Posts Tagged ‘ismail kadare’

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.

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

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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 Fall of the Stone City

December 5, 2012

stone city2

For his latest novel to appear in English (the original is a recent 2008) Ismail Kadare has returned to the city of his birth, Gjirokaster. He has written about Gjirokaster before, most notably in Chronicle in Stone which was first published in 1971. In that novel Kadare describes its history of occupation:

“At dusk the city, which through the centuries had appeared on maps as a possession of the Romans, the Normans, the Byzantines, the Turks, the Greeks, and the Italians, now watched darkness fall as part of the German empire.”

The end of Chronicle in Stone and the opening of The Fall of the Stone City almost exactly coincide: Gjirokaster comes under German occupation after the withdrawal of the Italians during the Second World War. Similar events occur (presumably based on what actually happened) – the German convoy is attacked by partisans, they in turn attack the city, and an unknown person waves a white flag to end that attack. In Chronicle in Stone it is described as follows:

“No-one ever found who it was that rose up like a ghost over the city only to sink back down into the abyss after waving that white something at the Germans.”

The Fall of the Stone City tells us, “One of the inhabitants had apparently waved a white sheet from a roof top, nobody could tell exactly where.” The novel goes on to take us through the rest of the war culminating in a further occupation by Soviet troops and ending with the death of Stalin in 1953.

The novel is largely concerned with a mysterious dinner party which takes place shortly after the German invasion. The German commander is invited to the house of an old university friend, Big Doctor Gurameto who convinces him to release the hostages taken after the partisan attack. He is ‘Big’ Dr Gurameto because there is also a Little Dr Gurameto:

“Although they bore the same surname they had no family connection and had it not been for medicine their destinies would surely never have been entwined; still less would they have acquired the labels ’big’ and ‘little’, which created a relationship between them that doubtless neither desired.”

This tells us something about the tone of the novel which is written from a communal viewpoint, almost as if by the city itself. Despite its often dark subject matter there is a lightness to it; not the lightness of humour but an off-handedness that suggests a nodding acquaintance with a malicious fate. The two doctors (the other doctor has no real impact in the novel’s plot; although arrested at the same time as ‘Big’ Dr Gurameto, the other “seemed to have evaporated like a ghost in front of their eyes”) become part of a wider concern with identity. The city itself has no clear identity: a large Greek population sits alongside its Albanians; some support the German occupiers, others await Communist liberation. Later it transpires that the German commander was not in fact an old friend of Dr Gurameto, but someone impersonating him for reasons which are never established.

This is revealed in the third and final part when the Soviet-backed state police arrest and torture Gurameto: how did he convince the Germans to release the hostages? That the torture takes place in a dungeon created one hundred and fifty years before by an Ottoman prince suggests the inevitability of it all. (Kadare also has retired Ottoman judges offering their services to every new regime). This is the novel’s strongest section as Kadare reveals the workings of the interrogators with great skill and one of them, Shaqo Menzini, is probably the most realised character in the novel.

By its very nature the novel can seem slightly sketchy. It delivers history in broad sweeps and its characters (including the central character of Dr Gurameto) seem only to matter as they intersect with the plot. The narrative voice itself is deliberately distancing, and no explanation is ever delivered for the events at the dinner party on the 16th September 1943. However, what Kadare offers us is a fascinating insight into war mentality, a mentality that continued into the cold war across Eastern Europe. As with all Kadare’s recent novels, there are no easy answers to these questions of the past.

The Accident

June 14, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Ismail Kadare

When Ismail Kadare won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005 it was a statement of intent: here was a writer largely unknown in the English speaking world, the kind of name that we normally associate with Nobel Prize (i.e. one we don’t know from a country we wouldn’t want to live in). Cannily, Canongate had recently signed Kadare and published his most recent novel The Successor with some success (sorry) in 2006. This was followed by reissues of some of his older work: the autobiographical Chronicle in Stone, the stories in Agamemnon’s Daughter, and the revised translations of The Siege (previously The Castle) and The Ghost Rider (previously Doruntine). The Accident (originally published in 2008) is Kadare’s first new novel since The Successor, and similarly takes the crime genre as its starting point.

The novel begins with the titular accident: an Albanian couple are killed when the taxi carrying them to the airport veers off then road. The cause is unclear:

“The driver admitted that nothing unusual had happened just before the accident, except perhaps that…in the rear-view mirror…maybe something had distracted him…the two passengers on the back seat had done nothing…nothing but…only…they…had tried …to kiss.”

The first part of the novel consists of the investigation into the accident, by the police, the European Road Safety Institute, the Serbian and Albanian secret services, and an unnamed researcher. The couple are Besfort Y, an analyst working for the Council of Europe, and Rovena, an intern at the Archaeological Institute of Vienna. Besfort is somehow implicated in the decision to bomb Serbia; a “quarrel over Israel” is also hinted at. Their relationship seems largely to consist of meeting in hotel rooms in various European cities. She is devoted to him but recently their relationship has changed: Rovena tells a friend that, “B. is trying to persuade me we don’t need each other anymore.”

“Our meetings are now in a new zone. It’s no exaggeration to say a different planet. Ruled by different laws. It has a chilly quality, frightening of course, but still I must admit it has its strange and attractive side.”

This ‘new zone’ includes treating Rovena “almost like a prostitute.” Rovena’s female lover (chosen so that Besfort will not become jealous) insists that she has been murdered:

“You could tell a mile of that he was the murderous kind. That dream of his, or rather his nightmare, about the Hague Tribunal showed that.”

(In Kadare, dreams are admissible in evidence) The perfect set up for a thriller, then. But Kadare is not interested in answers, only questions: they are not simply in the reader’s mind, but in the narrative itself (seven in the first brief chapter; six in the second, often following one after the other). The novel’s style might be summed up as follows:

“Dark surmises, grave suspicions, ambiguous phrases, obscure scraps of dialogue drawn from half-remembered phone conversations loomed out of the fog and vanished again.”

After the inconclusive investigation, the novel then moves into the realm of imagination to solve the mystery as the researcher imagines the last forty weeks of the couple’s lives. As we learn very little about their lives beyond their relationship, it is clear that the relationship is central to understanding the novel. Largely presented for Rovena’s point of view, Besfort remains an enigma – it is hardly surprising that she says, “I first got to know him through his back” and that their first rendezvous happens on a “day of fog and rain.” Their first taxi journey together has echoes of their last:

“I limply waited for him to kiss me, but this did not happen. He seemed even more dazed and absent than I was.”

Absent he certainly is as a character, almost a vacuum at the centre of the story. As a result of this we must take Rovena’s “crazy, inhuman desire to please” him on trust, accepting such clichés as, “Life with him was difficult, without him it was impossible” as accurately reflecting her feelings. We have some sympathy with the researcher when even his imagination gives up and:

“…the final week – usually the most keenly anticipated in a story of this kind – was omitted.”

For this novel to be regarded as successful it seems to me that one of two things must be assumed. Either it is to be interpreted as a fable (as with much of his work), perhaps exploring the relationship between a person and his or her country, and my lack of expertise in Balkan politics has prevented me from deciphering this. Or it is an examination of paranoia and the pointless interrogation of mysteries where none exist, and the researcher’s occult solution to being unable to arrive at the truth is in the spirit of satire. Neither explanation, however, do I find entirely satisfying.

Danger rating: By far Kadare’s most frustrating novel. If you have never read him before (and you should), better to start almost anywhere else. I would recommend The Successor or The Palace of Dreams.