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 in a coffin was turned down because he was not equipped to handle anything that large. The dead bodies cause another death, for although the remains were rigorously disinfected, the main grave digger, an elderly Albanian called Reiz, dies from a raging infection after getting a scratch on his hand.
The general is handed the diary of a deserter, a twenty-two-year-old who makes a compelling case for having chosen life as a farmhand over raping and hanging the villagers, whose homes his Iron Division was burning. The young man derived a sense of peace from the sight of the man-made canals that ran between the fields, and enjoyed seven months with a farming family before he was murdered by his own country’s Blue Battalion. By including the representative diary in chapter 11, Kadare presents an attractive alternative to war, an alternative that was chosen by hundreds of men who had come as invaders.
One of the bodies the general is supposed to find and repatriate is that of Colonel Z, whose family has erected a sumptuous marble tomb for him. According to his mother, Colonel Z had every virtue and was sensitive to beauty of every kind. In the course of the novel, however, it emerges that Colonel Z’s Blue Battalion committed countless atrocities. In the final year of the general’s search, he comes to the town where Colonel Z was last seen. Daytime inquiries yield no information, but in the evening the shameful truth comes to light. For unspeakable behavior, Colonel Z was murdered by a local woman, who hurls a sack of bones at the general’s feet. The general is no sooner safely out of the town than he kicks the sack into a fast-flowing river.
The General of the Dead Army is a thought-provoking novel and has been filmed twice, as Il generale dell’armata morte (1983), directed by Luciano Tovoli, and La Vie et rien d’autre (1989), directed by Bernard Tavernier.
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