Archive for the ‘Ismail Kadare’ Category

The Traitor’s Niche

March 19, 2017

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.”

Or alternatively:

“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.

Advertisements

A Girl in Exile

September 6, 2016

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.

Twilight of the Eastern Gods

September 24, 2014

untitled (11)

As Ismail Kadare’s name increasingly gets mentioned in connection with the Nobel Prize, it’s fortuitous that Canongate should publish one of his early novels, Twilight of the Eastern Gods, in English for the first time, which takes as one of its one of its central events Boris Pasternak being awarded the Prize in 1958. Much has changed since then – no need now to debate whether Kadare is a dissident or not – though it’s interesting that Kadare should focus on Pasternak , a writer who was criticised by both the Soviet Union and Solzhenitsyn, just as Kadare has been criticised for compromise with the Albanian regime before his eventual exile. Twilight of the Eastern Gods is translated from the French by David Bellos – as Kadare’s complete works were published in both French and Albanian in 2004, it seems that this will now be the journey they make into English.

Twilight of the Eastern Gods tells of Kadare’s experiences at The Gorky Institute in Moscow (or at least those of an Albanian writer very like Kadare). Surrounded by writers from all over the Soviet Union, the narrator is developing his own identity as a writer, though it sometimes seems reluctantly. Not only does he mark himself out as an outsider form the start – “I happened to be the only foreigner staying there” – he hides the fact he is a writer from his Russian girlfriend, Lida:

“I shook my head and mumbled a few words to the effect that I did something in the cinema, regretting instantly that I hadn’t invented a calling even more distant from literature, such as table-tennis or Egyptology.”

The Institute is presented as a maze of corridors, perhaps representing all the possible variations of ‘the writer’:

“The corridor was truly endless: maybe sixty doors opened on it. No corridor before had played such an important role in my life.”

It is in an abandoned room, however, (which he describes as his “sanctuary”) that he finds scraps of Doctor Zhivago, uncertain what he has discovered – “it might be a forbidden work circulating from hand to hand.” When Pasternak is awarded the Nobel Prize an intensive propaganda campaign is launched against him:

“What must it be like to be the target, to be the eye of that whirlwind?”

However, it would be misleading to suggest that this is the novel’s only concern. Much of it is concerned with the narrator’s loneliness, his relationship with Lida, and the problems created for him by the worsening relationship between Albania and the Soviet Union. Kadare uses the legend of Doruntine and Konstandin to explore this, something he will return to in more detail in The Ghost Rider. The narrator takes the part of Konstandin, the brother who returns from the dead to fulfil a promise and rescue Doruntine. At one point he tells Lida, “Did you know I’d swum the Acheron, the river of the Underworld,” with reference to a literal river in Albania. Prevuiously, in an attempt to end the relationship, a friend told Lida that he was dead:

“I thought, It’s all over now. Now she believes I’m dead, it’s all done for. ‘If only you hadn’t killed me off entirely,’ I said with a flicker of optimism.”

When he does finally leave her he does so very much in the manner of Konstandin, perhaps realising that he must return to his homeland. You can’t help but think that the promise which is greater than death also relates to the idea of writing.

If this makes Twilight of the Eastern Gods sound gloomy, that’s not a fair representation: much of it is a satirical look at literature in the Soviet Union. Here, for example is his description of the writers on holiday in Latvia:

“Most of the children who ran around noisily in the daytime had poems and stories dedicated to them by their parents…As for the older women…I knew that quite a few were still stepping out on the pages of some books as good-looking women in high heels, under the mask of initials such as D.V. or N.”

There is also a large cast of characters I haven’t mentioned to poke fun at, and an outbreak of smallpox to be dealt with. It probably isn’t the best introduction to Kadare’s work, but is a fascinating addition to what is available in English, particularly for those interested in Kadare himself, providing insight, as it does, to his early life.

The Siege

September 12, 2009

the siege

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.