The novels of Ismail Kadare./
By James Wood/*
Kadare writes lucidly about the opaque and impenetrable./
Illustration by RICCARDO VECCHIO/
Like Trieste or Lvov, the medieval city of Gjirokastër, in southern Albania, has passed its history beneath a sign perpetually rewritten, in different hands, but always with the same words: “Under New Management.” It enters the historical record in 1336, as a Byzantine possession, but in 1418 was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. The Greeks occupied it in 1912, yet a year later it became part of the newly independent Albania. During the Second World War, it was taken by the Italians, taken back by the Greeks, and, finally, seized by the Germans: “At dusk the city, which through the centuries had appeared on maps as a possession of the Romans, the Normans, the Byzantines, the Turks, the Greeks and the Italians, now watched darkness fall as a part of the German empire. Utterly exhausted, dazed by the battle, it showed no sign of life.”
The novelist Ismail Kadare was born in Gjirokastër in 1936, and those words are from the great novel that he drew out of his boyhood experiences of the war, “Chronicle in Stone,” which was published in Albanian in 1971 and in English in 1987. (This kind of lag between Kadare’s Albanian and English-language publications is not uncommon, partly because most of his work has been translated first into French and then turned into English, often by the distinguished scholar David Bellos, who is well known as a translator of Georges Perec.) Despite the many horrors it describes, “Chronicle in Stone” is a joyful, often comic piece of work, in which the concentrated irony for which Kadare became famous—most notably in his later political parables and allegories of Communism, like “The Concert” and “The Successor”—is already visible. In this early novel, the irony has a more generous warmth. A young boy narrates the events, at once wide-eyed and sophisticated. War arrives, in the form of Italian bombing, British bombing, and, finally, the dark rondo whereby Greek and Italian occupiers arrive and depart from the stage like vicars in an English farce: “At ten in the morning on Thursday the Italians came back, marching in under freezing rain. They stayed only thirty hours. Six hours later the Greeks were back. The same thing happened all over again in the second week of November.” But Kadare is more interested in the kinds of stories that the town might have thrown up at any time in the past thousand years. Townspeople talk of spells, witches, ghosts, and legends. The young narrator discovers “Macbeth,” and reads it obsessively, seeing parallels between medieval Scotland and modern Gjirokastër. A group of old women discuss a neighbor’s son, who has started wearing spectacles, an occurrence that is treated superstitiously, as an omen of disaster. One of the women, Xhexho, says, “How I kept from bursting into tears, I’m sure I don’t know. He walked over to the cabinet, flipped through a few books, then went over to the window, stopped, and took off his glasses. . . . I reached out, picked up the glasses, and put them on. What can I tell you, my friends? My head was spinning. These glasses must be cursed. The world whirled like the circles of hell. Everything shook, rolled, and swayed as if possessed by the devil.” Her interlocutors all agree that a terrible fate has befallen the family of the bespectacled boy.
Throughout the novel, these and other neighbors and relatives comment on ordinary events, and this forms a stubborn resistance to the novelty of the occupation. As a mark of how beautifully Kadare blends this atmosphere of the city’s traditional antiquity with the rapidity of wartime development, consider something this same woman, Xhexho, says, when she hears an air-raid siren for the first time: “Now we have a mourner who will wail for us all.” And yet, in an emphasis characteristic of Kadare’s wit, the memory of the past is regularly burlesqued, too:
I had heard that the First Crusade had passed this way a thousand years before. Old Xixo Gavo, they said, had related this in his chronicle. The crusaders had marched down the road in an endless stream, brandishing their arms and crosses and ceaselessly asking, “Where is the Holy Sepulchre?” They had pressed on south in search of that tomb without stopping in the city, fading away in the same direction the military convoys were now taking.
There is something Monty Python-ish about the Crusaders, miles off course, demanding to see the Holy Sepulchre; and the link to the hopelessness of the modern soldiers is deftly made. The city stands stonily against the new invaders, as it always has: that is Kadare’s own “chronicle in stone.”
As the novel’s co-translator, David Bellos, points out in his introduction, this early book contains many of the elements and motifs that Kadare would work and rework in later fiction. Kadare uses the conventions of realistic storytelling, while feeling free to depart from conventionality whenever necessary; he likes to make use of the premodern liberties of Balkan legend, and deals straightforwardly and practically with such incursions into the texts as ghosts, fables, the living presence of the dead, magical occurrences, and the like. (In this, he sometimes resembles the late José Saramago, another postmodern traditionalist.) The books are formally playful, and often try out different styles of narration so as to find multiple paths to the same material. For instance, “Chronicle in Stone” is frequently interrupted by brief, abbreviated sections, entitled “Fragment of a Chronicle,” which read like newspaper reports, or diaries. In one of these, the author’s family name is fleetingly encountered: “Those killed in the latest bombing include: L.Tashi, L. Kadare. . . .”
Another name found in the novel has even greater resonance than Kadare’s. One day, a notice is posted on a ruined house: “Wanted: the dangerous Communist Enver Hoxha. Aged about 30.” Enver Hoxha, the Communist leader who kept a ruthless and paranoid grip on Albania for forty years, until his death, in 1985, was also born in Gjirokastër, in 1908. The novel does not mention Hoxha again, but his shadow, and the shadow of the regime that he built after the war, darkens the last eighty pages of the book. In one scene, some of the townspeople are deported by the Italians. As a crowd watches, a passerby asks what they have done. Someone else replies, “They spoke against.” “What does that mean? Against what?” the passerby asks. “I’m telling you, they spoke against.” The suppressed referent—“Against what?”—is garish in its silence, and Kadare became a master analyst of this sinister logic of lunacy, in its Communist totalitarian form. Later, Communist partisans start rounding people up. One of them shoots a girl by mistake, and is sentenced to death by fellow-partisans for “the misuse of revolutionary violence.” Just before he is executed, he raises his arm and cries, “Long live Communism!” Though “Chronicle in Stone” ends with the German occupation of the city, it gapes, forebodingly, at the postwar Albanian world.
At the end of the war, though, the nine-year-old Ismail Kadare and the thirty-six-year-old Hoxha were approaching each other like two dark dots on a snowy landscape, still miles apart but steadily converging on the same frozen lake. “Chronicle in Stone” represents an act of political resistance, of the cunning, subtle kind that allowed Kadare to survive Hoxha’s regime, even as some of his books were banned. “The Palace of Dreams,” published in 1981, and more obviously antagonistic, is one of those censored novels. (Although, in an absurdist twist, the book was banned two weeks after its publication, by which time it had sold out.) Like many of Kadare’s books, it is set in an imprecise past shaded by myth, but lit by the glare of totalitarian thought control. The Palace of Dreams is the most important government ministry in the Ottoman Empire, where bureaucrats sift and decode the dreams of the empire’s citizens, all of them working to find the Master Dreams that will help the Sultan in his rule. The novel’s hero, who comes from a prominent political family, rises through the ranks of the ministry; yet he cannot save his own family from political persecution—indeed, he unwittingly precipitates it. Enver Hoxha’s censors must have known at once that this surreal dystopia vividly conjured up, in carefully deflected form, the secret-police apparatus of modern Albania.
The suppression of “The Palace of Dreams” seems to have pushed Kadare beyond the boundaries of suggestion, allegory, implication, and indirection. Certainly, the novella “Agamemnon’s Daughter,” which Kadare wrote in the mid-nineteen-eighties, around the time of Hoxha’s death, is laceratingly direct. It is perhaps his greatest book, and, along with its sequel, “The Successor” (2003), surely one of the most devastating accounts ever written of the mental and spiritual contamination wreaked on the individual by the totalitarian state. Kadare’s French publisher, Claude Durand, has told of how Kadare smuggled some of his writings out of Albania, in 1986, and handed them to Durand, camouflaging them by changing Albanian names and places to German and Austrian ones, and attributing the writing to the West German novelist Siegfried Lenz. Durand collected the rest of this work, on two trips to Tirana, and the manuscripts were deposited in a safe at a Paris bank. As unaware as anyone else that Albanian Communism had only five years left to run, Kadare envisaged this deposit as a sort of insurance policy. In the event of his death, by natural or unnatural causes, the publication of these works would make it “harder,” in Durand’s words, “for the Communist propaganda machine to bend Kadare’s work and posthumous image to its own ends.”
That is a considerable understatement. I’m not sure that any regime could bend “Agamemnon’s Daughter” to its own ends. This is a terrifying work, relentless in its critique. It is set in Tirana in the early nineteen-eighties, during the May Day Parade. The narrator is a young man who works in television, and has unexpectedly been invited to attend the festivities from inside the Party grandstand. The formal invitation is unexpected because the narrator is a passionate liberal, strongly (though privately) opposed to the regime, and because he has recently survived a purge at his television station, resulting in the relegation of two colleagues. On the day of the parade, he cannot stop thinking about his lover, Suzana, who has broken off their relationship because her father is about to be chosen as the supreme leader’s designated successor and has asked his daughter not to jeopardize his career by consorting with an unsuitable man. Chillingly, she tells her lover that when her father explained the situation to her she “saw his point of view.”
The novella confines itself to the day of the parade, and is essentially a portfolio of sketches of human ruination—a brief Inferno, in which victims of the regime are serially encountered by our narrator as he walks to the stands and takes his seat. There is the neighbor who watches him from his balcony, “looking as sickly as ever. . . . He was reputed to have laughed out loud on the day Stalin died, which brought his career as a brilliant young scientist to a shuddering halt.” There is Leka B., a theatre director who displeased the authorities and was transferred to the provinces, to run amateur productions. He tells the narrator that he had put on a play that turned out to have “no less than thirty-two ideological errors!” The narrator’s comment is withering: “It was as if he were delighted with the whole business and held it in secret admiration.” There is G.Z., a former colleague, who has survived a purge, though no one knows quite how: “His whole personality and history corresponded in sum to what in relatively polite language is called a pile of shit.” He is likened to the Bald Man in an Albanian folktale, who is rescued from Hell by an eagle—“but on one condition. Throughout the flight, the raptor would need to consume raw meat.” Eventually, since the journey takes several days, the Bald Man has to offer his own flesh to feed the bird, and by the time he makes it to the upper world he is little more than a bag of bones.
At the center of “Agamemnon’s Daughter” is an icy reinterpretation of the Iphigenia story. The narrator reflects on Euripides’ play, and on Iphigenia’s apparently willing self-sacrifice, in order to help her father’s military ambitions. He turns the Greek tale around in his mind, and blends it with the remembered pain of Suzana’s departure. Hadn’t Stalin, he thinks, sacrificed his son Yakov, so that he could claim that he was sharing in the common lot of the Russian soldier? But what if the story of Agamemnon is really the story of Comrade Agamemnon—the first great account of absolute political tyranny? What if Agamemnon, in “a tyrant’s cynical ploy,” had merely used his daughter to legitimate warfare? Surely Yakov, “may he rest in peace, had not been sacrificed so as to suffer the same fate as any other Russian soldier, as the dictator had claimed, but to give Stalin the right to demand the life of anyone else.” The narrator realizes, as he watches Suzana’s father standing next to the Supreme Guide on the grandstand, that the Supreme Guide must have asked his deputy to initiate his daughter’s sacrifice. “Agamemnon’s Daughter” ends with this dark, spare, aphoristically alert declamation: “Nothing now stands in the way of the final shrivelling of our lives.”
Kadare is inevitably likened to Orwell and Kundera, but he is a far deeper ironist than the first, and a better storyteller than the second. He is a compellingly ironic storyteller because he so brilliantly summons details that explode with symbolic reality. No one who has read “The Successor” (2003) can forget the moment when the Hoxha figure, called simply the Guide, visits the newly renovated home of his designated successor. The Successor’s wife offers to show the Guide around, despite the anxiety felt by others that the lavishness of the renovation may have been a huge political blunder. The Guide stops to examine a new living-room light switch, a dimmer that is the first of its kind in the country:
Silence had fallen all around, but when he managed to turn on the light and make it brighter, he laughed out loud. He turned the switch further, until the light was at maximum strength, then laughed again, ha-ha-ha, as if he’d just found a toy that pleased him. Everyone laughed with him, and the game went on until he began to turn the dimmer down. As the brightness dwindled, little by little everything began to freeze, to go lifeless, until all the many lamps in the room went dark.
In its concentrated ferocity, this has the feel of something very ancient: we might be reading Tacitus on Tiberius.
Alas, there is nothing of quite that high order in Kadare’s most recent novel, “The Accident,” translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson (Grove; $24). The new book is spare and often powerful, but it is a bit too spare, so that the ribs of allegory show through, in painful obviousness. Many of Kadare’s familiar procedures and themes are in evidence, beginning with the positing of an enigma that needs decoding. One morning in Vienna, sometime not long after the end of the war in Kosovo, a young Albanian couple are killed in a car accident. The taxi that had been taking them from their hotel to the airport suddenly veers off the Autobahn and crashes. The taxi-driver survives, but he can give no reasonable account of why he left the road, except to say that he had been looking in his rearview mirror at the couple, who had been “trying to kiss,” when a bright light distracted him. The accident is suspicious enough to attract various investigators, not least the intelligence services of Serbia, Montenegro, and Albania. The dead man, known as Besfort Y., appears to have been an Albanian diplomat, working at the Council of Europe, and may have been involved in nato’s decision to bomb Serbia. Perhaps the woman who died in the car, who was Besfort’s girlfriend, and is known in the reports as Rovena St., knew too much, and Besfort tried to kill her, in a botched plan. But why did Besfort refer to Rovena as “a call girl”? A few months before the accident, he had taken her to an Albanian motel and she had been “frightened for her life.” So a friend of hers tells investigators. Rovena, says the friend, “knew the most appalling things. . . . She knew the precise hour when Yugoslavia would be bombed, days in advance.”
The security services give up, in the face of the usual Balkan incomprehensibility, and a mysterious, nameless “researcher” takes over. This authorial stand-in, who works “without funds or resources or powers of constraint,” decides to reconstruct the last forty weeks of the couple’s lives, using diaries, letters, phone calls, and the testimonies of friends:
Everywhere in the world events flow noisily on the surface, while their deep currents pull silently, but nowhere is this contrast so striking as in the Balkans.
Gales sweep the mountains, lashing the tall firs and mighty oaks, and the whole peninsula appears demented.
Kadare feeds off this Balkan incomprehensibility: he likes to tease it and tease at it, while simultaneously making fun of people who talk about “Balkan incomprehensibility.” He is deeply interested in misreading, yet his prose has a classical clarity, so that much of his power as a storyteller has to do with his ability to provide an extraordinarily lucid analysis of incomprehensibility. This analysis moves between the comic and the tragic, and never finally settles in one mode. (His amiable and funny novel “The File on H.” reads like an Albanian Evelyn Waugh.) In both the new novel and “The Successor,” we begin with an apparent accident—in the earlier novel, the country’s designated successor has been found in his bedroom, shot dead—that allows Kadare to work through rival explanations. (“The Successor” is based on the “mysterious” death, reported as suicide, of the Albanian Prime Minister, Mehmet Shehu, in 1981. He had been Hoxha’s closest political ally for decades, but after his death he was denounced as a traitor and an enemy of the people, and his family arrested and imprisoned.) The question that haunts both novels is: When did it begin? When, in other words, did “the accident” become inevitable? When did the tide first turn against the Successor? Was it when the Guide failed to come to the Successor’s birthday party, for instance? The blackly surreal answer is, of course, that it has always begun; the tide was turning against the Successor even as he rose through the Party ranks.
Likewise, in “The Accident,” one can see that Besfort and Rovena were always doomed, and that the reason, as in “The Successor,” is murkily ideological. The nameless “researcher” discovers that Besfort and Rovena have been together for twelve years. Rovena was a student when she met Besfort, who was older than she, and had come to the university at Tirana to teach international law. From the start, the relationship appears to have been electrically erotic, with Besfort as the seducer and the dominant partner. The novel hints at very rough sex. They agree to part, but soon reunite. The couple meet in various European cities and expensive hotels, exercising a freedom that was unthinkable before the collapse of Communism, their itinerary largely determined by Besfort’s diplomatic travel (where “diplomat” probably also means “spy”). But in Graz, for the first time, Rovena feels that Besfort is suffocating her, a feeling that will mount as the relationship progresses. “You’re preventing me from living,” she tells him, and elsewhere she complains that “he has me in chains . . . he is the prince and I am only a slave,” that “he wanted her entirely for himself, like every tyrant.” To these charges, he replies, “You took this yoke up yourself, and now you blame me?” He had been her liberator, Kadare writes, “but this is not the first time in history that a liberator had been taken for a tyrant, just as many a tyrant had been taken for a liberator.” Partly as a game, and partly as an admission of the terminality of their relationship, the couple begin speaking of themselves as client and call girl. Besfort considers killing her.
“The Accident” is a difficult novel. It has a very interrupted form, continually looping back on itself, so that dates and place names seem almost scrambled and the reader must work a kind of hermeneutic espionage on the text. Unlike “Agamemnon’s Daughter” and “The Successor,” the analysis of incomprehensibility here seems quite opaque. Yet, at the same time, the symbolic pressure is a little too transparent. One gathers that Kadare is presenting a kind of allegory about the lures and imprisonments of the new post-Communist tyranny, liberty, and he has Besfort bang home this decoding: “Until yesterday,” he tells Rovena, “you were complaining that it was my fault that you aren’t free. And now you say you have too much freedom. But somehow it’s always my fault.” Besfort is the new liberty that Rovena cannot do without, and to which she is willing to be enslaved, and this freedom is dangerous and frequently squalid.
“The Accident” thus offers an interesting reply to the question with which Kadare closes “Agamemnon’s Daughter.” At the end of that novella, the young narrator thinks of the Communist slogan “Let us revolutionize everything,” and asks, rhetorically, “How the hell can you revolutionize a woman’s sex? That’s where you’d have to start if you were going to tackle the basics—you had to start with the source of life. You would have to correct its appearance, the black triangle above it, and the glistening line of the labia.” He means that totalitarianism will always be thwarted by some non-ideological privacy, or surplus, beyond its reach. Kundera has repeatedly explored the same question, with regard to a libidinous erotics of resistance. Yet “The Accident” grimly suggests that it is indeed possible to “revolutionize” a woman’s sex, and that capitalism may be able to do this more easily than Communism. After all, the point about Besfort and Rovena is that their relationship is thoroughly contaminated by ideology and politics; their very postures of submission and domination are overdetermined.
In a long speech that is surely at the emotional and ideological heart of the book, Besfort tells Rovena, who was only thirteen at the end of the dictatorship, about the kind of madness that prevailed under Hoxha. He describes a world of crazy inversion, reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s universe, in which citizens willingly pretended to be conspirators, in order to confess their love for the leader while being simultaneously punished for crimes they had not committed. Each plotter, says Besfort, turned out to be more abject than the last:
The conspirators’ letters from prison became more and more ingratiating. Some requested Albanian dictionaries, because they were stuck for words to express their adoration of the leader. Others complained of not being tortured properly. The protocols sent back from firing squads on the barren sandbank by the river told the same story: their victims shouted, “Long live our leader!,” and as they conveyed their last wishes some felt such a burden of guilt that they asked to be killed not by the usual weapons but by anti-tank guns or flamethrowers. Others asked to be bombarded from the air, so that no trace of them would remain. . . . Nobody could distinguish truth from fiction in these reports, just as it was impossible to discern what the purpose of the conspirators, or even the leader himself, might be. Sometimes the leader’s mind was easier to read. He had enslaved the entire nation, and now the adoration of the conspirators would crown his triumph. Some people guessed that he was sated with the love of his loyal followers, and that he now wanted something new and apparently impossible—the love of traitors.
We are back in the world of Leka B., who was oddly proud of his thirty-two ideological errors, and of the partisan in “A Chronicle of Stone” who dies shouting, “Long live Communism!” Kadare also subtly suggests that this dense, overwrought speech might itself be evidence that Besfort is a victim of the totalitarianism that he so despises—that he cannot escape its deformations, its legacies, the memory of its hysteria. But a melancholy thought also casts its shadow. Might this be true of Kadare, too? It is poignant that the most powerful section in the novel returns to old ground and old obsessions, and it is poignant, too, that this allegory of the tyranny of liberty is less effective, as a novel, than Kadare’s earlier allegories of the tyranny of tyranny. Back when he worked within and against totalitarianism, he had the advantage of being sustained by the great subject of the Hoxha regime, like a man sitting on a huge statue. Perhaps it is in the nature of freedom—still, after all, a transitional event in the history of postwar Albania—that a novelist even of Kadare’s great powers will seem, when trying to allegorize it, to stab at clouds. Kadare would not be the only novelist who has found, with the collapse of Communism, that his world has disappeared, however much he longed for the destruction of that world. These are early days yet.(Cortex:The New Yorker)
* James Wood has been a staff writer and book critic at The New Yorker since 2007.