A Girl in Exile


Though Ismail Kadare has returned to his original UK publisher, Harvill (now Harvill Secker) with A Girl in Exile, the translation of his work into English continues uninterrupted. Even better, this is the fourth novel John Hodgson has translated directly from Albanian (rather than via French as his work once reached us), with a fifth to follow next year. A Girl in Exile is a recent novel, having first appeared in 2009, shortly after The Fall of the Stone City (translated into English in 2012). His last novel from Canongate, Twilight of the Eastern Gods, was a much earlier work from the 1970s, as is his next book, The Traitor’s Niche. Deciphering any development in his writing is not straight forward, therefore, though Kadare himself seems happy to move between historical novels and those that deal with Communist Albania. A Girl in Exile is one of the latter, exploring love under the pressure of a police state.

As the novel begins, Rudian Stefa, a writer, is summoned by the Party Committee:

“…he rehearsed the two possible issues that might, unknown to him, have got him into trouble: his latest play, which he had been waiting two weeks for permission to stage, and his relationship with Migena.”

In their last meeting he had accused Migena, a younger woman he has been sleeping with, of being a spy; in a brief struggle she had dislodged books from his shelves, including those banned by the state. The turbulence in their relationship is caused by the mystery of her unhappiness:

“Every time she wept he hoped to find out what her tears concealed.”

When they ask him about a ‘girl’ he assumes it is Migena, but, after a brief conversation at cross purposes, it transpires that they are referring to a girl he has never met on the basis that he once signed a book for her: “For Linda B., a souvenir from the author.” He has never met her because she cannot come to Tirana, she lives in ‘exile’, interned far from the capital; the book was signed at Migena’s request, and now her friend has killed herself.

Migena, as Stefa quickly realises, is an anagram of enigma, and he feels that if he can solve the mystery of her sadness he can also discover the reason for Linda’s suicide. Unfortunately the political situation is such that he is riven with suspicion:

“…how could a police informer weep so movingly? It was of course impossible. But then the opposite thought, that this was precisely the reason why she wept, disorientated him.”

He even comes to distrust his own feelings:

“It was a long time since he had fallen in love, although he wondered if this were not love but something else which had donned love’s familiar mask to deceive him.”

The investigation into Linda’s death becomes Stefa’s investigation, conducted through his relationship with Migena. There is even an unofficial handover during a lengthy conversation with the official investigator. Stefa is haunted by her in a novel full of hauntings. He suspects that his latest play is being delayed by a scene in which a ghost appears:

“He had expected some of them to take fright at the ghost. What’s this ghost doing here? Is this social realism or Hamlet?”

Kadare also, as so often, refers to Greek myth (though perhaps he wouldn’t see it as ‘Greek’), in this case the story of Orpheus. One might even see Stefa, as a writer, attempting to charm Cerberus (the state) in order to recover Linda from the dead – that is to recover the meaning of her life. Her body, too, remains in exile, her internment as applicable to the dead as to the living.

At the same time, Kadare provides a portrait of a writer in a one-party state: at times surreal, at others almost comic: Fidel Castro speaking for six hours on revolutionary Cuban theatre on the radio, Stefa trying to think of an appropriate nationality for a character in his play (“definitely mustn’t be a Western state, but there were no friendly states left. After China, North Korea had gone too”), and the ‘the Dajti test’ – using a hotel popular with foreigners to test how safe you felt:

“If your feet hesitate even for an instant before entering, forget it.”

A Girl in Exile is a wonderfully layered novel. The truth regarding Linda’s life (and death) is slowly revealed – each time Stefa feels he has grasped it, a further detail suggests that he is no closer to the truth. Kadare’s use of myth provides a further layer, a novel in which we have the recreation of a particular time and place but also the sense of something universal, a novel of love and loss – Linda having lost her life long before she took it.

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17 Responses to “A Girl in Exile”

  1. Melissa Beck Says:

    I hadn’t heard of this author before, Great review, Grant. This will go on my TBR pile.

    • 1streading Says:

      He won the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005 and quite a lot of his work has been translated into English. I’m glad you’re going to give him a try!

  2. bookbii Says:

    Great review Grant. I’ve never read Kadare, but this sounds really interesting. Perhaps another to add to the to read pile.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    I really liked The Fall Stone of the Stone City when I read it a few years ago, but oddly enough I haven’t read any more Kadare since then, something to address in the future. I like the sound of the layering in this one – Stone City struck me as book with a lot of depth, especially for such a short work.

    Has Kadare ever been awarded the Nobel Prize for lit? If not, it seems long overdue…

    • 1streading Says:

      Having won the Man Booker International when it was awarded for a lifetime’s work must make him a Nobel contender.
      I do find that his novels often have more depth than at first appears, and this one is no exception.
      I wonder if you would like The Successor which is written (well, to some extent) as a thriller.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ve read his File on H which I thought excellent, and his Broken April which I thought truly superb. Both pre-blog. I suspect I’ve read a third which didn’t impress as much and which I’ve forgotten.

    This sounds very good, a return to form as well as to Harvill. This sounds particularly strong on the internalisation of totalitarianism – the state making the individual police themselves as much as it polices them. Interesting stuff.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, these are both excellent novels. I wonder what the one which didn’t impress you was?
      You’re right that this is good on totalitarianism and its effect on the individual – Stefa is an excellent example of the dilemmas a writer, and a man, faces under such a system.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I’ve only read one Kadare, and I had mixed feeling about it – although thinking back that might well be because of my expectations of it, rather than failings of the book. Your review does rather persuade me I should try again!

    • 1streading Says:

      What one did you read?
      Though his novels have a certain style, and often explore similar themes, they can also be quite different in the way the do this.
      I wonder if you would like Twilight of the Gods which is abut a young writer visiting Russia around the time Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize. (Of course, that may be the one you read!)

      • kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

        It was indeed Twilight of the Gods! I liked some of it, but found it too fragmented – the Pasternak angle was talked up but in fact it seemed to me that that was a lesser part and there was much more of Albanian legends which somehow sat oddly. I would have preferred a straight narrative of his time as a student in Russia which was the part that interested me. Perhaps I just expected one book and got a different one!

      • 1streading Says:

        I did wonder as it sounded like something you might be interested in! Perhpas you should try one of his more famous novels like The General of the Dead Army or The File on H.

  6. Tony Says:

    Still only read ‘The Fall Stone of the Stone City’, which I quite liked. Another of those writers who could become a favourite if I had the time to devote to a few of his books…

  7. Arian Says:

    Great review!
    Linda’s fate is truly heartbreaking 😦
    I wish the novel had focused more on her.

  8. The Doll | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Kadare’s novels can be divided into those set in contemporary Albania, such as The Successor and A Girl in Exile, and those historical novels which seem designed to examine aspects of Albanian politics from a […]

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