The Albanian people trace their origins back to the Illyrians and have a rich oral tradition. In Kadare’s writing, he often portrays the past with the same immediacy as the present. Old stories allow him to remind Albanians of their cultural heritage while focusing on universal truths that outlive all political systems. Kadare sees himself primarily as a storyteller, as a modern Homer. Both he and the semilegendary Greek poet come from the same part of the world.
One of his most beautiful stories, “Kush e solli Doruntinën” (1980; “Doruntine,” 1988), is set one thousand years ago. The main character explores and rejects all possible logical explanations for a mysterious event, eventually coming to the startling conclusion that Doruntine was, in fact, brought home to her lonely mother by her dead brother, Constantine. When Constantine supported Doruntine’s engagement to a man who lived far away, Constantine gave their mother his word of honor that he would bring Doruntine back to visit, not knowing that he and his eight brothers would soon be killed in a war. Three years later, his word of honor, the besa, proves stronger than death itself. Doruntine remembers only a long ride through the night sky with her arms around a horseman who smelled of clay, and the earth on Constantine’s grave is freshly disturbed.
Kadare does not glorify the past. In Prilli i Thyer (1980; Broken April, 1990), he deals with the besa in a more realistic setting, showing how the northern Albanians’ unquestioning belief in the rules of the Kanun, the code of behavior passed down through the centuries, led to the continuation of blood feuds that took the lives of countless young men. In this, Kadare was in agreement with the Communist regime, which took measures to suppress the Kanun.
Kadare keeps details of brutality and torture to a minimum, and their scarcity makes his scenes of cruelty all the more memorable. Kadare’s description of the horrible human sacrifice in Ura me tri harqe (1978; The Three-Arched Bridge, 1995) has a historical basis and is obviously a topic that continues to occupy the thoughts of those who live in the region. Nobel Prize-winning author Ivo Andri told the story differently in Na Drini uprija, (1945; The Bridge on the Drina, 1959). With hindsight, the local people could see that the bridge built in Serbia in the 1360’s and 1370’s facilitated the invasion of the Turks and led to the Battle of Kosovo between Serbia and the Ottoman Empire in 1389, an event to which Kadare refers repeatedly in his works.
Aside from the historical significance of the tale, Kadare’s literary portrayal of the events surrounding the building of the bridge, as seen through the eyes of the monk, Gjon, is a good example of Kadare’s ability to set up an extremely complex situation and to show how people in every age feel insecure when they have only partial information, some of which seems to be misinformation. Gjon only begins to suspect the magnitude of the threat to Albania after the bridge is completed, by which time it is too late because the Turks are on the way. The reader can only empathize with Gjon, for when the master builder hands him the mathematical formulas used in the bridge’s construction, the monk has no idea what the symbols mean. Such is the human condition.
Ever since reading William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (pr. 1606, pb. 1623) when he was eleven, Kadare has been interested in carefully plotted murders, and the communist regimes of China and Albania provided him with two high-profile cases whose instigators took the secret details to their graves. In Koncert në Fund të Dimrit (1988; The Concert, 1994), Kadare deals with the rumors circulating around the death of Mao Zedong’s designated successor, Lin Biao, before writing a comparative analysis entitled “Macbeth’s Last Winter: Synopsis for Another Version of the Tragedy.” This is a brilliant piece of writing. Mao was against all Western literature, but Kadare shows that Mao’s plot to kill Lin Biao arose from similar feelings of paranoia and inferiority as those experienced by Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
In Pasardhësi, (2003; The Successor, 2005), written after the fall of communism, Kadare deals with the death of Enver Hoxha’s designated successor, Mehmet Shehu, under mysterious circumstances. In the final chapter, Shehu appears as a ghost who occasionally encounters the ghost of Lin Biao. Kadare is a writer at home in the past and the present, in this world and in the beyond.
The General of the Dead Army
First published: Gjenerali i ushtrisë së vdekur, 1963 (English translation, 1971)
Type of work: Novel
An unnamed general becomes increasingly disillusioned while on a mission to dig up the remains of his country’s soldiers who fell in action in Albania.
The General of the Dead Army was Kadare’s first novel and contains the distillate of his views on war. As a child, he saw his hometown, Gjirokastër, occupied by Italians, Greeks, and Germans during World War II; all of them eventually had to withdraw. However, Kadare does not write from the viewpoint of his own people, the Albanians, but from the viewpoint of a foreign general sent to Albania twenty years later to repatriate the bodies of his country’s fallen soldiers. There is still a lesson to be taught. As the general gradually learns of the invading forces’ ignominious actions, he is sickened by his senseless undertaking and, indeed, by war itself.
The exhumation of the dead soldiers is called into question in numerous ways. Soldiers honored their fallen comrades by burying them deep in the earth, so their corpses could not be eaten by dogs and jackals. Such graves were a labor of love, often dug at night using weapons as shovels. Why should the general disturb those graves? The fallen soldiers belong where they fell, with their comrades in arms. In flashbacks, Kadare shows soldiers deliberately “losing” their metal identification tags, even giving them away. The soldiers’ emphasis was on life, not on death....
(The entire section is 2560 words.)