Having published The Successor in 2006 (still, I think, Kadare’s most recent work in English), Canongate have gone on to bring some of his previous work to our attention, with a revised translation of Chronicle in Stone, the short stories of Agamemnon’s Daughter, and, now, a new translation of The Siege (previously The Castle). Kadare is a writer who does not seem to have the one agreed ‘great work’ that would allow us to shelf him and move on – in fact, I would suggest that the more of his novels you reads, the more rewarding your reading. Though rarely repetitive in substance, all attempt to capture some facet of totalitarianism. While The Siege, like The Palace of Dreams or The Pyramid, appears to be historical fiction, this is a genre which Kadare doubts can even exist. Instead he uses history to comment on the present – a common practice, though one that is particularly useful in the face of state censorship.
A helpful afterward tells us that the novel is probably based on the siege of Shkoder in 1474, and that the character of Skanderbeg, who does not actually appear in the novel but is ever-present as a symbol of Albanian resistance, is the historical figure of George Castrioti. Certainly, the novel is set during the 15th century when the Ottoman Empire was attempting to subjugate Albania; equally certainly, it was published in 1969, not long after Soviet tanks had invaded Czechoslovakia and all Eastern Block countries felt threatened, particularly isolationist Albania. The novel can therefore be read as a heroic story of Albania’s struggle against mightier oppressors. The problem with this reading is that the Turks were ultimately successful – and indeed, the futility of the Albanian victory is pointed out in the narrative in response to the question of what will happen if the siege is unsuccessful:
“Then a new expedition will set out next spring…Battalions without number will march in line, with drums rolling and banners flapping in the breeze just like before….If the citadel does not fall next spring…then another expedition will be launched in the spring of the year after next.”
For a portrait of Albanian heroism the novel also allows the Albanians little in the way of narrative. Each chapter opens with a brief first person account from the point of view of the besieged town – which certainly encourages the reader to identify with this voice – but the rest of the novel is told from the Ottoman camp. This may suggest the stranglehold the Turks have, even on the novel itself, but it also highlights the way in which Kadare’s interest often lies more with the powerful than the oppressed.
Within the Ottoman camp Kadare introduces us to a wide range of characters: the Pasha, the commander of the army; Mevla Celebi, the chronicler; the Quartermaster General; the Engineer Saruxha, Sirri Selim, the doctor; the Pasha’s wives, and many others. Kadare skilfully weaves the cast together to create a picture of war, from the experience of the ordinary soldier to the commander-in–chief. It also allows him to draw our attention to themes such as the development of new military technology (Saruxha is testing out his biggest cannon yet) and germ warfare (the doctor has diseased rats released into the town). He even comments on ‘friendly fire’ – when a cannon is fired accidentally into the attacking Turkish troops, the man responsible is summarily executed by fellow soldiers.
However, it is not so much the war itself that Kadare is interested in as the state of mind it creates within the camp. From the beginning, the Pasha is aware that if he is not successful his days in power will be over:
“…it was clear that by sending him off to fight Skanderbeg, the Sultan was giving him one last chance.”
In failure he is soon abandoned:
“He only noticed the way his subordinates’ eyes looked away each time his glance met theirs. He realised that this evasiveness was the first but infallible sign that, as from that instant, they were separating their fate from his.”
Power is something you cannot luxuriate in but must always fight to retain. The camp is full of risings and fallings – the astrologer who endorses the first attack is assigned to bury the bodies. A second, more careful, astrologer is flogged in public for failing to make predictions. Show trials and the executions of ‘spies’ also feature. The world of the camp is as much that of Hoxha’s Albania as it is representative of the Soviet Union.
The novel’s most interesting character is the Quartermaster. It is he, rather than the chronicler, whose cowardice is played for comedy, who represents the author’s voice, a voice rich with modern irony. He offers the only hope for the besieged inhabitants:
“One day or another we’ll take possession of their castles; we’re sure to overcome them in the end. But that won’t be enough. In the final analysis they’re just heaps of stones that can be taken from us in the same way we will take them ourselves.”
This may appear to be a historical novel, but anyone interested in contemporary literature, and the modern world, should be interested in Kadare.