The Doll

Ismail 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 distance, such as The Siege and The Pyramid. There is a third strand, however, of novels which are more personal – one example is Twilight of the Eastern Gods, which draws on Kadare’s experience in Russia as a young writer – into which The Doll (translated by John Hodgson) can be safely placed. The central character is ‘Ismail’ and the details of his life echo those of the author, from his wife’s name (Helena) to his exile in France. At the centre of the novel is Ismail’s mother, the doll of the title, a character who seems both simple and unknowable.

Ismail explains early in the novel what he sees as his mother’s likeness to a doll:

“It had to do mainly with her fragility, with what would later strike me as he resemblance to paper or plaster of Paris.”

He struggles to see his mother as a typical mother:

“I felt like my mother was less like the mother’s in the poems and more a kind of draft mother or an outline sketch which she could not step beyond.”

He quickly develops the idea of his mother being simpler and more childlike than he is, referring to her “unfounded naivety…her extended adolescence.” The idea of the literary child becoming distant from a less educated parent is common in literature (see, for example, Tony Harrison’s poem ‘Bookends’), though Ismail is also convinced of his mother’s unhappiness. He feels his parents’ marriage is difficult to understand, both in terms of the two families (the Kadares are relatively poor compared to his mother’s family) and the two individuals:

“The alliance between the two was a mistake from the start, and nobody ever understood the reason for the marriage.”

He also relates her poor relationship with her mother-in-law which his father resolves by holding ‘trials’ within the house when there is a dispute. Yet later he is less certain of her feelings, commenting on her request to be buried with her husband:

“I could not help wondering whether this could really be called a love story, even a simple one: seeing a man from a window and then, three quarters of a century later, wanting to be with him in the same grave.”

Ismail shows awareness that he cannot entirely understand his mother. Kadare also has fun with Ismail’s (and presumable his own) early writing career, what he calls “the grotesque mock-epic of my adolescence.” His early attempts at writing, for example, are mainly focussed on adverts for what he intends to write:

“Three-quarters of the notebook was filled with advertisements along the lines of, “The century’s most demonic novel, hurry to the Gutenberg bookshop, buy I. H. de Kadare’s magnificent posthumous novel’”

He has a particular affinity for Shakespeare, whom he describes as “almost a cousin”:

“I even thought that when I was a little more grown up – in other words, when I became clever – I would correct Shakespeare’s mistakes, as far as I could.”

When Ismail is published, his mother worries that she will be abandoned as not good enough as “she had heard that boys, when they become famous, swapped their mothers.”

“I would be the source of her greatest and most absurd fear, that I would turn my back on her.”

And yet, this is what happens in a sense as Ismail and Helena travel to France and publish a letter calling for free elections, his mother only hearing about it listening to the radio with her daughter:

“They were stupefied. They trembled in the darkness, which gradually became more intense.”

It is many years before he sees her again, when one of her first questions is, “Are you a Frenchman now?”

Although initially the designation of his mother as a doll and his portrayal of her as immature and unintelligent implies a patronising tone, in fact the novel ultimately admits his mother’s character cannot be defined within the limits of his fiction. If she is an “outline sketch” it is because he cannot add the detail and the three dimensions. Even regarding what he understands of her personality it is unclear whether it should be viewed as strength of weakness:

“Her eyes assumed the expression she wore whenever she felt ashamed at not understanding something, a habit some people called a failing and others a gift.”

At the novel’s conclusion he returns to their old home in the village, now partly ruined. He discovers that there is a secret door which “it seem to me to offer a vital code to interpret everything, including the riddle of the doll.” As the novel ends, however, he realises that he “still had no idea where this door might be,” just as, with his mother, he cannot entirely understand her: the doll she most reminds the reader of is that which contains another doll within, and then another. Then novel is not only an interesting insight into Kadare’s family and early life, but a warning that human beings are not easily confined to the page.

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8 Responses to “The Doll”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Intriguing. I didn’t get on with my one attempt at Kadare, but this sounds potentially more promising.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Just like Stamm, Kadare is another highly-regarded author I really ought to make time for. The Fall of the Stone City is the only one I’ve read, mainly because it was on the IFPP longlist at the time of its release.

    While the personal element in The Doll appeals, I’m not sure it would be the best way in. What would you suggest? I liked Stone City, so maybe something in a similar vein would suit.

  3. Juliet @ This Girl's Book Room Says:

    I’ve never come across this author before but sounds like a fascinating writer, and a stylish one if the quotes you gave in the review are anything to go by. Thanks for getting his name out there, always love discovering new writers!

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