I arrived in Tirana, Albania, on a Sunday evening in late August, on a flight from Istanbul. The sun had set while the plane was midflight, and as we landed in the dark, images of fading light still filled my mind. The man next to me, a young, red-haired American wearing a straw hat, asked me if I knew how to get into town from the airport. I shook my head, put the book I had been reading into my backpack, got up, lifted my suitcase out of the overhead compartment and stood waiting in the aisle for the door up ahead to open.
That book was the reason I had come. It was called "Do No Harm," and it was written by the British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh. His job is to slice into the brain, the most complex structure we know of in the universe, where everything that makes us human is contained, and the contrast between the extremely sophisticated and the extremely primitive — all of that work with knives, drills and saws — fascinated me deeply. I had sent Marsh an email, asking if I might meet him in London to watch him operate. He wrote a cordial reply saying that he seldom worked there now, but he was sure something could be arranged. In passing, he mentioned that he would be operating in Albania in August and in Nepal in September, and I asked hesitantly whether I could join him in Albania.
Now I was here.
Tense and troubled, I stepped out of the door of the airplane, having no idea what lay ahead. I knew as little about Albania as I did about brain surgery. The air was warm and stagnant, the darkness dense. A bus was waiting with its engine running. Most of the passengers were silent, and the few who chatted with one another spoke a language I didn't know. It struck me that 25 years ago, when this was among the last remaining Communist states in Europe, I would not have been allowed to enter; then, the country was closed to the outside world, almost like North Korea today. Now the immigration officer barely glanced at my passport before stamping it. She dully handed it back to me, and I entered Albania.
In the arrivals hall, a young man dressed in a bright white shirt came over.
"Welcome to Albania, Mr. Knausgaard. My name is Geldon Fejzo. Mr. Marsh and Professor Petrela are waiting for you at the hotel. The car is right outside."
The car was a black Mercedes, with leather seats and air conditioning. It turned out that Fejzo had just completed his medical training as a neurosurgeon. He was 31 and had studied in Florence. He had also worked as an intern for a few months at a London hospital with Mr. Marsh, as he called him, in the manner long preferred by British surgeons.
"What is he like?" I asked.
"He's a fantastic person," Fejzo said.
Marsh was in Tirana to demonstrate a surgical procedure he helped pioneer, called awake craniotomy, that had never been performed in Albania. The procedure is used to remove a kind of brain tumor that looks just like the brain itself. Such tumors are most common in young people, and there is no cure for them. Without surgery, 50 percent of patients die within five years; 80 percent within 10 years. An operation prolongs their lives by 10 to 20 years, sometimes more. In order for the surgeon to be able to distinguish between tumor and healthy brain tissue, the patient is kept awake throughout the operation, and during the procedure the brain is stimulated with an electric probe, so that the surgeon can see if and how the patient reacts. The team in Albania had been preparing for six months and had selected two cases that were particularly well suited to demonstrating the method.