The Accursed Mountains | Christian Lorentzen | Granta

The Accursed Mountains

Christian Lorentzen

When the injection took hold and the drilling started, he began to dissociate. He was no longer himself but merely a dental patient. The events that led to this moment need not be dwelt on. One afternoon during quarantine, there was a tectonic shift in the lower left posterior region of his gums. Disturbing yes, but nothing loose, nothing unfixed. There was, periodically, pain. He self-medicated. All of these alarming private phenomena were unaddressed, ignored, denied, but never entirely forgotten. Like many things, they were put off. A year passed and then another and then another. Sometimes his mouth reminded him of the Acropolis, once glorious and now crumbling, but in no danger of annihilation.

One morning in Tirana he woke up full of hope. He had finished a pile of work. Money was coming in. He was a free man in the world. Then, while he was eating lunch, the top of one of his molars went its own way. Around midnight it capsized, and he placed the tiny shard of himself in his pocket, the little one on the right side of his corduroys that he used for small precious things. That night he got lost coming home. The cab drivers kept taking him to the wrong street, one that sounded like the one where he was living. It was a hazard of being in a place where you only knew the words for ‘thank you’, ‘yes’, and ‘cheers’. He should never have left New York City.

He woke up on Saturday morning. His appointment with the dentist, made the previous day with the assistance of his friend E, his main informant and guide to the country, was on Monday. Her boyfriend, a novelist he thought of as the Martin Amis of Albania, had assured him that the dentists here were expert, reliable, and non-exploitative when it came to their fees. His social obligations for the weekend vanished. His hope dwindled. He edited somebody’s short story. He read somebody’s novel. He went to the movies. On Monday afternoon he went to see Dr L.

‘You haven’t been to the dentist in a long time,’ she said. ‘Are you frightened of me?’

‘Have you seen the film Marathon Man?’ he asked.

‘I haven’t,’ she said. ‘What happens in it?’

‘A Nazi dentist tortures a long-distance runner in an attempt to recover stolen diamonds.’

He had never possessed a diamond, stolen or otherwise. She examined his teeth.

‘Mostly good,’ she said.

‘Really?’ he said. ‘I thought I would have to have all my teeth knocked out and replaced, like the Hollywood producers told William Holden’s character in Picnic.’

‘No, that won’t be necessary,’ said Dr L. ‘No Hollywood for you.’

‘I would need my hair replaced, too,’ he said.

‘Very true,’ she said. ‘There will be some fillings and a couple of root canals and of course the extraction. There is a lot of tartar buildup in the vicinity of the salivary glands.’

‘You mean the geography of the mouth is a cause of tooth decay?’

‘The cause of tooth decay is the human body itself,’ she said. ‘Have you not visited the dentist recently because of the American crisis of masculinity?’

‘It’s just very expensive there, and I’m a freelancer.’

Dr L began scraping his teeth. ‘Tell me if it’s painful,’ she said.

‘It’s not painful,’ he said. Then he spit blood into a drain next to his chair. Dr L used a foot pedal to operate a fountain from which he filled a plastic cup to rinse his mouth.

As the cleaning continued, he felt shelves of residue fall loose from the pillars in his mouth. He felt sensations in zones where he hadn’t thought sensations were possible. He contemplated all the time that had passed since he’d had his mouth wide open with another person scraping inside it while another held a vacuum tube to suck up his spit. He had fallen in love, had his heart broken, moved to England, and returned, had his heart broken again, and again. The heart was something that healed, but the best you could do with a broken tooth was to keep it in your pocket. His youth had not been misspent, exactly, but it was gone. Above all, he had written many book reviews.

‘Do you smoke?’ Dr L asked.

‘How could you tell?’ he replied.

She continued her work. ‘Do you feel pain?’ she asked.

‘I never feel pain,’ he said. ‘I don’t believe in suffering. It has no meaning. How long have you been a dentist?’

‘Three years,’ she said. ‘Before that I was six years in school, since I was eighteen.’

‘When did you know you wanted to be a dentist?’

‘Since I was twelve,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know it would be so difficult.’

‘Did you have to learn a lot about chemistry?’ he asked.

‘I know the chemical reactions,’ she said.

He spit out more blood. He became aware of the radio playing. ‘This is a funny song,’ he said. The song was ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ by Coolio.

‘One of my favorites,’ Dr L said. ‘All done today. Let’s make you another appointment. Are you free tomorrow?’


‘Come back at the same time.’

‘OK, how much do I owe you?’

She typed a number on a calculator. He wasn’t sure what currency she meant. He pulled out a wad of cash.

‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘Only twenty euros. This isn’t America.’

‘Faleminderit,’ he said.


He went to a cafe, one of a chain that seemed to have a spot on every other block in the city. He ordered a peanut caramel latte, took a seat at a table on the sidewalk, and lit a cigarette. He had never had that sort of drink before, but he wanted to taste something and he liked peanuts. The taste was odd. The cigarette was excellent. They were all excellent but this one was better than usual. His mouth was full of novel sensations, not entirely unpleasant. The drink and the smoke seemed to be entering his system through his newly raw gums.

He walked home passing the dwelling of Mother Teresa’s family on Kavaja Street, where the mother and sister of the saint once lived. He went to bed early. When he woke up he took a biography of Enver Hoxha to the cafe across the street. It was a catalogue of disgrace, infamy, and salacious tittle-tattle. When Hoxha was a schoolboy, his classmates called him the ‘donkey’. Aspersions were cast on Hoxha’s sexuality. He was said to have seduced the glamorous wives and daughters of powerful men or to have been a secret homosexual. There was no proof that he had written articles he claimed to have contributed to revolutionary periodicals while studying agriculture in France. Those who knew Hoxha in his youth thought of him as a talentless nobody, not even a committed partisan, just a cashier at a tobacco shop, but then, they said, it was always such nonentities who seized power in the end and wielded it brutally. Hoxha’s official birthday was the same as his, 16 October, but the biographer said he made it up and was more likely born in the springtime. The biographer, E told the dental patient, was a television presenter who could be categorized as ‘an Albanian Wolf Blitzer’. The opening pages detailed Hoxha’s death, of natural causes, at age seventy-six, in 1985, after surviving a lifetime of assassination attempts. How many of his teeth did he have left?

He went to join the Californian, a foreign correspondent visiting from Skopje, for lunch at the cafe outside the Opera House. She was entertaining an invitation from a man at the next table over to his family’s home in the countryside. The dental patient ordered a cheeseburger. It was the worst cheeseburger he’d ever had. He only ate half of it. He went home and brushed his teeth and returned to the offices of Dr L.

‘Do your gums hurt?’ she asked.

‘No,’ he said. ‘You are an excellent dentist. Have you won any awards?’

‘Not yet,’ she said. ‘Today after some additional cleaning, we will do some fillings. I will administer an anesthetic to half your mouth and you won’t feel any pain, unlike yesterday.’

She spent twenty minutes renewing her efforts at scraping, then pressed her fingers on his lower front teeth. ‘All the tartar and plaque caused you to lose some bone around these teeth, but they’re not loose, so it’s OK.’

The prospect of ‘losing some bone’ alarmed him, but soon the needle was in his mouth, piercing his flesh and seemingly making a deep journey into his jaw. He felt the lower right part of his face disappear. He heard the sound of the drill. It sounded like she was playing a musical instrument capable of producing only a single irritating note.

‘First, I will drill away the decay,’ she said. ‘Then I will apply a binding agent to the tooth. Then I will fill the hole and my assistant will shine a UV light on it, causing it to harden immediately. Then I will use the drill again to shape the new teeth.’

‘What is the material of the filling?’ he slurred, his mouth half asleep.

‘It is plastic and something else,’ she said. ‘I don’t know the English for the other thing.’

When she said ‘plastic’, it sounded like ‘plastique’, and he thought of Semtex in his mouth, something that one day might explode, not merely crumble.

‘You should,’ she said, ‘try to avoid swallowing because you don’t want to choke on this stuff.’

As the drilling continued, he focused on breathing through his nose and suppressing any impulse to swallow. Dr L and her assistant wore paper masks over their mouths and plastic masks over the rest of their faces. He tried not to look into their eyes. He sensed that his tongue was making involuntary spasmodic movements, like a modern dancer with an experimental choreographer whose work was destined not to stand the test of time. He grunted in order to request a chance to spit. The women’s heads and hands floated away from his mouth and he spat in the drain.

‘Sorry,’ he said.

‘It’s OK,’ Dr L said. This exchange occurred dozens of times during his ongoing acquaintance with Dr L.

‘What’s your favorite part of being a dentist?’ he asked. ‘Is it the drilling?’

‘No,’ she said, ‘the drilling is not my favorite. What I like is building the new teeth.’

‘You’re like an architect.’

‘Yes, I am.’

Back in the waiting room, he paid her €80 for the two fillings. Then they discussed the extraction. Dr L explained that there were two options for repairing the zone of the missing molar. He could get a bridge, which would cost €300 and require the removal of the molar in front of the one that had cracked along with the molar behind it, and whose roots she would soon extract. Or he could get an implant, a two-part process that would cost €600 and would not involve the gratuitous demolition of any of his teeth.

‘What do you think is better?’ he asked. ‘I trust you.’

‘The implant is the best solution,’ Dr L said.

‘Then that’s what we’ll do,’ he said.

He looked at the wall and saw a poster for children, a jumble of cartoon teeth with bright flowers growing from them and the surrounding gums.

‘Are the flowers that grow out on the teeth a sign of health?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ said Dr L.

He told her he would see her next week after he visited Prizren for the documentary film festival. She told him to visit the castle there because it was beautiful.


He and the Californian met the next morning at the international bus station. The ride to Prizren across the border into Kosovo would take four hours on a new highway that cut through the Accursed Mountains.

They had been told the festival would render Prizren cosmopolitan and hedonistic. They got their bearings at Bar Hemingway – there was always a Bar Hemingway – and checked into their respective rooms. Everyone he knew in Albania had come to Prizren for the festival. He and the Californian went to a Danish film about teenagers in Moscow who were unhappy. They walked out after twenty minutes. She thought it was neoliberal propaganda. He thought it was boring, though it was nice to be able to smoke in the outdoor theater. They got a drink and then went to meet their Kosovar friends, M and V, for dinner.

The dental patient enjoyed the stuffed peppers, which weren’t too hard on his tender teeth. After dinner they went to the bar. A few rounds in, a large party arrived, among them an acquaintance of M and V’s, the deputy foreign minister for diaspora affairs. She was accompanied by her boss, the prime minister. M, V, and the Californian were excited to meet him. The dental patient was embarrassed to be meeting a head of state, even an only partially recognized one, whose name he didn’t already know. The prime minister was friendly and happy to meet an American literary critic. They chatted briefly about Ismail Kadare. The prime minister was in the habit of giving Chronicle in Stone to visiting foreign dignitaries. It was not among the several novels of Kadare’s that the dental patient had read, another embarrassment. The mood was very festive and pictures were taken, but soon M and V had to drive back to Pristina. They said goodbye and the dental patient promised to visit them in America. The Californian kissed him goodnight and went back to the hotel.

At the bar, a Polish filmmaker invited him to a rave. He walked with the filmmaker and his friends along the riverside until they reached the rave and were issued wristbands. The music was loud and the dental patient recalled why he hated raves. He left and walked along the riverside, looking up the wooded mountain slope at the illuminated fortress of Prizren, and returned to the bar. It was last call. A few of the crowd around the prime minister remained. They invited him to join them at ‘the secret bar’. They snaked down the hill into an alley and entered an establishment with a neon sign that read secret bar. He bought a round of drinks. When he finished his Fernet, he walked back to the hotel and went to bed.

The next morning he and the Californian hired a driver to take them a couple of hours to Mitrovica. The bridge that led to the Serbian side of the river was guarded by a squadron of Italian carabinieri. It was quiet on the other side. D, a friend of the Californian’s from Skopje, met them and drove them to a restaurant by a lake where they ate a large fish. The lake was emerald green and surrounded by steep wooded hills. D talked about the war. He’d worked for an agency that was meant to save children but wasn’t doing a very good job of it, so he quit. Now in a ‘post-conflict society’, there were too many roadblocks, which were upsetting, but nor were there enough military-age men for another war. The young men were all abroad, seeking their fortunes.

The next day was Sunday, and he spent it reading his ex-girlfriend’s new book. The writing was wonderful, but there was so much about the online world, something he didn’t believe in. His phone rang, which was a surprise. It was a call from New York City.

‘Christian?’ the familiar voice of an old man said. ‘It’s Gordon Lish.’

‘Gordon,’ he said, ‘I can barely hear you. This is a bad connection.’

‘Where are you?’

‘I’m in Kosovo.’

‘What the fuck are you doing there?’

‘I’m at a documentary film festival.’

‘Jesus Christ, man, don’t be a hero.’

‘The war is over.’

‘Don’t be a hero, Jesus Christ.’

‘It’s fine. I’ll call you when I’m back in New York in a couple of months.’


He did not make it to the castle. Two days later in Tirana he was back in the chair at Dr L’s office. It was the day of the extraction of the roots. The roots, she explained, had separated from each other years ago.

‘As a dentist,’ he asked, ‘are you very self-conscious when you eat?’

‘Eating is not so much a problem,’ she said, ‘but when I am in that chair, all I can think of is complications. Students can only think of the complications that might happen, even though they happen less than one percent of the time. It has a name, something like student’s syndrome.’

‘You’re all hypochondriacs?’ he said.

‘We just know the worst that can happen,’ she said. ‘Don’t worry, today you will feel no pain. If you do, I will give you a second injection.’ And she plunged the needle into the lower left rear of his mouth. She pulled out her pliers. She pulled out her wrench. His tongue again danced. She pulled out her hammer. She put the hammer in his mouth and knocked around. She pulled the hammer out of his mouth. Now it was a bloody hammer. He grunted and slurred and she delivered the second injection. Once more with the pliers. She said, ‘There, I have it!’ And he looked up at the long bloody yellow remains of his vanished youth.


Photography © Nadia Abazi, Heavy with Intention, 2021

Christian Lorentzen

Christian Lorentzen writes for the London Review of BooksHarper’s Magazine and Bookforum.

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