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.
Since most of the corpses are now reduced to six or seven pounds of phosphorus and calcium, the decomposed remains are put in numbered blue nylon bags. Ironically, the only soldier’s corpse that was presented to the general...
Occasionally, history presents humanity with a bitter twist of events the intricacy of which seems to surpass the plotting of even the most skilled novelist or playwright; just such an occurrence appears to have happened in the case of the American reissue of Ismail Kadare’s first novel, Gjenerali i ushtrise se vdekur (1963; The General of the Dead Army, 1970). Kadare’s novel, which celebrates the fierce fighting spirit and the nationalistic, independence-minded pride of Albania’s Communist inhabitants, is offered to an English-speaking readership in the same year in which masses of desperate young Albanians fled to the shores of Italy, from which they were returned, sometimes at gunpoint, to a homeland still in the grip of hard-line Communism. Life has offered similarly drastic changes to the author himself, making him a political exile. As minister without portfolio under Albania’s late Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, Kadare was among the privileged few Albanians permitted to travel to the West; in 1990, he fled the new Communist regime to settle in France.
Yet for an American reader, the irony of history that is so closely linked to The General and the Dead Army does not stop there. Instead, the mission of the Italian general and his priest, with its goal of repatriating the remains of soldiers resting in hostile soil, conjures up stark memories of the United States’ plight in the aftermath of the Vietnam War—a parallel established at the end of Kadare’s novel as early as 1963, when the general ponders the difficulties that his American North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) colleagues “are facing in the jungles of Vietnam.”
With its painfully curious place in contemporary history, Kadare’s first novel derives its narrative strength and literary distinction from its structuring around the theme of the human price of war. Within this framework, the text gains special relevance by asking the challenging questions of how far guilt and shame for past actions, together with an inability to forgive, stand in the way of eventual reconciliation. Consequently, when the general and the priest land in Albania—the small Balkan country brutally invaded by Benito Mussolini’s forces in 1939 and used as a launching stage for a disastrous campaign against Greece in 1940—and are greeted by a handful of officials, their governments have hammered out a careful agreement that permits the Italians to search for, exhume, and bring home their men. Yet the relationships among the individual people of both nations, who all grieve for their war dead and harbor old hatreds for each other, are even more difficult to put together than a diplomatic treaty and cannot be sorted out with the same bureaucratic efficiency with which each individual set of remains is packed, catalogued, and stored in an Albanian warehouse before being shipped back home as one big, silent cargo.
As their small team begins its sad operations, the general’s sense of self-importance and his conception of his task in mythological rather than realistic terms is quickly washed away by the relentless rain of the November-gray Albanian countryside and the inherent ghoulishness of his more and more disquieting, monotonous, and frustrating task. Even though the general is aided by maps and lists that theoretically locate the wartime burial grounds and determine the identities of the men interred there, reality often throws up unexpected difficulties ranging from the cumbersome to the absurd, and the search becomes more and more drawn out as the weather deteriorates, in clear correspondence to the weakening of the general’s morale.
Returning his characters to the capital city of Tirana after a first tour through the battlefields of the past, Kadare uses this brief rest to demonstrate how differently the general and the priest try to come to terms with their morbid experience and the demise of the Italian army in Albania. In a clearly symbolic act that foreshadows the novel’s climax, the general is barred by the silent command of the preternaturally self-controlled priest from rejoining life, which is allegorically represented through the young couples who meet to dance in the basement of the hotel where the two foreigners are staying. Seeking solace in alcohol instead, the general becomes irritated by the abstemious, aloof, and disciplined priest. The general in turn suspects the priest of having an immoral sexual affair with the attractive widow of Colonel Z., whose rich and aristocratic family had sought out the two men before their...