time in the region in the 1990s. Many of the places he passed through are documented very nicely in the book and haven’t really changed very much in the meantime (I visited last summer and found it a very accurate description).

The narrative keeps the book nicely moving and thanks to Shapallo, provides a unique perspective not normally found in travelogues. Digging into what life must have been like for Hoxha’s double was truly enthralling and Jones does such a great job of speculating that you easily buy into it. Even if it all didn’t really happen, you find yourself wishing it had.

I must highly recommend this book for anyone on their way to Albania. It provides wonderful insight, history, and paints an extraordinary picture of a strange, paranoid land governed by an even stranger and more paranoid dictator.