Ismail Kadare is no stranger to the Man Booker International Prize having won the inaugural prize in 2005 when it was awarded, not for a single novel, but for a body of work. He has also been frequently long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the predecessor to the Man Booker International in its present form: The Successor in 2007, Agamemnon’s Daughter in 2008, The Siege in 2009, and The Fall of the Stone City in 2013 (the latter pair were also short-listed). These works reveal a little of how Kadare is currently being translated: while most appeared in English within a few years of their original publication, The Siege was first published in 1970, and represents attempts to bring Kadare’s older work to a wider audience alongside his most recent. The Traitor’s Niche continues that trend (which also includes Twilight of the Eastern Gods, another seventies novel, translated in 2014) as it was written between 1974 and 1976 when Kadare was still in Albania (he claimed political asylum in France in 1990) under the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. They also indicate the two most common methods of translation, some having been translated from French translations by David Bellos, others, like The Traitors’ Niche, being directly translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson.
The Traitor’s Niche is most reminiscent of The Palace of Dreams where Kadare also used the Ottoman empire to explore totalitarianism in the oblique way living in a totalitarian state demands (not oblique enough as The Palace of Dreams was banned). The Traitor’s Niche is set in 1822 when Albania was part of the Ottoman empire, albeit on its disregarded edges. It concerns the rebellion of Ali Pasha Tepelena who rules Albania as part of the empire until he decides “go to war against the sultan” despite the warnings of his wife:
“Why do you want to climb higher?… Why not climb down a little? Wouldn’t it be more natural to yield, to be more human, rather than opverreaching to become more than a man?”
The Sultan sends Hurshid Pasha to defeat him, but Hurshid himself soon suffers the Sultan’s displeasure when he is accused of sending only part of Ali’s fortune back to Constantinople.
Kadare is not only interested in history, of course; his subject is the ruthless exercise of power. The novel’s great skill is that it is told through a series of characters rather than events. The opening chapter presents us with Abdullah, who guards the traitor’s niche (or niche of shame) where the heads of those executed by the state are placed. Years of placing and replacing heads, as well as observing the reaction of the crowds, has taught him that “people in general were less significant than they thought themselves to be.” A nearby café owner is equally cynical:
“People are villains. They look at a severed head as if the sight of it has put them off ever committing a crime again, but as soon as they turn their backs on it, it’s clear they can hardly wait to get back to their dirty tricks.”
The niche is awaiting Ali’s head, a place currently filled by the head of the man who was sent, and failed, to defeat him. His replacement, Hurshid, knows that either he or Ali must die:
“The heavens could not contain them both. One of their suns had to sink.”
We follow Ali’s head to Constantinople in the company of Tundj Hata, who charges villagers to see it in the provinces through which he must pass. But Ali’s will not be the last head to be placed in the niche before the novel’s conclusion.
Though The Traitor’s Niche is faithful to the history it draws on, we are constantly pointed towards its wider reach, in particular in answer to the question “What will they do to Albania now?” which is immediately asked on the arrival of Ali’s head:
“They recalled situations and provinces in which a ‘state of emergency’ had been called… A ‘state of emergency’ would be devised by the First Directorate of the Interior Ministry to stimulate internal divisions on the basis of religion, regional and feudal alliances, castes and traditions.”
“The partial or full erasure of the national identity of peoples, which was the main task of the Central Archive, was carried out according to the old secret doctrine of Caw-caw and passed through five principal stages: first, the physical crushing of rebellion; second, the extirpation of any idea of rebellion; third, the destruction of culture, art and tradition; fourth, the eradication or impoverishment of the language; and fifth, the extinction or enfeeblement of the national memory.”
These descriptions of statecraft not only echo workings of the Soviet bloc, but of all powerful empires since time began. Not only do its servants live in fear of decapitation, so do those countries within its grasp. Kadare’s novel exposes the ruthlessness of powerful states, but does so in such a way as to humanise the participants, from the rebellious pasha to the guardian of the traitor’s niche.
At this stage it’s difficult to predict whether The Traitor’s Niche will appear on the short list. Eileen Battersby (of the Irish Times) has argued that, as an older novel, it should make way for newer work (goodness knows what she’d make of the Best Translated Book Award), though I’m not sure her view that great novels are always translated quickly is true in every case. I certainly wouldn’t dismiss it just yet.