Ismail Kadare

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Merle Rubin (review date 24 October 1990)

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SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Albanian Revenge.” Christian Science Monitor 82, no. 230 (24 October 1990): 14.

[In the following review, Rubin commends Kadare's lyrical prose in Broken April, asserting that the author “achieves a precise and delicate balance of wonder and horror, simplicity and irony.”]

A small, mountainous country on the eastern shores of the Adriatic, Albania was always one of the lesser-known places on the European subcontinent: a preserve of fierce mountain tribesmen whose exotic garb inspired Lord Byron to pose for a portrait in Albanian dress.

Modern Albania is still one of the last places on earth that Americans are not allowed to visit. Isolated from the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc ever since the Khruschev era, when it aligned itself with the People's Republic of China, Albania went its own way under the dictatorship of its long-time president, the late Enver Hoxha, who in 1967 ordered all its churches and mosques shut down to proclaim it an “atheist state.”

But, as is evident from the work of Albania's best-known writer, Ismail Kadare, old beliefs die hard—or they live on, beautifully, powerfully, and even perniciously, in customs, legends, and works of art.

In Broken April, Kadare portrays the intricate and chilling machinery of the centuries-old highland code of hospitality, honor, blood feuds, and revenge-killing known as the Kanun, which binds whole families and villages in elaborate cycles of regulated murder.

The story, set in the early part of this century, begins when Gjorg, a frightened young mountaineer, fulfills his family obligation by killing the man who caused the death of his older brother. It is the 17th of March. Following a month's official reprieve, known as a bessa, during which no one can take his life without incurring further penalties, Gjorg must either choose to wall himself up indefinitely in a windowless tower of refuge or continue in the living world as a moving target, marked for death by the family of the man he has killed. As of the 17th of April, his life will be changed utterly, and all for an accident that took place 70 years before, setting the chain of revenge in relentless motion.

While the desire for revenge sometimes seems “natural”—a common element in human nature, what Gjorg feels is not the kind of passionate outrage that provokes quick retribution, but rather, a sense of cold, leaden obligation: a burden that weighs heavily upon him.

The intensity of Gjorg's experience living so close to death and the somber shadow of the code that governs the lives of the people of the high plateau are freshly revealed, like mountains seen from a distance, by the introduction of two characters from the Albanian lowlands, a couple who are visiting the plateau on their honeymoon.

Bessian Vorpsi is a writer whose work displays the extent of his fascination with the kanun and the myths and customs of the highland. He is anxious to share its stark splendors with his bride, Diana. She is at once repelled by what she sees, yet more sensitive than her husband to its reality: the pain and fear. In some ways, her silent revulsion speaks more eloquently than his words.

The debate is continued later in the book, as Mark Ukacierra, the current “steward” in charge of overseeing blood feuds and collecting the heavy tax that goes with them, rails inwardly against Marxists and other “androgynous,” “degenerate” critics from the lowland cities, who claim that the blood feud is nothing but a capitalist enterprise carried on for the sake of profit.

Later still, we hear the voice of an...

(This entire section contains 818 words.)

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outraged doctor, who accuses the writer, Bessian, of exploiting—and falsely glamorizing—the human misery of the situation for the sake of his art: “‘Instead of doing something for these unfortunate mountaineers, you help death, you look for exalted themes, you look here for beauty so as to feed your art. You don't see that this is a beauty that kills. …’”

Kadare's writing combines the transparency of a fairy tale with the sophisticated understanding of a literary critic who has deconstructed and reconstructed whole libraries of folklore.

In Broken April, he achieves a precise and delicate balance of wonder and horror, simplicity and irony. Every viewpoint is given full, yet succinct, expression, so that the stark drama of the story is heightened rather than diminished by the presence of the spectators and commentators.

Born in a mountain village in 1936, Kadare is famous in his native land as a poet, critic, and novelist. Three other of his fictional works have been translated into English in the past few years: The General of the Dead Army,Chronicle in Stone, and Doruntine, prompting American reviewers to compare him with Dostoevsky, Marquez, and (less incongruously) Isak Dinesen. Certainly, he is an accomplished storyteller with a keen sense of literary history. His style (insofar as one can judge from a translation) has the force and seeming simplicity of strong poetry.


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Ismail Kadare 1936-

Albanian novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, critic, playwright, memoirist, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Kadare's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 52.

Kadare has been one of the most prominent Albanian writers since he first began publishing literary works in the 1960s. A prolific author who has composed poetry, short stories, and volumes of criticism in addition to his many highly regarded novels, Kadare is one of the few Albanian writers whose works have been translated and published in other countries. His novels and stories have been translated into over thirty languages and have seen an increasing amount of critical attention since the 1980s, particularly in France and the United States. In a country rigidly ruled by a Stalinist regime from the end of World War II until the early 1990s, Kadare's writings have stood out as some of the few examples of Albanian literature that did not follow the strictures of social realism, a genre devoted to propagating Marxist ideology. Instead, Kadare offers historical and contemporary tales that range from lyrical portraits of the Albanian people, drawing upon both the history and folklore of the culture, to scathing parodies of totalitarian rule. Although he was often praised as a champion of Albanian nationalism during the reign of Communist leader Enver Hoxha, Kadare did encounter difficulty with government censorship under Hoxha and his successor, Ramiz Alia. Citing increasing pressures and threats from Albania's secret police during the reign of Alia, Kadare sought political asylum in France and moved with his family to Paris in 1990.

Biographical Information

Kadare was born on January 28, 1936, in Gjirokastër, Albania, the same birthplace as Hoxha. The son of a civil servant, Kadare was raised during a period of tumultuous political struggle and the hardships of war—experience that would later resurface thematically in his fictional and autobiographical writings. Albania, a relatively new country, had declared independence from Turkish rule in 1912, and subsequently the small country found itself a target for several occupying forces, including the Italians during World War I and the Nazis during World War II. Hoxha's Stalinist government took control of Albania in 1944 and allied itself with the Soviet Union in the Warsaw Pact of 1955. After receiving his teaching degree from Tirana University in 1956, Kadare moved to Moscow to accept a scholarship to the Gorky Institute, where he studied world literature. Kadare was forced to leave Moscow in 1961 after Hoxha severed ties with the Soviet Union and formed an alliance with Communist China. In 1963 Kadare published his first novel Gjenerali i ushtrisë së vdekur (The General of the Dead Army)—an English translation was eventually published in 1971, making it the first Albanian novel ever published in the United States. The General of the Dead Army garnered significant attention in his homeland, particularly from Hoxha's tyrannical government. Although his works were under constant scrutiny, Kadare was appointed to the country's legislative body, the People's Assembly, in 1970. Due to his comfortable relationship with government officials as well as his leading role in Albanian literature, Kadare was given the rare privilege of being allowed to travel and publish outside of Albania, which led to increasing international exposure for his work. In 1975 Kadare's privileged position ended with the publication of “The Red Pashas,” a poem which satirized Albania's inefficient bureaucracy. He was subsequently forced into internal exile in a small central Albanian village and forbidden to publish his works. The ban ended in 1978 with the publication of Ura me tri harqe: triptik me një intermexo (The Three-Arched Bridge). After Hoxha's death in 1985, Kadare became a leader in the movement for democratic reform in Albania. Frustrated by the lack of democratic progress under the rule of Hoxha's successor, Alia, and concerned for his personal safety, Kadare sought asylum in France in 1990. Six months later, the Albanian dictatorship collapsed, and the era of Albanian Communism came to an end. Kadare has since divided his time between Paris and Albania, continuing to both write new works and assemble a comprehensive, multi-volume set of his collected works titled Œuvres: Tome onzième (1993-2002).

Major Works

Kadare's first major novel, The General of the Dead Army, follows an Italian general in the company of a laconic priest on a mission to Albania to recover the remains of soldiers who died some twenty years earlier during World War II. The general's search for the bodies of his former comrades reveals his need to discover his own self-identity, and his subsequent descent into madness reflects the absurdity of his mission and the guilt that stems from his participation in the war. In the 1970s, Kadare turned increasingly to historical prose, a decidedly safer genre in terms of negotiating with government censors. Reminiscent of Dino Buzzati's Il deserto dei Tatarti,Kështjella (1970; The Castle) is set during the fifteenth century in the age of the Albanian national hero Scanderbeg. In carefully composed detail, the novel depicts the siege of an Albanian fortress—symbolic of Albania as a whole—under attack by the Turks during one of their numerous punitive expeditions to subdue the country. As in The General of the Dead Army,The Castle is set in Albania, though narrated through the eyes of a foreigner—in this case, a Turkish pasha. Scholars have noted that Kadare's portrayal of the occupying Turks can be viewed as both historical fact and as a political allegory for the Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe at the time.

In 1971 Kadare published Kronikë në gur (Chronicle in Stone), a novel constructed of eighteen chapters and an epilogue, which chronicles life in the city of Gjirokastër during the Nazi occupation in World War II. Dimri i vetmisë së madh (1973) has been interpreted as Kadare's literary examination of the dramatic rupture between Albania and the Soviet Union in 1961. The principal character is Besnik Struga, a Tirana journalist, who finds himself assigned to the Albanian delegation to the USSR as an interpreter. In Moscow, Struga takes part in negotiations, receptions, and secret high-level talks, experiencing political intrigue and power politics first hand. With The Three-Arched Bridge, Kadare returns to the realm of Albanian mythology, utilizing one of the most sensational motifs in Balkan legendry—immurement. A suspenseful tale of murder and exploitation of ignorance set in medieval Albania, the narrative centers around a Catholic monk relating the discovery of a man entombed in a bridge's arch—the legend of a person being walled in during the construction of a bridge or castle is widespread in Albanian oral literature. Prilli i thyer (1980; Broken April) opens with a murder set in the 1930s. Gjorg Berisha, at the insistence of his family, has just killed his brother's murderer from the rival Kryeqyqe clan. The novel examines the rituals of vendetta in Albania, demonstrating how the ancient Code of Lekë Dukagjini has helped propagate generations of revenge killings in the country. Frequently compared to the works of Franz Kafka and George Orwell's 1984,Nëpunësi i pallatit të ënderrave (1980; The Palace of Dreams) remains as one of Kadare's most recognized works. Set in the Ottoman Empire, Mark-Alemi, scion of a noted family of public servants, is appointed to work for the Tabir Saraj, the government office responsible for the study of sleep and dreams. Mark-Alemi is charged with analyzing and categorizing the dreams and nightmares of the Sultan's subjects and interpreting them in order to enable the authorities to stifle any incipient rebellion or criminal acts.

In Nje dosje per Homerin (1980; The File on H.), two fictive Irish American scholars, Max Roth and Willy Norton, set off for the isolated mountains of pre-war northern Albania to search for the homeland of Homer and the epic verse of Greek mythology. The two folklorists are intent on investigating the possibility of a direct link between Homeric verse and the heroic songs sung by Albanian mountaineers on their one-stringed lahutas. The historical tale offers a satirical take on modern Albania's isolationist proclivities and the Balkan love of rumor and gossip. Similar in format and tone to Dimri i vetmisë së madh,Koncert në fund të dimrit (1988; The Concert) offers a fictional rumination on Albania's break with post-Maoist China in 1978. The novel Piramida (1992; The Pyramid) creates a historical and political allegory, decrying the pyramid-shaped “Enver Hoxha Museum” in Albania. Set in ancient Egypt, the plot follows the conception and building of the Cheops pyramid, noting the absurdity of the massive construction and how detrimental the project was to the Egyptian people. In 1998 Kadare published Tri këngë zie për Kosovën: Novela (Elegy for Kosovo), a series of three novellas, all set in different historical periods of the embattled Kosovar region. Lulet e ftohta të marsit (2000; Spring Flowers, Spring Frost) weaves Greek myth with modern-day events as Mark Gurabardhi, a minor government official, tries to understand the meaning of a series of murders and disappearances, all somehow tied to a secret cache of blackmail files left over from the Communist era. In addition to his fictional works, Kadare has released numerous collections of memoirs and criticism, which are largely focused on the author's Albanian heritage and the complexities of Albanian politics. Such works include Ftesë në studio (1990), Nga një dhjetor në tjetrin (1991; Albanian Spring), and Pesha e kryqit (1992).

Critical Reception

Kadare has developed an international reputation as Albania's most prominent writer, drawing wide acclaim for his insightful and poignant depictions of the Albanian people and their struggles under a totalitarian government. Scholars have commended Kadare's talent for social commentary and have praised the author's ability to construct trenchant political allegories, which frequently escaped the notice of government censors. For example, many have noted that Kadare's use of Albanian legend and history to parallel and comment on contemporary issues has been a particularly effective narrative technique. Kadare's prose has also been lauded for its ambitious social vision and staunch rejection of socialist realism. Robert Elsie has observed that, “[t]here can also be no doubt that [Kadare] has contributed more than any other author to the advancement of contemporary Albanian letters, both through his works and through his candid criticism of mediocrity and politically motivated stereotyping.” However, several commentators have debated Kadare's role as Albania's “national author,” with some arguing that Kadare benefited greatly during Albania's totalitarian rule and was afforded opportunities denied to most Albanian authors. Though such critics have labeled Kadare as a compromising political opportunist, a majority of reviewers have countered this argument, asserting that Kadare was simply adept at maneuvering past the Albanian bureaucracy and that his fame rests wholly on this quality of his prose.

Mark Falcoff (essay date winter 1991)

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SOURCE: Falcoff, Mark. “Notes from the Dark Side of the Moon.” World Affairs 153, no. 3 (winter 1991): 113-15.

[In the following essay, Falcoff characterizes Printemps albanais as a narrative reflecting the difficulties of writing under a totalitarian dictatorship.]

“You cannot imagine what a titanic task it is to produce real literature in what used to be called East bloc countries!” This was the way that Albania's greatest novelist, Ismail Kadaré, justified his decision in 1990 to abandon his country after three decades of playing cat-and-mouse with censors, rivals, and party “cultural” officers. Kadaré's decision struck at the very heart of the Albanian system, for he alone of its writers had won a serious reputation abroad and was one of the very few who was allowed to travel (for brief periods) to the West. (At the time of his defection he was, in fact, in France to promote the publication of his latest novel, Palace of Dreams.)

When asked by French journalists why he had chosen to leave “at the very moment that the regime has shown signs, however timid, of liberalization,” he replied, “In [the old] days, simply to produce good literature was a sufficient recompense.” While the frontiers between what one can and cannot write seem today to be “negotiable … in Albania I cannot cross them.”1 Those who were somewhat mystified by this remark can get a better idea of what lies behind it in Printemps albanais, a collage of memoirs, correspondence, and philosophical reflection. It is a book about Albania, but also about literature and the special problems of artistic creation under totalitarian dictatorship.

Although a novelist of enormous talent, Kadaré is still largely unknown in the West with the exception of Italy and France, where his work has regularly appeared in translation over the last twenty years. His first book, The General of the Dead Army (1963), appeared in France in the early 1970s; since then his other novels have appeared there in rapid succession. The general in question is an Italian officer sent by his government to Albania in the late 1950s to retrieve the remains of those soldiers hastily buried during Mussolini's unceremonious retreat in the winter of 1943-44. The mood is somber, as befits the subject, and the atmosphere of the book is strongly reminiscent of the policier noir, a genre perhaps best practiced in the English-speaking world by Graham Greene (Stamboul Train,The Comedians). The subject here serves Kadaré's purposes admirably: the general must travel the width and breadth of the country, aided only by rough sketches provided by surviving veterans or the battle records of the Italian Ministry of War. We see Albania, then, through the eyes of a foreigner—in this case, the general of a “dead army”—a device that permits Kadaré to make many comments about his country by skillful indirection. The novel thus achieves a double purpose: it develops the full literary possibilities of its macabre principal theme but also succeeds in describing the bleak, cheerless world that was Albania during the zenith of Enver Hoxha's rule. The book slipped by the censors and won considerable literary acclaim at home and abroad; in fact, as Kadaré told Le Monde in his most recent interview, the only serious criticism the novel received was his tendency to imbue the Italian officer with (to many Albanian readers) an unacceptable degree of empathy and humanity.

Since the appearance of The General of the Dead Army, Kadaré has published nearly a dozen other novels, including The Great Winter, which deals with Albania's break with the Soviet Union, and The Bridge with Three Arches, in which he returns to the device of his first novel, the foreign visitor: in this case, a group of foreign archaeologists excavating certain historic sites in the Albanian mountains. While he builds upon a native tradition of story telling, Kadaré's work is enriched by a firm grasp of the techniques of the twentieth-century European novel. His books are thus both “about” individual characters and also Albania itself, a literary landscape full of political minefields.

Was Kadaré a “dissident” writer? Not exactly. In Albania, during most of the period 1945-1990, that possibility simply did not exist. There were no publishing houses in the Albanian language outside of Albania itself; the Albanian reading public is largely confined to that country and corners of a small diaspora in Italy, France, and (one smaller still) in the United States and Canada. In order to write, Kadaré thus made something of a pact with the devil: serving as editor of the official review Albanian Letters and as a member of the Chamber of Deputies (“they needed a writer the way they needed workers, biologists, etc.”). By the time of his defection, he had access to a small car (a Volkswagen Golf), and was allowed to collect royalties from foreign translations (though only in kind—that is, the foreign currency was deposited by his French and Italian publishers in the account of the Albanian Writer's Union, and Kadaré allowed a few scarce items at a rate of exchange determined by the regime.) None of this saved him from periodic attacks by party hacks and cultural bureaucrats or recurrent bouts of censorship. As he puts it in Printemps albanais, “I had to develop my [art] under the dictatorship in its fullest flower, even in its very entrails, at the darkest point of the night.”

Kadaré thus worked both inside the system and within its interstices: that is the principal subject of Printemps albanais. Subordinate to it—but hardly less compelling—is the theme of totalitarianism in actual practice. Since lately we have been much told that “totalitarianism” (usually in quotation marks) probably never existed after all (save in the fevered imagination of certain “Cold Warriors” in the West), it is useful to have such rich reportage on the subject. What Kadaré does, in fact, is to map out some of the ways the Albanian variety intruded upon the simplest details of human existence. The list of prohibitions is long and depressing. Some of them were to be expected: the right of peasants to own livestock, for example, or of people to freely exchange goods and services. Others are frankly grotesque: forbidding young men to grow beards; people to call one another (the Albanian equivalent of) “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Miss”; gathering in places of amusement like cafés or even churches; dance parties, or even private love affairs! “The State,” Kadaré writes, “remains equally on guard against the exchange of private visits, especially invitations to dinner.”

You imagine I jest? [he continues]. The secretary of the Tirana branch of the party, P. Kondi, has criticized them on more than one occasion. (Some years before, his predecessor, P. Miska, an ex-chauffeur presently a member of the Politboro, cut the electrical current in the capital—justifying his decision for reasons of economy, but in reality to spoil private dinners.)

Perhaps the principal point Kadaré makes about the Albanian system is that its abysmal living standard was not the accidental product of policies poorly conceived or badly implemented but a deliberate device to suppress what the regime regarded as its greatest enemy—“normal life,” which it “disfigures … through enforced poverty, food rationing, substandard housing (logement précaire), voluntary labor on Sundays, endless meetings, military training.” Fortunately, such tactics are never wholly successful: in spite of its efforts to create a “new life,” a “new man,” the totalitarian state is never wholly successful.

Life itself, real life [Kadaré writes] raises its own resistance, slowly gathering up its response, preparing its counterattack.

In its battle, it exhausts itself, but it puts the dictatorship to a test as well. The dictatorship, it is true, is armed with a police, army, television, the classics of Marxist-Leninist thought. But life, real life, possesses an army of its own—infinite, if unorganized and anonymous. Its various hierarchies of rank include young women who in spite of their poverty, somehow manage to dress well and make themselves up according to the last fashion; men and women who find a way of dining with one another; individuals who address each other in normal speech, completely free of Marxist cliches; women who—invisible—and in spite of all the pressures of the party, appeals to class struggle, and to vigilance against the common enemy, are smitten and fallen in love; boys who get together for a drink or simply to while the time away; old men who make the sign of the cross; old women who feel sorry for one; people who whisper, as in New York or in Zurich, “Good heavens, how quickly winter has closed in!”

For the writer, of course, the struggle is rather more complicated, because as Kadaré notes, “dictatorship and true literature cannot exist except in one way—in a struggle against one another night and day.” While ordinary people can wage silent guerrilla warfare against the system, between literature and censorship the terms of the conflict are very different: the battle lines are too clearly demarcated. “To confront the dictatorship in these circumstances is actually a rather unremarkable attitude; to undertake dialogue with it is something scarcely less than heroic.” Here Kadaré is not merely justifying himself but explaining himself. “To confront the dictatorship is to be endangered by it and it alone; but to undertake dialogue with it is to expose oneself to threats not only from it, but from its most impatient opponents.” (“I found myself between Scylla and Charybdis: on the one hand, every day people were demanding a bit more of me; on the other, the State kept me under continuous surveillance.”) Kadaré did in fact engage in a series of conversations with Albanian President Enver Hoxha's successor Ramiz Alia in 1988 and 1989—described in some detail in the opening chapter. (There is also in a remarkable exchange of correspondence that is reproduced somewhat later in the book.)

Stated briefly, Kadaré imagined that “once a totalitarian regime accepted cohabitation with genuine literature, it would be the first indication of its readiness to correct itself (to humanize itself).” During the late 1980s, the first occurred, but not the second. Only later did he realize for that to happen, “one required a catalyst, a new dimension. That would have to be my ABSENCE.” Hence his decision, after a brief and disappointing thaw, to take refuge in France. It was an expensive, risky form of protest—to separate oneself from one's language, the source of one's literary inspiration, even the possibility of continued publication. But it was one that Kadaré obviously feels comfortable having undertaken and possibly the only one that any opponent of the regime could make with hope of having some impact. Whether that will prove to be so remains, of course, to be seen. Meanwhile, we have this rich and dramatic human testament.


  1. Le Monde, 26 October 1991.

Principal Works

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Frymezimet kjaloshare (poetry) 1954

Gjenerali i ushtërisë së vdekur [The General of the Dead Army] (novel) 1963

Qyteti i jugut (short stories) 1964

Dasma [The Wedding] (novel) 1967

Kështjella [The Castle] (novel) 1970

Kronikë në gur [Chronicle in Stone] (novel) 1971

Dimri i vetmisë së madh (novel) 1973

Nëntori i një kryeqyteti (novel) 1975; published in France as Novembre d'une capitale

Koha: vjersha dhe poema (poetry) 1976

Në muzeun e armëve: poemë (poetry) 1978

Ura me tri harqe: triptik me një intermexo [The Three-Arched Bridge] (novel) 1978

Poezi (poetry) 1979

Autobiografia e popullit në vargje [The Autobiography of the People in Verse] (nonfiction) 1980

Krushqit jane të ngrire (novel) 1980

Kus e solli Doruntinën [Doruntine] (novel) 1980

Nëpunësi i pallatit të ënderrave [The Palace of Dreams] (novel) 1980; published in France as Le palais des rêves

*Nje dosje per Homerin [The File on H.] (novel) 1980; published in France as Le dossier H.

Prilli i thyer [Broken April] (novel) 1980

Sjellesi i fatkeqesise (short stories) 1980

Viti i mbrapshtë (novel) 1980

Le crépuscule des dieux de la steppe (novel) 1981

Invitation à un concert official et autre récits (short stories) 1985

Nata me hënë (novel) 1985; published in France as Clair de lune

Koncert në fund të dimrit [The Concert] (novel) 1988

Eskili, ky humbës i madh (criticism) 1990

Ftesë në studio (essays and criticism) 1990

Ardhja e Migjenit në letërsinë shqipe (essays and criticism) 1991

Nga një dhjetor në tjetrin [Albanian Spring] (essays, criticism, memoirs, and correspondence) 1991; published in France as Printemps albanais

Përbindëshi (novel) 1991

Pesha e kryqit (memoir) 1992

Piramida [The Pyramid] (novel) 1992; published in France as La pyramide

Œuvres: Tome onzième. 11 vols. (novels, short stories, essays, criticism, poetry, correspondence, and memoirs) 1993-2002

Hija: shënime të një kineasti të dështuar (novel) 1994; published in France as L'ombre

Dialogue avec Alain Bosquet (memoir) 1995

Pallati i ëndrrave: versioni përfundimtar (novel) 1996

Shkaba (novel) 1996

Spiritus: roman me kaos, zblesë dhe çmërs (novel) 1996

Kasnecet e shiut (novel) 1997

Kushëriri i engjëvjve (novel) 1997

Poèmes, 1957-1997 (poetry) 1997

Kombi shqiptar në prag të mijëvjeçarit të tretë (novel) 1998

Tri këngë zie për Kosovën: Novela [Elegy for Kosovo] (novellas) 1998; published in the United Kingdom as Three Elegies for Kosovo; published in France as Trois chants funèbres pour le Kosovo

Ikja e shtërgut (short stories) 1999; published in France as L'envol du migrateur: Trois microromans

Qorrfermani (novel) 1999

Ra ky mort e u pamë: ditar për Kosovën, artikuj letra (essays and criticism) 1999

Vjedhja e gjumit mbretëror: Tregime (novel) 1999

Bisedë përmes hekurash [with Ukshin Hoti] (nonfiction) 2000

Brëznite e Hankonatëve: Roman (novel) 2000

Kohe barbare: Nga shqiperia ne Kosove [with Denis Fernandez-Recatala] (novel) 2000

Lulet e ftohta të marsit [Spring Flowers, Spring Frost] (novel) 2000; published in France as Froides fleurs d'avril,

Jeta, loja dhe vdekja e Lul Mazrekut (novel) 2002

Stinë e mërzitshme në Olymp: tragjedia e Prometheut dhe e një grupi hyjnish në 14 dukje (play) 2002

*Nje dosje per Homerin has also been published as Dosja H.

Robert Elsie (review date spring 1991)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of Broken April, by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 65, no. 2 (spring 1991): 343-44.

[In the following review, Elsie commends Kadare's contribution to contemporary Albanian letters with Broken April.]

When the writer Bessian Vorpsi announced the destination of his honeymoon to friends and acquaintances at a dinner party in Tirana, he was met by a stunned silence. His young bride Diana was taken aback as well at the thought of spending a holiday on a desolate plateau of the northern Albanian Alps. Would not the sparkling beaches of the Albanian Riviera or Italy or even France have been more appropriate for protagonists of the upper middle class of prewar Albania's burgeoning little capital? Some friends could understand that Bessian, as a writer, was fascinated by the prospects of a journey by car into the past, among the feudal and feuding mountain tribes of the north, a primitive society as yet untouched by modern civilization. But what of his poor bride Diana? The more adventuresome envied her too: “You'll be escaping the world of reality for the world of legend, literally the world of epic that scarcely exists anymore.”

Take 2: a murder. Gjorg Berisha has accomplished what all his family and relatives insisted he must do: cleanse his honor by slaying his brother's murderer from the rival Kryeqyqe clan. There was no way out of the bloody rituals of vendetta, anchored in the ancient Canon of Lek Dukagjin. Whole families had been wiped out in the “taking of blood,” and now he too was obliged to follow suit, only to set himself up as the next victim. Everything was regulated by tribal law, including the thirty-day truce during which he would be allowed to spend his last days out in the sunlight and during which he would have to journey through the mountains to submit “blood money” to the feudal geheja e gjakut (blood steward), keeper of the records. It was on Gjorg's journey to the bleak fortress of Orosh that he was startled to see one of the rare horseless carriages he had heard of, a vehicle conveying a beautiful young lady from the city. Diana too had not failed to notice the young tribesman on their way to the “Inn of the Two Roberts.” Inevitably, Bessian's morbid fascination with the bloody custom and Diana's erotic attraction to Gjorg, a growing obsession which draws her indeed into the other world, lead to the couple's estrangement.

Though the plot is set in the 1930s, Broken April (originally published in 1980 as Prilli i thyer) has little to do with Ismail Kadare's other well-known novels of twentieth-century Albania: Gjenerali i ushtrisë së vdekur (1961; Eng. The General of the Dead Army; see BA 46:1, p. 162), Kronikë në gur (1971; Eng. Chronicle in Stone; see WLT 61:4, p. 668), Dimri i madh (The Great Winter; 1977; see WLT 62:3, p. 493), and Koncert në fund të dimrit (Concert at the End of Winter; 1988; see WLT 63:2, p. 347). It must rather be ranked among the author's cycle of medieval tales (Albanian historians utilize the term medieval rather liberally to include events well into the eighteenth century), in which myth and legend mingle with the harsh realities of Albanian history. Among the latter novels are Kështjella (The Castle; 1970), Ura me tri harqe (The Three-Arched Bridge; 1978), and Kush e solli Doruntinën (1980; Eng. Doruntine; see WLT 61:2, p. 332). Despite its medieval flavor, Broken April focuses on a timeless institution, one which has been endemic to the northern Albanian tribes until quite recently. In neighboring Kosova there have been virtually thousands of families discreetly entrapped in these bloody rites to this very day, though deprived of all the romantic frills of a “blood steward,” et cetera. The antivendetta campaign there, led by prominent Kosova Albanian intellectuals, has recently resulted in the “pacification” of more than nine hundred blood feuds.

Over the last thirty years Ismail Kadare (see, this issue, pp. 256-63, and WLT 58:1, pp. 40-42) has invited the reader on many a fascinating journey into curious episodes of Albanian history and into the more exotic aspects of its little-known culture. There can also be no doubt that he has contributed more than any other author to the advancement of contemporary Albanian letters, both through his works and through his candid criticism of mediocrity and politically motivated stereotyping. He has clashed publicly on several occasions in recent years with the critic Koço Bihiku, protagonist of an orthodox socialist realism, and has accused Albanian critics in general of impeding literary creativity. Most Albanian intellectuals agree with him, many of them openly now. If anyone can bring about a revolution in Albanian literature from within the political system, it will be Ismail Kadare.

Bettina L. Knapp (review date spring 1991)

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SOURCE: Knapp, Bettina L. Review of Le palais des rêves, by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 65, no. 2 (spring 1991): 344.

[In the following review, Knapp considers the balance of humorous and serious subject material in Le palais des rêves.]

Ismail Kadare, the prolific Albanian author of poems, short-story collections, and novels, has just had his fifteenth work translated into French. Published in Albania in 1981, Le palais des rêves, one of his finest works, made waves. Was it derisive? Satiric? A subtle way of condemning the communist vision of an automated society? Could it have been a warning against the institutionalization of groups of psychological clones? Was it a plea for individuality? Whatever Kadare's intent, the novel is humorous. It is, nevertheless, to be taken seriously. Forces of regression exist in each society, people who seek to smother the free-flowing thoughts of others. Although written with tongue in cheek, The Palace of Dreams teaches awareness.

Kadare's novel begins in a most auspicious manner: Mark-Alem, son of an illustrious family that has served the state for many generations, awakens one morning in his warm and comfortable home. His aged mother and his old nurse greet him as he takes his breakfast, then proceeds to the library, and finally leaves for his new job. He has just been appointed to the Tabir Sarrail, the well-known bureau whose function it is to study sleep and dreams. Such an occupation might have drawn a smile from those living outside the Imperial State where the action takes place, but no so in Mark-Alem's case.

Since time immemorial dreams have been studied and classified according to specific criteria: premonitory, prodromal, hypnagogic, or apocalyptic. The state-run organization where Mark-Alem is employed is in charge of studying the significance of these messages from the deep. Under its aegis, dreams have become institutionalized. By analyzing the thousands of dreams of sleeping people, government officials discover those hidden pearls that lead them to incipient rebellions, cataclysms, robberies, poisonings, murders—all types of evils that plague humankind. Thus can these be prevented. No dream, therefore, even that of the peasant neglected by Allah and living in the remotest areas of the country, is rejected. Painstakingly, and day after day, Mark-Alem reads dreams and issues value judgments on those he believes to be significant. He must also separate those that might have been invented—and are therefore useless—from those which are true and thus important to the government. Once this task is completed, the controller separates dreams into groups, thematizing them. As the files increase in size and the notations become more and more complex, Mark-Alem's work takes on demanding proportions. Master dreams are viewed as of extreme importance. Some, usually coming from the European section of the empire, are so complex that he must read them three or four times to penetrate their meanings fully. Panic strikes him. What if he should err in his interpretation of dreams?

I shall refrain from revealing Kadare's ingenious plot so as not to spoil either the author's excitingly fanciful Kafkaesque meanderings or the capricious nature of his badinage.

Further Reading

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Altinel, Savkar. “Required Revenges.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4575 (7-13 December 1990): 1327.

Altinel views Broken April not only as a poignant novel but also as a “powerful allegory about pre-Communist Albania.”

Daniels, A. M. “Protests of a Protégé.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4824 (15 September 1995): 28.

Daniels maintains that Kadare's autobiographical Albanian Spring is “less than frank, and its denunciation of dictatorship less than unequivocal.”

Duplain, Julian. “Satellite Lives.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4774 (30 September 1994): 23.

Duplain offers a positive assessment of The Concert, contending that the work “is a study of how it feels to be terrifyingly near to a very large power, and yet find it incomprehensible.”

MacPherson, Hugh. “New Order, Old Ballad.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4977 (21 August 1998): 22.

MacPherson analyzes Kadare's narrative technique in The Three-Arched Bridge.

Marx, Bill. “Albanian Dissonance.” Nation 259, no. 21 (19 December 1994): 773-74.

Marx traces the publication of Kadare's novels in the United States and characterizes The Concert as “an arresting hodgepodge of nationalistic sentiment, melodrama, political parable and bitter slapstick.”

Miron, Susan. “Central and East European Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 61, no. 4 (fall 1994): 643-56.

Miron examines The Palace of Dreams in light of its status as a banned book in Kadare's native Albania.

Walters, Colin. Review of The Palace of Dreams, by Ismail Kadare. Insight on the News 9, no. 40 (4 October 1993): 34-6.

Walters praises Kadare's vivid depiction of coming of age in a totalitarian society in The Palace of Dreams but faults the novel's lack of complex secondary characters.

Additional coverage of Kadare's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 161; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 52; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; and Reference Guide to World Literature, Ed. 3.

Robert Elsie (review date summer 1991)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of Dosja H., by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 65, no. 3 (summer 1991): 529-30.

[In the following review, Elsie lauds Dosja H. as a “delightful satire” about two foreigners exploring Albanian history and culture.]

In 1953 Milman Parry and Albert Lord caught the attention of the academy world with the publication of their “Serbo-Croatian heroic songs,” which demonstrated that the Homeric tradition of epic verse was still alive and well in the Balkans. Their Sandjak bard Salih Ugljanin (b. 1866) was quite capable of reciting hours of Serbo-Croatian and Albanian epic verse on heroic deeds of times past.

The origins of epic verse in the Balkans are rather mysterious and controversial. To the outside observer it is of little consequence whether the Albanian këngë kreshnikesh took their inspiration from the better-known Serbo-Croatian junačke pjesme or vice versa, but for scholars from the Balkans, many of whom still delight in the nationalist “I got there first” syndrome, the historical origins of all cultural phenomena can be of explosive political significance. The heartland of the epic bards seems to have been the mountainous terrain of Bosnia, the Sandjak of Novi Pazar, Montenegro, and northern Albania, although most of the Albanian epic fragments are situated curiously enough in Jutbinë (Udbina), fifty kilometers northeast of Zadar in Croatia. Another question which has been raised is that of a possible link between this Balkan heroic verse and the venerable epics of the ancient Greeks. Has the Homeric epic found its last scion in the heroic and epic poetry still sung by the Albanians and southern Slavs? It is a hypothesis which has particularly fascinated the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare.

In the novel Dosja H (The H Dossier) two fictive Irish-American scholars, Max Roth and Willy Norton, set off for the isolated mountains of prewar northern Albania, tape recorder in hand, in search of the homeland of the epic. The two folklorists are intent on investigating the possibility of a direct link between Homeric verse and the heroic songs declaimed by the aloof Albanian mountaineers on their one-string “lahutas.” The field trip is somewhat of a puzzle to the Albanian authorities, in particular to the subprefect of the region, who, just to be on the safe side, seconds the bumbling secret agent in the figure of Dullë Baxhaja, to observe and report on their activities and movements. The subprefect's wife Daisy, reminiscent of Diana Vorpsi in Broken April (see WLT 65:2, p. 343), is equally fascinated by the presence of the two male scholars. Suspicion is soon to arise among the native population that the intruders from abroad are indeed spies. Their quarters at the Buffalo Bone Inn are eventually ransacked, and the recording equipment which had captured their voices is destroyed. End of mission to Albania.

Dosja H, already available in the masterful French translation of Jusuf Vrioni as Le dossier H (1989) as well as in Swedish and Greek, is a delightful satire on two innocent foreigners endeavoring to fathom the Albanian soul and, in particular, on the foibles of Albanian life at which foreign visitors often marvel: the Balkan love of rumors and gossip, administrative incompetence, and a childish fear or suspicion on the part of the authorities of everything foreign. By placing his tale in the 1930s once again, Kadare is able to take a safe sideswipe at his country's isolationist proclivities and at the bungling interference of the security apparatus in all spheres of contemporary life.

Robert Elsie (review date autumn 1991)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of The General of the Dead Army, by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 65, no. 4 (autumn 1991): 746-47.

[In the following review, Elsie praises Kadare's revolutionary narrative in The General of the Dead Army, maintaining that the novel “marked the birth of contemporary Albanian prose.”]

“Like a proud and solitary bird, you will fly over those silent and tragic mountains in order to wrest our poor young men from their jagged, rocky grip.” Such was the vision of the Italian general in the company of a laconic priest on his mission to Albania to recuperate the remains of his soldiers who had fallen some twenty years earlier. He began his duties with a sense of grandeur befitting his rank: “In the task he was now undertaking there was something of the majesty of the Greeks and the Trojans, of the solemnity of Homeric funeral rites.” The general found himself in a somber, rainy country with a sullen and resentful populace as he set about his noble task of exhuming the bones of a dispersed army from Albania's muddy soil. Gradually, though inevitably, the general is confronted with the grim realities of the past and haunted by the futility of his mission. His lofty intentions have long since become a personal nightmare when the bones of the infamous Colonel Z are thrown at his feet by a deranged old woman.

The rain which streams down the windshield of the military vehicle put at the general's disposal is a common metaphor in Ismail Kadare's prose and in his innovative verse. At the time of the novel's original publication in Tirana in 1963 this constant downpour and many other features made The General of the Dead Army (Alb. Gjenerali i ushtrisë së vdekur) a step forward in Albanian letters. Gray storm clouds, mud, and the humdrum reality of everyday life contrasted sharply with the otherwise obligatory sunshine and blithe victories of socialist realism. So did the Italian general. Here too we find a favorite device of the Albanian writer who, more than any other, brought his country's literature out of its stylistic and thematic lethargy, that of a remote and haunted Albania as seen through the eyes of the innocent or uncomprehending foreigner. This optic not only gave contour to a European country which at the time was more isolated from the Western world than was Tibet, but also helped Albanians themselves see their homeland as others might. This novel, still one of Kadare's best, marked the birth of contemporary Albanian prose. In 1961 Albania had broken with the Soviet Union and thus with Soviet literary models of the period. Though relations had ostensibly been severed to save socialism and socialist realism, the more daring writers of the age—Kadare, the short-story writer Dritëro Agolli (b. 1931), and the poet Fatos Arapi (b. 1930), who had all studied in the Soviet bloc—took advantage of the event to free Albanian literature of some of the political restraints which had been imposed upon it. The General of the Dead Army was one of the main fruits of this subtle revolt.

In 1970, after an emended edition (1967) of the Albanian original, The General of the Dead Army was translated into French by the talented Jusuf Vrioni, who had spent twelve years in prison after the war before being allowed to work, and from the French into English the following year. Republication this year is a significant addition to New Amsterdam's Kadare program. Although one would and should normally decry such double translations in the field of literature, it must in all fairness be noted that Vrioni's French-language versions of many of Kadare's novels flow much more elegantly than do the Albanian originals. A number of these prose works were indeed published in French long before the Albanian-speaking public ever had access to them. If Kadare has always had an eye toward the foreign reader, it is nevertheless among his compatriots that he has stirred the strongest emotions: unbounded admiration for his role as the “prince of the nation” for whom loftier duties are said to be at hand, savior of a country and culture in peril, but at the same time misgivings and enmity among intellectuals caused by the memory of many a Machiavellian move in his past. Survival has never been easy in Albania.

Though he was a political conformist—and who could blame him for it at the time?—Kadare was and remained a dissident in domestic literary theory and a giant among Albanian novelists. His close relationship with Enver Hoxha enabled him to give full expression to his creative talents, to transcend the narrow confines of what was then politically acceptable in Albanian letters, and he survived where others failed.

Robert Elsie (review date winter 1992)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of Ftesë në studio,Printemps albanais, and Nga një dhjetor në tjetrin, by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 66, no. 1 (winter 1992): 180.

[In the following review, Elsie offers critical readings of Ftesë në studio, Printemps albanais, and Nga një dhjetor në tjetrin, asserting that the volumes function as Kadare's literary reaction to the tumultuous political events in Albania in 1990 and 1991.]

Eastern Europe breathed a sigh of relief when Joseph Stalin died in 1953. In Albania, incredible as it may now seem in retrospect, even to Albanians themselves, orthodox Stalinism survived unscathed and unabated for a further thirty-seven years, bequeathing the country with a sub-Saharan economy, little intellectual leadership, and a culture in ruins. For the first time in their lives Albanian writers now have freedom of expression, and many are not entirely certain how to deal with it. It is no wonder that political journalism has become the immediate outlet of artistic creativity in this age of national calamity. Despite his doubtless sincere wish to be nothing but a writer, Ismail Kadare too has turned to offer a personal literary digestion of the dramatic political upheaval which finally took place in Albania in 1990-91.

Ftesë në studio (Invitation to the Studio) was Kadare's last publication in Tiranë before his departure in the autumn of 1990. It contains a selection of thirty-two poems by the author, who has otherwise neglected this genre in recent years; verse translations from the Greek, Chinese, French, Romanian, and Russian; and, most important, a series of reflections on literature and the arts and current events. As Tiranë literature went, Ftesë në studio was extraordinarily candid at the time of publication and broke many a taboo. It is a subjective account, which the author also takes advantage of to settle some old scores with rival writers such as B. Xh. (Bilal Xhaferi, who managed to flee to the United States) and K. R. (Kapllan Resuli), K. T. (Kasem Trebeshina) and A. P. (Arshi Pipa), all of whom spent long years in prison camps. One wonders at times at the depth of Kadare's Gjirokastrian vindictiveness. Trebeshina he calls a “mediocre writer but with boundless ambition,” and Pipa “diabolical; to his misfortune mediocre; a denunciator; an absolute spy; an old hyena; a new Salieri; for whom the name Arshi Pipić, when the final consonant is removed, would be a more accurate description of the short unpleasant noise he makes in this life.”

Printemps albanais (Albanian Spring) follows where Ftesë në studio left off. At the end of October 1990, a mere two months before the final collapse of the dictatorship, Kadare applied for political asylum in Paris. Here the literary “prince of the nation” completed a personal chronicle of events covering the transitional period from December 1989 to December 1990. Published in Paris in February 1991 together with the Albanian-language version, entitled Nga një dhjetor në tjetrin (From One December to Another), it is the serious first work of its genre in Albanian literature. Kadar begins, “These are the notes of a writer, and although the events in question have nothing to do with literature, they should be read from this perspective only. Seen otherwise, they could give a false impression, like a pair of glasses found by chance which rarely fit the eyes of the person who finds them.”

The decisive twelve months in question were marked in particular by the initial panic caused among the “red aristocracy” by the execution of Nicolae Ceauşescu in December 1989 and by the wave of emigration via the German, Italian, and French embassies in July 1990, the straw that finally broke the camel's back. Kadare also publishes his correspondence with President Ramiz Alia in May 1990 as his contribution to the Albanian spring which followed a great winter. The second part of the book contains reflections on the tenacious Stalinist regime in Albania and on the nature of dictatorship in general.

Though his merit in raising the level of Albanian literature is incontestable, many observers at home and abroad—among them Ardian Klosi, one of Tiranë's most genuinely critical voices—have been questioning whether the former court poet of the regime and pet writer of Enver Hoxha was actually the closet dissident he would have one believe he was. It would, however, be too facile for foreign critics to endeavor to pass judgment on anyone who survived the horror and brutality of the Hoxha regime. The specter of Václav Havel need not torment Ismail Kadare. Albania was never Czechoslovakia, where remnants of civilization lingered throughout the decades of dictatorship.

The tone of Printemps albanais is at times whiny and at times acrimonious. Again it is not devoid of the “below the belt” polemics and petty vendettas noted in Ftesë në studio. It is, at any rate, fascinating reading for anyone interested in modern Albania, and this, in the final analysis, is all that counts. (On Kadare and the 1989-90 events in Albania, see WLT 65:2, pp. 256-63.)

Robert Elsie (review date spring 1992)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of Përbindëshi, by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 66, no. 2 (spring 1992): 384.

[In the following review, Elsie compliments Kadare's insightful political metaphors in Përbindëshi, noting that the novel was “an unusual publication for the Albanian literature of socialist realism of the sixties.”]

Ismail Kadare, the scion of a small nation in which reality has often been difficult to stomach, has shown a long-standing predilection for impregnating his own reality with haunting legendry. The novel Kus e solli Doruntinën? (1980; Eng. Doruntine, 1988; see WLT 61:2, p. 332) transposes the Albanian legend of little Constantine and his sister Doruntine into a medieval whodunit. Ura me tri harqe (The Three-Arched Bridge; 1978), of which an English translation will soon be on the market, focuses on the much grimmer Balkan tale of immurement.

Përbindëshi (The Monster) is Kadare's most recent flirt with legendry and, at the same time, one of his earliest prose works. The Albanian original of the novel was first published in 1965 in volume 12 of the official Tiranë literary journal Nëntori (November), shortly after the author's initial success with the novel Gjenerali i ushtrisë së vdekur (1963; Eng. The General of the Dead Army, 1990; see WLT 65:4, p. 746). The Monster was soon, however, to fall victim to Stalinist censorship, as the writer tells us: “An article vilifying The Monster sufficed to exclude this tale from Albanian literature. It was savagely flogged, forbidden, and buried so deeply that it would take me over a quarter of a century to exhume it.”

The monster in question is none other than the Trojan horse before the gates of sacred Ilium, though here it is a monster in a time warp. The fall of ancient Troy takes place both in the future and in the past of its characters. At times they remain unaltered while Troy transforms itself before their very eyes, changing form to become a modern city with cafés, an airport, et cetera. At other times, it is the city which stays put while the characters change, traversing different phases to metamorphose into figures of our time. This distortion of time, without the Joycean stream of consciousness, was quite enough to unnerve Stalinist censors, who were petrified at the very thought of possible political allusions, and the novel was conveniently forgotten. Who could blame the authorities for suspecting that the tale of the insidious conquest of Troy might, in the final analysis, be more about Albania than anything else?

The Monster was, needless to say, an unusual publication for the Albanian literature of socialist realism of the sixties. Now, after republication of the novel in Prizren in 1990 and in Tiranë in 1991 in an amended version which purges it of some of the infelicities of style which mark Kadare's early works, the assiduous Jusuf Vrioni has come out with another impeccable French translation, giving the international public access to what in many respects remains one of Ismail Kadare's most curious books.

Robert Elsie (review date spring 1992)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of Pesha e kryqit, by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 66, no. 2 (spring 1992): 384-85.

[In the following review, Elsie evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Pesha e kryqit, arguing that the volume lacks Kadare's traditional “loftier vision of things.”]

In no other city of Albania has the fight for survival been harder than in rocky Gjirokastër near the Greek border. If Korçë in the southeast was blessed with a relative degree of prosperity (in Albanian terms) and Shkodër in the north knew how to survive the buffets of fate with a certain Mediterranean levity and nonchalance, Gjirokastër epitomized the struggle and severity of being. This struggle is ingrained in the Gjirokastrian mentality. Its people are go-getters, competitive and successful and perhaps, as their detractors note, somewhat less generous and hospitable than elsewhere—not as bujar, as the Albanians would say.

Gjirokastër on the mountainside under the glaring southern sun has given birth to two figures of note, who, though vastly different in their activities and talents, have set indelible marks on twentieth-century Albania: the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha (1908-85) and the writer Ismail Kadare (b. 1936), born a mere two hundred meters from each other in houses, as Kadare tells us, linked by a street called Sokaku i të Marrëve (Alley of the Insane).

Pesha e kryqit (The Weight of the Cross) is Kadare's second work published in Parisian exile. It was originally conceived of as an appendix to Ftesë në studio (Invitation to the Studio; 1990; see WLT 66:1, p. 180) and, no doubt for this reason, the two works are published together in the French-language edition here. These two volumes plus Nga një dhjetor në tjetrin (From One December to Another; Fr. Printemps albanais; 1991; see WLT 66:1 p. 180) constitute, at any rate, a sort of politico-literary trilogy. Although Pesha e kryqit is no less spiteful and acrimonious than the earlier two works, it does, at the same time, reveal many other facets of Kadare's personality, in particular his personal anguish and suffering during the direful years of living hell for Albanian intellectuals. It is the autobiography of a novelist under Stalinism who managed to publish his works but was never really certain what reaction the demigods of the Politburo, and in particular the Omnipotent himself, would take. Though it was Gjenerali i ushtrisë së vdekur (1963; Eng. The General of the Dead Army, 1990; see WLT 65:1, p. 746) which brought Kadare international fame, he tells us quite convincingly that it was Dimri i madh (The Great Winter; 1977; see WLT 62:3, p. 493) which ensured his physical survival. Enver Hoxha appreciated the portrait made of him in The Great Winter and did not wish to jeopardize it. Kadare's liquidation would have been incompatible with the survival of the novel, a friend of the writer notes. Some of Kadare's other works never saw the light of day at all and are only now being discovered.

Albanians look up to Ismail Kadare as the literary “prince of the nation” in the hope that he can give written expression to the trauma which they endured for almost half a century and which will linger on with them for many years to come. Indeed, Kadare has succeeded in casting light on the inconceivably grim realities of “people's power,” though in a highly personal and subjective manner.

What the critical reader will miss in the present work is a loftier vision of things. This is what separates Pesha e kryqit from the classics of East European liberation literature. The world of Kadare remains focused entirely on the personal dichotomy he creates between his “friends” and his “sworn enemies.” Nowhere does he make reference to the wounded soul of the nation, to the weight of the cross borne by his people during forty-six years of mute horror, or even to the much more concrete agony of many of his fellow writers and artists. He is at all moments too obsessed—and can one blame him?—with his own survival. Only time will tell if Kadare can extricate himself from his personal trauma and use his eloquent voice and talent to express what still must be said.

John Kolsti (review date February 1993)

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SOURCE: Kolsti, John. Review of Broken April, by Ismail Kadare. International Journal of Middle East Studies 25, no. 1 (February 1993): 153-55.

[In the following review, Kolsti considers Broken April to be a unique work in Kadare's oeuvre, lauding the novel's effective political commentary.]

This is a tale simply told about broken time. Kadare takes the reader into the shadow world of the Roman Catholic clans of the north Albanian mountains. In this kingdom of death, time is measured by twenty-four-hour or thirty-day truces between families senselessly caught up in the kanun, a centuries-old code that regulates killing as well as everyday life. In The General of the Dead Army (1963), which brought Kadare international recognition, the observations of an Italian priest provide a preview of how he will blend the laws of the kanun with the personal and family tragedies they trigger.

The vendetta is often set in motion without the slightest passion behind it, solely in order to conform with tradition. And even when the avenger kills his victim he is doing no more than obeying a clause of unwritten law. And so these time-honored and unspoken rules go on twisting themselves around these people's legs throughout their lives, until the day comes when they inevitably trip them up. And so it is true to say that for centuries now the Albanians have been acting out a blood-thirsty and tragic play.

Broken April ends with the killing of Gjorg Berisha, who for thirty days had been marked for death, like a tree marked for felling, by the black ribbon on his right sleeve prescribed by the code.

The kanun of Lekë Dukagjin—a contemporary of Albania's national hero, Skanderbeg, and the patriarchal society it helped shape—have been idealized by 19th-century writers like Mark Milanov (Milani, in Albanian) in Montenegro, Albania's own cultural “Awakeners,” and foreign travelers like Edith Durham. Life in remote, some say “pure,” Albanian Catholic districts along the Montenegrin border has especially intrigued Orthodox and Muslim Albanians of the south who did not avoid Serbian, Ottoman, Greek, and Italian occupation, to say nothing of King Zog's rule in the 1930s, during which the murders that frame the novel are set. Kadare, who was born in 1936 in the southern town of Gjirokastër and began writing poetry in the mid-1950s, has turned his attention in his novels more than once to the Albanian Alps, not unlike the writer Vopsi in Broken April who sets out from Tiranë on 17 March in a hearse-like carriage with his bride up into the almost mythic world of epic songs and ballads to show her a world which exists, she discovers, for the most part in his imagination. She and we have only a fleeting glance at the pale face of Gjorg Berisha as the carriage continues on its way to the castle of Orosh, to which the murderer, true to tradition, had just walked to pay the blood-tax required by the code. “Several times she wiped away the mist that her breath left upon the glass, but it condensed again at once as if anxious to draw a curtain between them” (p. 110). It is in the mind of the steward of the blood, a relative of the prince of Orosh, not through the eyes of the honeymoon couple, that Kadare gives the reader a brief lesson on the dark side of the kanun.

Mark Ukacierra, the steward of the blood, wonders why the prince of Orosh seems to hold him personally responsible for the reduced revenues generated by the blood-tax, revenues from the fields of death whose barrenness has become a cause for alarm. As Ukacierra examines figures in the ledger book dating from the 17th century he broods over the presence of the woman from Tiranë in the castle, an “evil” woman outside the rules of the code who is for him yet another sign of “an ill wind blowing from afar, from the cities and the low country that had long ago lost their virility, that was trying to stain and infect the high country too” (p. 134). So strong had the wind become, that if Gjorg Berisha had not killed on 17 March, Ukacierra thought, that date would have marked the first day without killing perhaps from the origin of the vendetta among the mountaineers. Thinking of that day “he felt that if that day had really passed as it very nearly had, all of that mill of death, its wheels, its heavy millstones, its many springs and gears, would make an ominous grating sound, would shake from top to bottom, and break and smash into a thousand pieces” (pp. 153-54). Kadare remains vague on the time of the beginning of the blood feuds, or on whether the kanun preserved a way of life threatened from the outside or destroyed it from within. He allows only the thoughts of the steward of the blood to penetrate the mists that shielded the traditions bound up with the code from the outside world. He weaves many of the kanun's rules of killing and living into his tale of two journeys to the end of time—the Vopsis leave the mountains on 17 April—but the code remains for the most part a mystery, and the bride remains silent over her reckless act of entering one of the many stone buildings, towers of refuge, set aside by the clans to shelter killers marked for death, who wander the highlands only at night. King Zog's Albania is even less visible in this novel. Tiranë is scarcely mentioned by name, and there is only one mention of a cathedral visited by Gjorg Berisha in Shkodër, the ancient capital of the Albanians of the north. Only the carriage with black velvet seats that Gjorg tries to see again before the end of time and the plane that flies once a week from Tiranë to a country “far away in Europe” take the killer's mind off his playing the part of a fool in order to appease his father and family and the local priest, a custodian of the kanun.

In Broken April, which takes us into the fog-enveloped world of Albania's Catholic clans whose power was broken only after partisans from the south gained control over north Albania during World War II, Kadare himself seems to have taken refuge from the political and social upheavals that dominated Albanian life between 1965 and 1975. He abandons, as he had successfully done earlier in The General of the Dead Army, the orthodox themes of Albanian socialist realism that marked his subsequent novels—namely, the party, Enver Hoxha, vigilance against external threats, labor, modernization, and women's emancipation. Now that Kadare has removed himself from the present turmoil in Tiranë by taking up residence in the West, he may himself follow Vopsi's bride's suggestion that he would surely “write something better about these mountains … something truer” (pp. 184-85); something perhaps like Miodrag Bulatović's novels which demythologize life in Montenegro, which also borders the accursed mountains that separate impoverished Slavic and Albanian Christian districts, which for centuries shared a heroic, better yet violent, history on the periphery of a hostile Muslim world.

In Broken April, Kadare almost poetically unfolds a human—Vopsi would add Shakespearean—tragedy with scenes played out in primitive Albanian kullas, or towers, rather than a Danish castle. It is a tragedy set in motion by a killing machine whose rules venerate a guest, even an unknown or unwanted guest, one moment and, as was the case with Gjorg Berisha's family, generates a blood feud resulting from the killing of a guest the next. In spite of his characters' observations of and conversations concerning the many rituals emanating from the code, Kadare remains basically a highly cultivated teller of tales, perhaps even an eternal tale, acted out in another time and on another plane ever concealed by clouds and fog and mist from the 20th-century world below it. The novel above all indicates that Ismail Kadare ventured to rise far above that world, whose darker side no Albanian writer dared to reveal before the 1990s.

Paul Binding (review date 26 February 1993)

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SOURCE: Binding, Paul. “Soul Searches.” New Statesman and Society 6, no. 241 (26 February 1993): 40-1.

[In the following review, Binding labels The Palace of Dreams as a “Kafkaesque” narrative and notes the novel's poignant emotional resonance.]

In of the most remarkable books of the past decade, Theodore Zeldin's lateral journey through the human mind, Happiness, we read that: “It was time that fantasies and dreams were recognised to be as important a part of history as coins and pots and battle-axes; dreams which never quite came true were as much events … as well-established facts, which frequently only just managed to happen.”

In the greatest living Albanian writer's most recently translated book [The Palace of Dreams], we are confronted with a society—the Ottoman Empire at an unspecified but late point in its history—that makes just this recognition. Dreams are the expressions of secret instinctive knowledge: studied with their “day's residue” taken into consideration, they can be symbolic apprehensions of what is taking place or, of burning interest, about to take place. Therefore, shouldn't a vigilant but troubled government institute a thorough system for the investigation of all dreams that visit its (ethnically diverse) subjects?

The vast organisation devoted to this system has its headquarters in the huge Palace of Dreams. Here, at the outset of the novel, Mark-Alem—a young man from (on his mother's side) a pre-eminent Albanian family—starts work. He is put first into Selection, those offices sifting through the dream-accounts that arrive and categorising them. Selection, important though it is, is inferior to Interpretation, to where Mark-Alem is, somewhat to his surprise, quite soon promoted. Yet there are more powerful if arcane departments still. Every week a Master-Dream, deemed by these civil servants to be of particular significance to the state, is presented to the Sultan for inspection.

But nervous, ruthless authority cannot rest there, of course. Mark-Alem becomes aware of cruel methods used to extract dreams, to establish certainties where uncertainty is of the essence. Purges are carried out when failure to foresee becomes apparent. The entire Palace, working so hard that employees become separated from ordinary life and the seasonal changes around them, moves in a climate of complex paranoia. Totalitarianism can hardly go further than this.

Though no doubt the adjective “Kafkaesque” has been used about this novel, in fact Kadare's imagination is very different from that of the author of The Trial.The Palace of Dreams has a remorseless rationality, a logic not unrelated to the severe inevitabilities of the Aeschylean tragedy Kadare has written about so admiringly. It also has a physical particularity. Readers of his masterpiece Broken April will salute the combination; here the Palace is given an undreamlike substance, as is Mark-Alem's comfortable and contrasting home and the chestnut-lined avenues of the tense city.

Kadare survived the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha but maintains an ambivalent distance from present-day Albania. His experience of the invasion of all aspects of life accounts for the peculiar authority of this novel, which has universal implications. (The Catholic church's exhaustive annexation of the libido occurred to me throughout.) But Mark-Alem's Albanian ancestry is of great thematic importance, and the book's ghastly climax occurs at a musical performance of an ancient Albanian epic in which “an accord—the closest and the most perfect—had been made with the shades of the dead”. In these days, as Kosovo smoulders, this scene has great poignancy.

Robert Elsie (review date summer 1993)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of La pyramide, by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 67, no. 3 (summer 1993): 648.

[In the following review, Elsie characterizes La pyramide as a political allegory for the reign of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha.]

It would seem to hold true that absolute monarchs have a predilection for pyramid-form monuments in order to exemplify the hierarchical structure of their power. It comes, therefore, as no surprise that the last representative monument set to the memory of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha (1908-85) before the collapse of the system he perfected was the pyramid-form Enver Hoxha Museum, erected on the main boulevard of Tiranë. It was a prestigious construction of shining white marble, crowned with a huge blood-red star made of plastic, a symbol which was discreetly removed together with all the museum's relics after the fall of the regime. The building itself, even after three years of democracy, is still by far the most impressive in the country and has something menacingly eternal about it.

At the time of its construction, Tiranë's huge marble pyramid was secretly regarded by many students and writers as the epitome of human folly. One of the delightfully blasphemous slogans of the early Albanian student movement, the force which finally persuaded the aging Stalinists to give way to a less surrealistic form of government, was “piramida diskotekë”—i.e., that the Enver Hoxha Museum, known by then to virtually everyone in the country as “the pyramid,” should be transformed into a discotheque for the students and young people of the Albanian capital, which was, and still is, bereft of nocturnal amusements.

A direct and imaginative reflection of Ismail Kadare's fascination with this once much-lauded and secretly reviled museum is to be found in his intriguing historical novel La pyramide. Like so many of the Albanian writer's works, it can only be understood properly if read as a political allegory. “The Pyramid” is the mind-boggling tale of the conception and construction of the Cheops pyramid in ancient Egypt, but also of absolute political power and indeed of human folly.

Cheops, the Egyptian pharaoh, realized that he had dismayed his courtiers when he vowed one autumn morning to break with tradition by not constructing a pyramid as his predecessors had done. The pharaonic establishment and the power of custom and conformity were, however, to prove all too strong. Cheops was soon convinced by the high priest Hemiunu that a pyramid was more than simply a tomb: “It is power, Your Majesty. It is repression, might, and money. It will also blind the masses, suffocate their spirit, and break their will. It is monotony and detrition. It will be your best bodyguard, my pharaoh; it is the secret police, the army, the navy, the harem. The loftier it rises, the more minute you will seem in its shadow, and the more minute you are, Sire, the better you can act in all your glory.” And so, the Egyptian masses set to work on an absurd construction in the desert, just as four-and-a-half millennia after them the Albanian people set to work on the building of literally hundreds of thousands of cement bunkers throughout the country to defend themselves against a supposedly imminent imperialist invasion, and on the construction of a marble mausoleum for their own pharaoh.

La pyramide was originally published in the form of a short story, which was serialized in the very first issues of the opposition newspaper Rilindja Demokratike in January 1990. In Parisian exile Kadare subsequently expanded the tale to create the present seventeen-chapter novel, which has now appeared in the elegant French translation of Jusuf Vrioni. The Albanian original of the full novel has not yet been published, a phenomenon by no means unusual for Kadare's works (see WLT 58:1, pp. 40-42, and 65:2, pp. 256-63).

Robert Elsie (review date spring 1994)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of Clair de lune and La Grande Muraille, suivi de le firman aveugle, by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 68, no. 2 (spring 1994): 406.

[In the following review, Elsie examines the controversy surrounding Kadare's frank treatment of sexual issues in his novel Clair de lune as well as briefly commenting on the stories collected in La Grande Muraille, suivi de le firman aveugle.]

When Clair de lune (A Moonlit Night) was originally published in Albania (as Nata me hënë) in January 1985, it caused something of a scandal. It was one of the rare occasions under the dictatorship during which Ismail Kadare ventured to take up a contemporary theme. As Stalinist Albania was not a country noted for its excess of tolerance in any respect, one had to tread with extreme caution in dealing with social realities, and in particular with anything vaguely associated with sex. Albanian prose on contemporary themes had consisted up to then of standard panegyrics on the creation of the perfect communist society and on the conversion of workers and intellectuals to the new obligatory religion. Kadare chose a topic which seemed safe enough at first glance. Women's liberation from the yoke of patriarchal society had, after all, been one of the great goals of the party during the late 1960s. What place had petit-bourgeois morality in a socialist society?

While walking home with her would-be boyfriend one moonlit night, young Marianne happens to wonder out loud whether love is a stronger emotion in men than in women. Her peer group soon gets wind of her rather innocent verbal meanderings, though, and in a stifling atmosphere of petty gossip, jealousy, and ill will, the whole machinery of social control comes down upon her. At an organized “meeting” of her fellow workers, matters get out of hand, and Marianne is publicly required to present a medical certificate of virginity, as definitive proof of her good moral standing in the community.

Clair de lune was banned a few months after publication, not so much for its peripheral treatment of sex as for its harsh and very realistic portrayal of how the mechanisms of the infamous workers' “meetings” of the period, the very memory of which every Albanian still dreads, could destroy the life of an innocent individual. This being said, it is evident that Clair de lune is more than simply a political statement. The past two or three years since the fall of the dictatorship have shown that Albanian society, closely knit and very much molded by and subject to traditional patriarchal values, is and remains basically intolerant. Social constraints on women and on sexual behavior are features of this society which have transcended political ideology. As such, a reissue of this work in Albanian would do no harm.

In a separate volume [La Grande Muraille, suivi de le firman aveugle] Kadare offers readers two other short stories, “The Great Wall” and “The Blind Firman,” both of which provide his favorite mixture of historical fiction and political allegory.

Imogen Forster (review date 7 October 1994)

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SOURCE: Forster, Imogen. “Mao Goes to Pot.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 323 (7 October 1994): 49.

[In the following review, Forster offers a mixed assessment of The Concert, asserting that “in among this baffling farrago of plot, counter-plot and inflated ‘message’ are passages of great delicacy and perceptiveness.”]

Sometimes called Albania's “loyal dissident”, Ismail Kadare occupied a contradictory position under Enver Hoxha. A favoured intellectual, even a cultural spokesperson, he was at the same time a persistent, though harassed, critic of crude socialist realism and of a political order that, as an “official” writer, he was obliged to uphold. Less secure under the succeeding regime of Ramiz Alia, he left Albania for Paris in the dying days of communist rule. Though he has returned, he appears not to have played the public role that some observers predicted.

In The Concert, Kadare uses “Aesopian” language to make a crisis in recent Albanian history—the break with China—the cover for an idiosyncratic critique of party and state, reintroducing characters from an earlier novel that dealt with the split from the Soviet Union. Begun in 1978, and published in Albania ten years later, The Concert yokes together disparate elements, from the sympathetic realist depiction of a group of bureaucrats and their families in Tirana through satirical portraits of the old bourgeoisie and new-style Sinophile opportunists to scenes of speculative fantasy set in China, or “China”.

For example, we are given, not so much the thoughts, as the entire phantasmagoric cerebral landscape of Mao Zedong, brooding like a barefoot cyborg over the fields of marijuana with which he plans to destroy European culture. In semi-delirium he plots to induce, in a sort of Opium War in reverse, the kind of “epidemic suggestion” or global delusion by which Tolstoy accounted for Shakespeare's unmerited reputation. This time it will erase from human memory those two “idiots”, along with Cervantes and Beethoven and everyone else.

These startlingly contrasted fictional worlds are brought together by the comings and goings of a diplomat, Gjergj Dibra, and a writer, Skënder Bermema, who may be taken to represent Kadare. Drafts of his stories, including a revision of Macbeth, all elaborating the theme of conspiracy, vary the fictional texture. But they are not successfully integrated into the main text, where they sit, lumpily undigested.

Albanian readers in the communist period appreciated Kadare's daring, if often allegorical, writing. The question here is what sense a wider readership can make of it, and how it stands up in the context of European writing and of Albania's heritage. Style and tone are particularly hard to judge in a text twice removed from its original, but both translations suggest a pervading inertness, a dogged but curiously affectless voice.

What surprises in the book's content is Kadare's blend of indirection and a strikingly overt treatment of politics: expulsions from the party and their effect on children's prospects, “autocritiques”, treated here with wild humour, or the milieu of the “professional revolutionary” represented by a Colombian “quoting Trotsky, Marx, Stalin, Lenin, Che Guevara and Mao Zedong one on top of the other”.

In among this baffling farrago of plot, counter-plot and inflated “message” are passages of great delicacy and perceptiveness. They describe the daily life of the women—Silva Dibra, her colleague Linda, her daughter Brikena and her dead sister Ana—who have been involved in a nexus of relationships with the rather unreal men who fly about on “delegations” and “missions”. It is as if Kadare achieves his best effects when he is trying less hard, and this is a pity.

Robert Elsie (review date spring 1995)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of The Concert, by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 69, no. 2 (spring 1995): 412.

[In the following review, Elsie explores the speculation surrounding Kadare's political metaphors in The Concert.]

So much has changed in Albania in the six years since the original Albanian publication of The Concert (Tiranë, 1988) that the Sino-Albanian alliance now seems like ancient history. Albania was hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world during most of that extraordinarily curious marriage, which lasted from the break with the Soviet Union in 1961 through to 1978. The Concert, now finally in an English translation, is Ismail Kadare's literary digestion of a tumultuous era he lived through at first hand, and survived.

Much political speculation has since been attached to The Concert, which is Kadare's longest novel to date. Was the author's satiric treatment of Red China in permanent revolution and of upper party circles in Beijing not equally a reflection of political life in his own country? Were the machinations of Mao's inscrutable wife Jiang Qing and her Gang of Four not designed to illuminate the somber and awesome power of the equally inscrutable Albanian first lady, Nexhmije Hoxha?

Much of what went on in those years, both in China and in Albania, has only recently come to light, now that the specter has receded. The Concert adds a personal view from within communist Albania, a fascinating canvas of events and a delightful satire. The novel is Kadare's sixth to have appeared in English in recent years, following Chronicle in Stone (1987), Doruntine (1988), Broken April (1990), The General of the Dead Army (1991), and The Palace of Dreams (1993). One can only hope that more works are to come.

Robert Elsie (review date autumn 1995)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of L'ombre, by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 69, no. 4 (autumn 1995): 842-43.

[In the following review, Elsie notes Kadare's declining critical reputation in Albania and views L'ombre as a largely autobiographical work.]

After his emigration to France in October 1990, Ismail Kadare stated that he would return to his native land once democracy was restored. He has nevertheless chosen to remain in Paris, and there seems little chance that he will return to Albania at all—at least for the time being. His choice is understandable not only in view of the creative stimulus most writers enjoy in the French capital, but also in view of the exceptionally aggressive climate presently reigning in intellectual circles in Tirana.

Kadare has spent recent years in Paris working on a general revision and republication of his collected works. Two thick volumes have already appeared in French, (Œuvres 1-2 (Paris, 1993-94), and in Albanian, Vepra 1-2 (Paris, 1993-94), and more are on the way. They constitute a substantial revision of many of his works. Some tales are seeing the light of day again after many years of politically motivated oblivion.

L'ombre (The Shadow), now published in an edition of its own, is one of these works. The novel was written between 1984 and 1986 and was deposited in a French bank for safekeeping during the final years of the dictatorship. Like a number of Kadare's earlier works, The Shadow focuses on the fate of the intellectual in an age of political turmoil. An Albanian movie director is invited to Paris within the framework of a cultural-exchange agreement and journeys not merely from one European city to another but from one cosmos to another, from death to life. Traveling abroad was an extremely rare privilege, a schizophrenic experience, under the Hoxha dictatorship. Kadare himself was one of the very few creative individuals allowed to leave the country during the long decades of unbridled terror. In a sense, therefore, The Shadow must be interpreted as a work of autobiography. The fictive director uses his modest freedom to the full in days of intensive professional activity and in nights of emotionally charged intimacy, until he is forced to return to the silence and cold of the Stalinist East, only to resurface once again in the ville lumière.

Despite the introduction of democracy, the two realities, the Albanian and the Western, are still light years apart. At this point in his career, Kadare would now seem to stand before a choice: is he to be a Parisian writer with notable success in France, or will he prefer to retain his Albanian identity, the Balkan roots which originally inspired his creative genius? The unreserved acclaim Kadare once enjoyed in Albania has dissipated somewhat in recent years. One of the reasons for this has been his conspicuous absence from the book market. Since the fall of the dictatorship, Kadare has continued to publish in France but has made very few of his works available in the Balkans. His Parisian publisher, Fayard, has recently taken to issuing separate editions, in French and Albanian, but very few copies of the Albanian-language versions ever reach Albania, not to mention Kosovo behind the “čevapčići curtain.” For the handful of copies which do get to the Balkans, the French sales price is a barrier in itself, successfully inhibiting any further contact between the author and his prospective though impoverished readers … who are still interested in what Ismail Kadare has to say.

Ian Thomson (review date 9 March 1996)

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SOURCE: Thomson, Ian. “Darkness over the Land of Egypt.” Spectator 276, no. 8747 (9 March 1996): 29-30.

[In the following review, Thomson asserts that The Pyramid is not Kadare's best work, commenting that the novel's social commentary is “very bitter, but also abstruse.”]

After half a century of Stalinist dictatorship, Albania is fumbling its way towards capitalism. On his recent visit to this Balkan outpost, Malcolm Rifkind found the Albanian president beaming with gratitude. ‘I would like to thank the British taxpayers for all the help they have given to my country.’ In turn Mr Rifkind was happy to announce the appointment of the first British ambassador to serve in Albania.

Some British taxpayers may not know where Albania is. The country came into existence only in 1913 and candidates for the Albanian crown were bizarre. They numbered Aubrey Herbert (model for John Buchan's Greenmantle) and Lord Inchcape, who gave the embarrassed reply, ‘Where is Albania?’ The current pretender to the throne is Kino Leka. A gawky 6 foot 8 inches tall, he has not returned to Albania since his father, the late King Zog, was expelled by Mussolini in 1939.

Even if the son of Zog returns, it will be many years before Albania shakes off the legacy of Enver Hoxha. A Stalinist in the megalomaniac lineage of Tamerlane, it was Hoxha alone who dragged Albania to political ruin. Curiously, this ex-Muslim bigwig was an amateur Egyptologist. So it is probably no coincidence that Ismail Kadare's latest novel, The Pyramid, lampoons the Albanian dictates as the power-crazed Pharaoh Cheops.

The Pyramid is not the best of this Albanian writer; as a parable about the abuse of power it is caustic, very bitter, but also abstruse. The parallels between ancient Egypt and Stalinist Albania are not glaringly apparent. Cheops orders the construction of a pyramid which takes a lifetime to complete; nameless navvies die like flies and political opponents disappear in the basalt mines. This could as easily be a Saddam Hussein. There is just one (fairly arcane) allusion to Hoxha; the pyramid spawns hundreds of thousands of tiddlers known as bunkers.

Presumably Kadare is talking about the 900,000 pill-boxes which Hoxha built across Albania to foil an imagined NATO invasion. The Pyramid is an insider's book, written by one who has been close to power. Although Kadare himself was never a party member, he did become deputy chairman of a cultural organisation run by Hoxha's wife, the poisonous Nexhmije. In Albania, family connections count as blood; Kadare was accommodated until his novels provoked censorship and he defected to Paris in 1990.

But it was not long before the trappings of Enver Hoxha's own monstrous regime were demolished by the vengeful mob; as the pyramid built by Cheops was desecrated and the royal tombs profaned. This brief tale of pharaoh Cheops/Comrade Enver has no startling insights into the nature of tyranny. But The Pyramid is a fine, creepy read and one can only marvel at how Ismail Kadare managed to write anything under the pressures of so watchful a regime.

Richard Eder (review date 28 April 1996)

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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “A Tomb of One's Own.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (28 April 1996): 2.

[In the following review of The Pyramid, Eder contends that “Kadare is a supreme fictional interpreter of the psychology and physiognomy of oppression.”]

When he became Egypt's pharaoh 4,600 years ago, Cheops hinted to his scandalized courtiers that he, unlike his predecessors, might not build a pyramid. It is the opening irony in Ismail Kadare's mordant political parable (Cheops' Great Pyramid is 480 feet high and covers 12 acres). Only the opening one, though.

The Pyramid is an iron mille-feuille: multilayered, finely honed and lethal. Advance from Page 1 to Page 16, for example. Cheops having been persuaded to change his mind, his architects are in a storm of agonizing calculations. Nothing so huge has ever been built and every proposed variant implies an entire refiguring. Outside the palace there has not been a word spoken nor a shovelful of earth moved, only fearful rumors.

Yet heavily laden chariots arrive one day from the whip factories in Thebes. The manufacturers had required no orders. They knew that royal rumors always end with a use for whips.

Kadare is a supreme fictional interpreter of the psychology and physiognomy of oppression. An Albanian who lived under Enver Hoxha—possibly the harshest Communist dictator of our time—he is an expatriate in France and increasingly honored in the world of literature.

He writes in a dimension different from the prophetic realism of George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, and darker and perhaps narrower than the prophetic fantasy of Franz Kafka. His tyrants are not just Stalins or Hitlers, but Stalins and Hitlers asleep. They dream of their subjects. In Kadare's books the dreamer, the dream and the dreamed-of drift upon slow commingling currents.

One of his finest novels, in fact, is The Palace of Dreams. Its central image is a labyrinthian structure in which the dreams of the sultan's subjects are recorded nightly and then examined for signs of disaffection. The novel becomes something richer and more encompassing than a political fable. It transmutes the mad rigors of power into the battles the human soul fights with itself.

The Pyramid is a shard from the same dark vision, though drier in spirit and somewhat sketchier. It too uses an edifice as its symbol. (For Kadare the tyrannies of power and fate do not so much oppress us as house us.) Here, though, it is not a teeming palace but a dead tomb. Although the nightmare is lodged in the finished structure, it is mainly played out in the process of building it.

What changes Cheops' mind? After frenetic research, his scribes and priests come up with two arguments, one the skin, the other the core. The first is theological. With its massive grounded base and soaring pointed summit, the pyramid connects pharaoh's kingdom with the heavens; without it, not only he but the entire realm would collapse, priests and scribes included.

Then there is the core. In times of prosperity, Cheops' ministers argue, the citizenry loses its dread, and dread's intimate need to worship and obey. It takes a crisis to compel these things and what greater crisis can there be than a colossal, decades-long project that will exhaust the national wealth, enslave the population and end up not only useless but needing to be started all over again? It is a monstrous reason of state, specific to this particular fable but resonating down through history to the present day. (An invisible shadow—could it be a B-2 Stealth bomber?—flits over the great pyramid.)

Like Kafka, Kadare has the gift of writing parables of great weight in the lightest of tones. He does not force disquiet. It emerges almost as a byproduct of the engaging attentiveness with which he recounts the planning and building of his pyramid. (That this delicacy survives the double process of rendering Albanian into French and French into English is a tribute to the skill of the translators; in the first instance, Jusuf Vrioni, in the second, David Bellos, who is also the graceful translator of the difficult French writer, Georges Perec.)

After the rumors and the whips, the command goes out. Some Egyptians are exhilarated—a form of war-fever—others, appalled. Nobody is spared; hundreds of thousands are conscripted for what will take 20 years to complete. Ambassadors send out coded messages and the Pharaonic spies decode them. The Sumerian envoy hires carts to transport the clay tablets he writes on, the spies arrange for the carts to be “accidentally” overturned.

New quarries are prospected; the reports devise the peculiar metaphors that national mobilizations tend to produce. In this case they are sexy: a quarry is “rounded,” “chubby,” or “fertile.” Great clouds of dust are thrown up by the quarrying, the road-building and the vast land-leveling needed to lay the first blocks. It is a symbolic haze as well—nobody knows what the details will be, or the cost, or the years and manpower that will be required.

A conspiracy is produced, a handy device to strike terror and confusion. Thousands are executed and finally Cheops asks his chief priest when attention can be shifted from the interrogations back to the pyramid. “But interrogation is also part of the pyramid, Majesty,” the architect replies. Not long after, with construction begun, a second conspiracy will be alleged; the chief priest and any number of high officials will lose their own lives.

Uncounted other lives will be lost in the building. Kadare's account mimics the terrifying lightness of the despotic mind. He chattily recounts the toll of each of a dozen stones; six or seven deaths mark a “good” stone, 15 or 16 a “bad” one. Two sculptors' legs are caught under number 11,379; the sculptors, not the legs, are amputated. The legless men plunge 100 feet to their death, the legs are carefully scraped out to ensure the evenness of the stone course. Bit by bit the focus shifts from the building to the builder. As the pyramid rises, Cheops grows moody. Workers and architects had been executed for slowness; then a rumor goes around that the slowness has been ordered by Cheops; the workers speed up and are executed for that.

The point, of course, is that Cheops is constructing his tomb: Inherent in the completion of the pyramid is his own death. The chief magician points out that this is true of everyone—our lives and labor all strive graveward. Cheops momentarily considers interring the magician in the pyramid instead of himself, but he desists. Ostensibly the despot, he is as caught in the machinery as his subjects. For Kadare, despotism is more than an individual human act, it is a universal poison in humanity's bloodstream.

Robert Elsie (review date autumn 1996)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of Dialogue avec Alain Bosquet, by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 70, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 1005.

[In the following review, Elsie argues that Dialogue avec Alain Bosquet provides valuable insight into Kadare's struggle to remain a productive and honest artist while living in a totalitarian state.]

Who is responsible for the political crimes of the communist period in Eastern Europe: the dictator alone, the class of officials who served him and themselves at the time, or the people as a whole? This is a question which has been gnawing at the soul of postcommunist Albania ever since the collapse of one of the most inhumane systems Europe has ever experienced. The recent “antigenocide” law passed by the Albanian government and the repercussions it has had on current political life have only helped fuel the debate and encourage a pointing of fingers.

Despite the fact that Ismail Kadare was never actively involved in political life during the forty-six years of Stalinist dictatorship and has lived in Paris since its collapse, he has been unwittingly caught up in the polemics and accusations. It is within this context that Dialogue avec Alain Bosquet may be read and interpreted. As with other recent publications such as Ftesë në studio (1990), Printemps albanais (1991), Nga një dhjetor në tjetrin (1991; see WLT 66:1, p. 180), Pesha e kryqit (1991), and Invitation à l'atelier de l'écrivain suivi de la poids de la croix (1991; see WLT 66:2, p. 384), the present book traces the evolution of Kadare's literary works and publications within the framework of Albania's grim political development.

Beginning with The General of the Dead Army (see WLT 65:4, p. 746), published in Tirana in 1963 and in French translation in Paris in 1970, we learn what moved and motivated Kadare to go new ways in Albanian literature and what pressures were brought to bear upon him to hold to the lethargic and much-trodden path of socialist realism. Dialogue avec Alain Bosquet is the story of this talented Albanian's struggle to achieve and survive in a totalitarian state. Against all odds, individual creativity managed to win out over sterile conformity. Partner in the literary and political meeting of minds which the book offers its readers is Alain Bosquet (b. 1919), the Odessa-born French writer and critic, known for his interest in the currents of East European culture under communist rule.

The dialogue serves, among other things, to set forth Kadare's position on the abovementioned controversy, in particular with regard to his activities as a prominent figure of public (though not, one must repeat, of direct political) life during the long years of terror. Kadare goes to great pains to elucidate his role as a literary dissident and as a thorn in the flesh of the party. He also casts light on the somber and ubiquitous forces which endeavored with a variety of methods to rein him in over the years. While there is no reason here to cast doubt on Kadare's doings at the time, one senses throughout the book, as in other recent works, an unequivocally defensive attitude. It must also be noted in this connection that some of Kadare's more controversial pronouncements have met with a hostile reception in Albania in recent years.

Ismail Kadare was no doubt a victim of the communist dictatorship, as was “virtually” everyone else in the country. Whether he survived and managed to achieve success in spite of the dictatorship or because of it is a moot point, despite untiring discussion of the subject in intellectual circles in Albania. Much is brought to light in Dialogue avec Alain Bosquet, and much remains to be said. As Bosquet himself notes at the beginning of the book, “Tout dialogue est incomplet.”

Robert Elsie (review date autumn 1996)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of Shkaba, by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 70, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 1008.

[In the following review, Elsie regards Shkaba as an allegory for the practice of political internment under the communist regime in Albania.]

[In Shkaba, t]wenty-two-year-old Max went out one evening to buy a pack of cigarettes. On his way down the street, he passed under some scaffolding, slipped on a board, and fell, plunging into another world. There he found himself in a community not unsimilar to his own, a small town in the provinces with a bar, a bank, and a zoo. Max discovered that he was not the only stranger to have made the abrupt descent from the world he knew; even some of his acquaintances were there. He also learned that there was no return. Like everyone else, he came to realize he would have to make do.

For the Albanian reader, the immediate analogy to Max's plight is the infamous institution of political internment practiced widely under the communist regime. For political motives, or for no reason at all, one could suddenly find oneself despatched to a remote mountain village with no hope of return. Only recently have statistics been made available about the real number of people who suffered internment during the long years of Stalinist rule. The unspeakable concentration camps which the regime set up in Spaç and Burrel meant almost certain death for real and supposed adversaries of the regime, but political internment conveyed horrors of its own. At times it was practiced almost at random and could strike anyone. For intellectuals of the period, it was like being buried alive.

Max learned to come to terms with his new underground environment and, in time, began to hear rumors of a possible method of flight, in both senses of the word. Escape was said to be possible with the help of one remaining eagle in the zoo. An ancient legend had it that the eagle would take you wherever you wished, on condition that you fed it meat. Should the supply of meat run out while you straddled the bird and overflew the chasms, it would demand your flesh: an arm, a leg, your liver, or your heart, then finally your soul. Max knew what he was in for.

Such are the basic components of the plot of Shkaba (The Eagle), a short story written in the summer of 1995 and now published in separate Albanian and French editions. The eagle is, of course, a symbol of many things, a bird of more than one legend. The two-headed Byzantine eagle draping the Albanian flag has for centuries been the country's national symbol, and even today one can hear Albanians referring to themselves as the “sons of the eagle.” One can only give thanks that the bird has stopped devouring its children.

Richard Eder (review date 9 February 1997)

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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “History as Illness.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (9 February 1997): 2.

[In the following review, Eder delineates the major thematic concerns in The Three-Arched Bridge.]

If we knew what the future held, we might be less eager than President Clinton to build a bridge to it. Perhaps we would widen the river.

Tragedy to our American mind—to the extent that our mind regards it—is still what you advance out of. Through much of the history of much of the world, it has been what you advance into, helplessly.

The bridge in Ismail Kadare's The Three-Arched Bridge is a foreboding, an omen, a threat. Toward the end of the 1300s, it goes up across a river in Albania, where the last remnants of Byzantine power are giving way to the first sorties of the Ottoman Turks. It is a bridge over which Asia will invade Europe and the future will invade the past.

Kadare, an Albanian, has used the materials at hand to become one of Europe's great writers. His country's chaotic national isolation, not broken but intensified, paradoxically, over 2,000 years of incursions by Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Turks, Normans, Italians and Austrians, provides a dark counter-model to the triumphalism of history and human endeavor.

Kafka erected his “Castle” of alienation and estrangement in the heartland of European prosperity. The fortress ruins left on Albania's impoverished hillsides during two millenniums were, each in its time, Kafka castles not as symbol but as blood and stone.

In Kadare's parables of history as nightmare, it is the stones—the building enterprise itself—that are the horror. “All great building works resemble crimes, and, vice versa, crimes resemble …” mutters one of the strangers who arrive with the builders in The Three-Arched Bridge. The endless stone galleries and catacombs in Kadare's masterpiece, The Dream Palace, represented the sultan's mad attempt to control his subjects' dreams. The monstrous construction in The Pyramid, draining a kingdom of its substance and its lives, was a ruler's bid for immortality.

Despairing, seeing nothing clearly, the medieval monk Gjon sets down his account of the building of the bridge over the river Ujana e Keqe. Only a little more educated than his neighbors, he senses trouble. For Kadare, history is not knowledge but illness, and Gjon falls sick with the premonition of an ominous planetary shift.

The Ottoman tide that will eventually engulf the Balkans and much of Central Europe is lapping at the divided territories of the Albanian chieftains. The Turks already half control the naval port at Vores, in the south; soon they will control it all. Some of the Albanian lords have declared themselves vassals of the sultan; the Turkish governor across the river has asked Gjon's lord for his daughter's hand and been refused.

Passage across the river has always been by raft, the monopoly of a cloudy enterprise known as “Boats and Rafts.” One day a stranger falls into a trance on the bank. A traveling fortuneteller interprets his ravings as a prophecy that a bridge is to be built. And before long, representatives of another cloudy enterprise, “Bridges and Roads,” arrive to persuade the local lord to allow the construction of a toll bridge.

Gjon is summoned to do the interpreting; he finds the strangers' speech painfully discordant, a hodgepodge of European languages. “It is easier to interpret for woodpeckers,” he complains. It is not just the sounds that grate, though, but the future. Medieval Europe has emerged into the Renaissance, the trade routes are booming, bridges are needed for access to the markets and suppliers of Asia. Bridges go two ways, though, and what is about to arrive going the other way is a stultifying 600-year empire.

Builders set up a camp, level the river banks, dig diversionary channels to allow three piers to be sunk in the riverbed. The villagers are divided. Some “were glad that the Ujana e Keqe would be pinned down by a clasp of stone”; others warn that “it was not easy to saddle a kicking mule, let alone the Ujana e Keqe.” Agents from the old raft company spread the rumor that the spirits of the water will be angered; before long, in fact, there is sabotage.

Gjon notes everything, troubled. He observes the sudden appearance of dervishes on the neighboring Turkish lands. He reports the arrival of the Turkish delegation bearing the marriage proposal and rich gifts: “They were all charm. Their breeches whispered with the steady swish of silk.” When they departed empty-handed, “the henna glowed threateningly from their short beards” and they looked about, glowering. “Every invasion starts with the eye,” Gjon recalls his father telling him.

It is an enterprise, expansion, progress that unleashes destruction in Kadare's dismal view of history. A horror descends upon the project; an old legend comes back to do the work of the innovators. The legend concerns three builders of a castle who found that the work they did by day was undone by night. The walls, it seems, required a soul in order to stand; a builder's wife was entombed inside the masonry, one breast protruding to allow her children to nurse.

Word spreads that the bridge company will pay a rich reward to the family of anyone who volunteers to be immured. One morning Murrash, a bridge worker, is found dead, his head projecting from the pier inside which his body has been embedded. Rumors abound: He volunteered for the reward; he was a saboteur working for the raft company and was caught and killed; his own family denounced him to get the money.

The bridge is finished. Murrash's dead face, plastered over, protrudes whitely. “It was something that violated everything we knew about the borders between life and death.” Gjon relates. “The man remained poised between the two like a bridge, without moving in one direction or the other. This man had sunk into nonexistence, leaving his shape behind him like a forgotten garment.”

At first nobody crosses. “The bridge resembled a meaningless dream, dreamed by the river and both banks together. So alien, dropped by the riverbanks into time, it looked totally solitary as it gripped in its stone limbs its only prey. …” Then people begin to use it. Trade moves east across the bridge and it will not be long before the Ottoman armies will move west.

The course of power and enterprise has resumed. Murrash's effigy briefly stood out against it; Gjon's testimony protests it. Kadare's writings turn the proverb inside out. Homeless (he has lived outside his country for many years), he hurls his words—not glass but resounding crystal—against the stone houses of history.

Robert Elsie (review date summer 1997)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of The Three-Arched Bridge, by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 71, no. 3 (summer 1997): 630.

[In the following review, Elsie praises the English translation of The Three-Arched Bridge and deems the novel “one of Kadare's classic works of Balkan history and legendry, and … among his finest novels of the period.”]

At long last, after many years of delay, the novel The Three-Arched Bridge has finally appeared in English. It is one of Kadare's classic works of Balkan history and legendry, and counts among his finest novels of the period. The Albanian version, Ura me tri harqe, was first published in Tirana in 1978, at about the same time as Broken April and Doruntine. The attentive reader will not fail to detect parallels and affinities with the latter two works, which have also been translated into English (see WLT 65:2, p. 343).

With The Three-Arched Bridge, Kadare returns to the mythical fountainhead of Albania's haunted history to bring to life one of the most awesome motifs of Balkan legendry, that of immurement. The legend of a person's being walled in during the construction of a bridge or castle is widespread in Albanian oral literature (cf. the tale of Rozafat Castle) and is based no doubt on an actual occurrence. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, animals (sheep, goats, chickens) were still being sacrificed on such occasions in Albania and their remains immured to “stabilize” the foundations of bridges; indeed, the practice can still be encountered today.

The novel takes us back to early March in the year of our Lord 1377 in the company of the Monk Gjon. As the first chapter of the book makes evident, crime is involved in the construction of the new bridge over the Ujana e Keqe (Wicked Waters) River, and there is more to the immurement than meets the eye. A fierce dispute has broken out between the builders and their interest group on the one hand and the local ferry company on the other. This local dispute is woven into a conflict of a much greater dimension, that soon to be brought about by the invasion of Christian Albania by the invincible hordes of the Ottoman Empire: “The shadows of its minarets are slowly falling over us.”

Albania, like Bosnia and Kosovo, has traditionally been a frontier territory between the Christian West and the Islamic East. Ismail Kadare (b. 1936), from the southern Albanian town of Gjirokastër, was raised in this cultural borderland, as was the 1961 Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić (1892-1975), a Bosnian Serb from Travnik. Indeed, The Three-Arched Bridge has been interpreted by some observers as an Albanian reaction to Andrić's best-known novel, Na Drini ćuprija (1948; Eng. The Bridge on the Drina).

Despite its grim background, The Three-Arched Bridge makes delightful reading in John Hodgson's fluent translation. It is one of the few works by Kadare to be translated into English directly from the Albanian—i.e., not via the French. Kadare is at his best with Balkan themes, and one can only hope that other works, such as Kështjella, (The Citadel; 1970), Dimri i madh (The Great Winter; 1977), and Viti i mbrapshtë (The Somber Years; 1986), will also soon appear in English translation.

Gabriele Annan (review date 18 September 1997)

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SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Rainy Days.” London Review of Books 19, no. 18 (18 September 1997): 15.

[In the following review, Annan criticizes The File on H. as “amateurish” novel that overindulges in “cultural condescension.”]

The only book about Albania I had read before this one was Edith Durham's deadpan account of her travels there before the First World War. It is called In High Albania and describes how she had to become an honorary man in order to get around—not among the Muslims, as you might think, but among the Catholic tribes of the north, whose favourite Sunday pastime was shooting members of families with whom they were at blood feud. The cover of The File on H. shows three young peasants in their Sunday best—black from head to foot. They look threatening all right, but any photography buff will recognise one of August Sanders's most frequently reproduced images. These young men are Germans. They are not going to shoot anyone, because that was not the tribal custom in the Westerwald in 1914, when the photograph was taken. It seems an odd choice for a novel set in Albania in the late Thirties; but maybe it symbolises the lack of Western metaphors for what it's like to be Albanian. Albania has been behind one iron curtain or another for centuries, and its impenetrability is its lure.

It is probably cultural condescension, but I don't think any literary agent would have been prepared to promote this bumbly amateurish novel were it not for its exotic provenance and political correctness. Which also explains why Ismail Kadare is big in Italy and France (where he has lived in semi-self-imposed exile since 1990. The blurb says that he now divides his time between Paris and Tirana). Besides, it is unfair to judge his work in double translation: the English versions of his novels have been translated from translations into French by the Albanian Jusuf Vrioni. But Kadare is worth reading for the peepholes he opens into what it's like to be Albanian—his own mind-set being one of them.

He was born in 1936 in the reign of King Zog—the period of The File on H. He is a poet as well as a novelist, and in Albania he is not just big but a national treasure. People know his poetry by heart. In his early days, he celebrated Hoxha, but then he grew more and more critical of the regime. His ‘international standing’, the publisher tells us, ‘saved him from the brutal fate that befell most Albanian intellectuals’. So he never went to prison, although some of his work was banned.

The ‘H’ in The File on H. is for Homer. It is a thriller about two classical scholars who travel to a small town in northern Albania in order to investigate the origins of the Homeric epic. They come from a university in the States, but they are Irishmen, not Americans. This is so often repeated that one expects a connection to turn up between the Albanian mountain bandits and the IRA. It doesn't: this is just one of many loose threads pretending to be false trails. Another is the infatuation of the provincial governor's bored wife with the Irishman called Bill. She is a remote descendant—via someone like Paul Morand—of Madame Bovary, and she organises a dance for the Irishmen. I was as eager as Natasha Rostov before her first ball to know what a dance in a provincial town in Albania would have been like c.1938, but Kadare is not Tolstoy, and all I learnt was that there was a marble mantelpiece where guests could park their drinks; and that, in Bill's view, ‘the alleged élite of the town of N—, well they were just straw men, ridiculous bureaucrats, they made you want to laugh or be sick.’ Now that really is cultural condescension. The governor's wife manages one night with Bill at the remote country inn where the Irishmen have holed up—and that's it.

Bill has glaucoma and is going blind. This gives him a special link with Homer. He and his colleague Max have chosen to stay in the mountain inn (which has been specially disinfected for the visitors from the West) because wandering rhapsodes occasionally call in there with their lahutas and improvise ballads, sometimes on recent events and sometimes on events ‘of yore’—an expression that occurs at least twice. Homer's place in the tradition of oral poetry was a popular field of study in the Thirties. Western academics roamed around Greece and the Balkans seeking out the last surviving bards, as James Davidson described recently in the LRB. Bill and Max investigate their technique and language; the similarities between the ballads they sing and episodes in the Iliad; the role of memory and oblivion in the development of the epics; and also the affinities and differences between Albanian and Serb versions of the same traditional stories and historical events—the battle of Kosovo naturally being the most important. Unfortunately all this fascinating folkloristic, anthropological, historical and literary information is conveyed in unbelievably stilted study notes supposedly written by Bill; and in equally—grotesquely—unbelievable scholarly exchanges between him and Max. Here's an example:

‘Are you listening?’ Bill asked.

‘Sure, sure … You were saying something about jealousy …’

‘Right. The Serbs just can't accept that the Albanians were here before they were. Throughout the Balkans, local nationalisms like this give rise to morbid and ridiculous passions, but since this one relates to the Kosovo question, it also has a concrete political implication.’

Bill, still poring over the map, looked worried.

‘A thousand-year war,’ he said dreamily. ‘That's an awfully long time, isn't it?’

‘Too long. But it's war that gives birth to epic poetry,’ said Max, turning towards the trunks. ‘It's blood-thirsty stuff.’

But not exactly riveting. The government spies sent to keep an eye on Bill and Max must be bored stiff. There are two of them, one aural, who is allowed to report only what he hears, the other visual, who reports only what he sees. Their reports are tedious; drawn-out parodies of officialese, and they themselves galumphing, primitive comic-strip characters; so is the governor. A suspiciously jolly Serbian monk turns up at the inn, clearly up to no good, and so it's not much of a surprise when a shoot-out occurs shortly afterwards. It is exactly like any shoot-out in an airport thriller, except for its cause: ‘This is not the first time,’ an Albanian paper reports, ‘that Slav chauvinists have brutally attacked scholars working on Albania's classical roots. Any mention of the Illyrian origin of the Albanians, in particular, arouses in them a barbaric and murderous jealousy.’ Actually, nobody is killed. Bill suffers a blow to his head (with profoundly symbolic consequences we learn later), and the tape-recorder is destroyed with all the tapes of the rhapsodes.

Graham Greene's shadow falls thinly over the story, and so do the shadows of Orwell and Koestler—though these are more apparent in Kadare's earlier novels, The Monster,The Palace of Dreams and The Pyramid. All are parables about totalitarian regimes—coded criticisms of Albania, and as didactic and lifeless as only parables can be. The first is set in a Troy where the war never happened, the second in an Ottoman Empire which was never defeated, the third in ancient Egypt. The File on H., on the other hand, ends in a display of Borges-like fantasy: on their way home, on the ferry to Bari, Max reads out a newspaper report about the attack at the inn. The paper prints a brand-new rhapsody about this event, and as Max begins to read, Bill picks up the words and continues the chant as though he were inventing it. He can even produce the weird head-notes that only rhapsodes are supposed to be able to master. At the same time he does a majekrah—an ‘ancient’ hand gesture peculiar to the rhapsodes and first described, we are told, by German Albanologists some time back. So Bill turns into another blind rhapsode like Homer, presumably because the Serbs knocked him on the head. Kadare doesn't explain how the rhapsodes play their lahutas with one thumb in their ear—which is how you do a majekrah. On the other hand, it occurs to me that this gesture with the other four fingers forming a cock's comb behind the head is very like one used in Calabria to indicate that someone's leg is being pulled. And yet I don't think this novel is intended to be a leg-pull. It is sad. It rains almost all the time in Kadare's Albania, except when it snows; and the rain's ‘monotonous patter seemed to be an attempt to help people to bear the burdens that weighed them down, to alleviate their fate of being at the margin of real life’.

Bill has a different angle on it: ‘How could two Albanias exist side by side,’ he asks himself at the governor's ghastly ball,

in the same place, in the same period, when they were so completely different—eternal Albania, bearing its tragic destiny with dignity, as he had come to know it not only from its epic poetry, but also at the inn up there, beside the main road; and the other Albania, the one he could see here and (he was sorry but he had to be blunt) which struck him as nothing more than a pantomime.

The saddest thing of all is that The File on H. is itself not much more than a pantomime, a naive imitation of the idea of what a novel should be.

Robert Elsie (review date autumn 1997)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of Spiritus: roman me kaos, zblesë dhe çmërs, by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 71, no. 4 (autumn 1997): 841-42.

[In the following review, Elsie offers a stylistic and thematic overview of Spiritus: roman me kaos, zblesë dhe çmërs.]

It has been almost a decade since Ismail Kadare left his homeland to settle in Paris, and these last years have been decisive in enabling him to reach full maturity as a creative and entertaining writer. He was recently elected to a seat in the venerable Académie Française in recognition of his achievements. Kadare's latest novel, Spiritus, published simultaneously in Albanian and French, is an imaginative and solidly constructed work of fiction offering both the many traditional techniques which readers have come to enjoy and expect, and a few novel aspects in evolution.

The plot, which crystallizes slowly out of a progression from “chaos” to “revelation” and “traces,” enlivens the somber and sobering realities of recent Albanian history (i.e., the Hoxha dictatorship) with the brilliant hues of legend and fantasy. A group of foreigners, touring post-communist Eastern Europe in search of the fantastic, hear exciting rumors during their stay in Albania about the capture of a spirit from the dead. The spirit, as we subsequently learn, is in actual fact a listening device, affectionately known to the notorious secret service as a “hornet,” which the murdered actor Shpend Guraziu took to the grave with him. The country's aging Leader (certainly an evocation of the demonic Enver Hoxha) was going blind and, perhaps, as compensation, had asked the Chinese comrades for technical assistance in the form of a cargo of bugging equipment. On its arrival, a horde of secret agents, personified by Arian Vogli, gears into action to install the hornets and listen in on everything from clandestine baptisms to otherworldly seances and worldly sex: “Let's place a hornet in the apartment of the engineer Gjikondi, yes, right under his bed. It seems that, when having sex, his wife devulges secrets of great importance.”

Kadare takes up many of the elements which characterized his novels in the past: Albania as seen through the eyes of the innocent foreigner, the bumbling secret agent doting nefariously over his equipment as if it were his offspring, and the realms of Albanian and Balkan legendry. Even old Kadarean characters such as the writer Skënder Bermema reemerge.

Idiosyncratic is Kadare's art in perceiving and coming to terms with Albania's tragic history. Now that he has left behind him the gnawing fears and surrealist horrors of the dictatorship, his readers might have expected a panoramic settlement of accounts with the Stalinist past, a cold and realistic description of the indescribable à la Solzhenitsyn. Kadare, however, has taken the opposite direction. The couched allegories which hovered ubiquitously in his earlier writings have not evaporated but rather condensed into a firm dichotomy of reality. In L'ombre (see WLT 69:4, p. 842), written secretly in 1984-86, an Albanian movie director has the schizophrenic experience of commuting between death and life—i.e., between communist Albania and the glamorous West. In Shkaba/L'aigle (see WLT 70:4, p. 1008), written in 1995, the young protagonist literally tumbles from life on the surface into a parallel existence in a mysterious underworld, an analogy for sudden arrest and internment in Albania.

Reality and legendry have intertwined in the works of Kadare from the very start and form the very essence of many of his masterpieces: Prilli i thyer/Broken April (see WLT 65:2, p. 343), Dosja H/Le dossier H (see WLT 65:3, p. 529), Kush e solli Doruntinën?/Doruntine (see WLT 61:2, p. 332), and Ura me tri harqe/The Three-Arched Bridge (see WLT 71:3, p. 630). In Spiritus the world of the living and the world of the dead—i.e. existence as we perceive it versus haunting legendry—mingle anew to entice the reader once again into the fantastic world that is Ismail Kadare's.

Allen Hibbard (review date fall 1997)

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SOURCE: Hibbard, Allen. Review of The Three-Arched Bridge, by Ismail Kadare. Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 3 (fall 1997): 242.

[In the following review, Hibbard finds parallels between The Three-Arched Bridge and Julien Gracq's The Opposing Shore.]

The narrator of The Three-Arched Bridge, a monk by the name of Gjon, begins his story by writing that he will attempt to tell the “whole truth” and in so doing “record the lie we saw and the truth we did not see.” He proceeds to say, “I write this in haste, because times are troubled, and the future looks blacker than ever before.” That threatening dark force is the Ottoman Empire, poised to use Arberia (Albania) as a bridge for their advance into Europe. This tale by Albanian writer Ismail Kadare (titles already available in English include The Concert,The General of the Dead Army,The Pyramid, and The Palace of Dreams) is set in a small village alongside a river bearing the name “Ujana e Keqe” (“Wicked Waters”) in the year 1377. Up until this time, a ferry has served to transport people and goods across the river. All this changes when strangers speaking a difficult tongue make the local count an irresistible offer in exchange for permission to build a bridge across the river. The local population may privately hold suspicions regarding their motives, but no one speaks out except for an old woman named Ajkuna who continually decries the bridge as the work of the devil. Attempts to sabotage the bridge are subverted by the builders who develop and circulate a myth that the bridge requires a human sacrifice. The monk himself worries that local legends he has shared with a stranger posing as a folklorist have been twisted and perverted for enemy purposes. It is little surprise to the reader when one day a common fellow by the name of Murrash Zenebisha is found immured in the bridge. The monk suspects foul play. This is part of the truth he is trying to uncover. Meantime, the monk and his fellow townsfolk unwittingly, naively watch on as the Ottoman Turks put in place all the machinery for invasion and occupation. Kadare's work has been compared to writers as dissimilar as Kafka and García Márquez. In style and tone, as well as theme, this novel reminds me of Julien Gracq's remarkable The Opposing Shore, another powerful parable of the ominous and mysterious operations of opposing systems.

Noel Malcolm (review date 6 November 1997)

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SOURCE: Malcolm, Noel. “In the Palace of Nightmares.” New York Review of Books 44, no. 17 (6 November 1997): 21-4.

[In the following review, Malcolm traces Kadare's literary development, commenting that The Three-Arched Bridge “offers a concentrated example of the Kadarean style and mood.”]

The Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare once observed that every writer has two ages, two chronologies. First there is the author's biological age; then there is his or her reputation, which is born at a different date and lives on another timescale. Kadare himself was born in 1936. His international reputation came into the world in 1970, with the French translation of his first major novel, The General of the Dead Army. From the late 1970s it grew rapidly, under the loving care of a new French foster parent, the Parisian publishing house of Fayard; by its mid-teens, Ismail Kadare's reputation was strong enough to support frequent calls—as yet unheeded—for the award of a Nobel Prize. Today he is possibly the best-known of all living novelists from the former Communist bloc apart from Solzhenitsyn, and certainly the only well-known writer from his native land.

If publications are the yardstick, then Kadare's fame is still growing, albeit at different rates in different languages: there are now nine of his works in English, and more than twenty in French. (Having fled to Paris in 1990, Kadare has become an established figure on the French literary scene.) But since the collapse of communism in Albania in 1990-1992, his reputation has come under serious attack. The accusation is that, far from having represented a kind of spiritual and artistic resistance to Enver Hoxha's Stalinist regime in Albania, he was its beneficiary and one of its active supporters. The people who advance his claims to a Nobel Prize present him as an Albanian Solzhenitsyn; his enemies regard him as an Albanian Gorky-cum-Zhdanov. Or as the subtitle of a recent review in the conservative The Weekly Standard so succinctly put it: “Don't Give the Nobel to an Albanian Party Hack.”

A new English translation of Kadare's novel The Three-Arched Bridge provides an opportunity to test some of these claims. This short work (originally issued as a novella) offers a concentrated example of the Kadarean style and mood. It also takes us to the heart of Kadare's oeuvre in a chronological sense: it was first published in Tirana in 1978, fifteen years after the publication of his first novel there and twelve years before his emigration. Albania in the late 1970s was nudging toward the nadir of the Enver Hoxha era, having lost first its links with the Soviet Union in 1961 and then, in 1976-1977, its bizarre alliance with China. All that remained was economic “autarky,” which meant grinding poverty and absolute geopolitical isolation. It was during this period that Ismail Kadare wrote a succession of historical novels, of which The Three-Arched Bridge is one. Such a retreat into the past could be seen as a sort of internal emigration of the spirit. But Hoxha's ideological presence was not so easily evaded: as a counterpart to his geopolitical isolationism, the Communist dictator also cultivated a strident historical nationalism, propagating a version of Albanian history in which independence and cultural self-sufficiency were projected far back into the past. No historical novel written in the late 1970s could break free of this ideological web—even assuming that its author was trying to do so.

The Three-Arched Bridge is set in late fourteenth-century Albania, on the eve of the Ottoman conquest. The Turks are a menacing presence in this story, but the great military might of the Ottoman state remains offstage. Hints of its maneuverings are made from time to time: we are told of an Albanian-Byzantine-Turkish power struggle over the control of a naval base in southern Albania, and of a request by the pasha of a nearby Ottoman province for the hand of an Albanian ruler's daughter for his son. But the novel largely centers on events taking place within the Albanian ruler's own territory.

One morning, on the banks of the territory's great river, an unknown man falls down in an epileptic fit. A passing soothsayer, also unknown to the locals, declares that this is a sign from God that a bridge must be built on this spot. Three weeks later the ruler is visited by a deputation from a bridge-building company (of foreign, but unspecified, origin), which says it has heard of this divine portent and has come to construct the bridge: it will pay handsomely for the land and the construction rights, in return for control over the tolls. The ruler hesitates because he already has a contract with the “Boats and Rafts” company, another foreign concern, which operates a ferry there. “Boats and Rafts” has also lent the ruler large sums of money. But the bridge-builders offer better terms, and so their proposal is accepted.

We are looking, in other words, at a form of proto-capitalism; to clarify matters, the master bridge-builder will later explain that with the growth of trade and banking and the increasing influence of Venetian and Jewish merchants, “the lineaments of a new order that would carry the world many centuries forward had faintly, ever so faintly, begun to appear in this part of Europe.”

And so the bridge-building begins. All the events are described as seen through the eyes of the tale's narrator, a Catholic priest called Gjon (the Albanian form of “John”). Like the central characters in many of Kadare's other novels he is a humble figure, an observer rather than a protagonist, by nature anxious, slow to comprehend, and cautious, even suspicious, about other people's motives. It is he who suggests, after due reflection, that the incident of the epileptic fit was a sham, staged by the bridge-building company.

Dusk was falling when they [the representatives of the bridge-builders] finally left. I stared after them from the bank for a short while. They were explaining something to each other, making all kinds of hand signs and pointing to each bank of the river in turn. It was cold. In the fast-falling darkness, they looked from a distance like a few black lines scrawled on the raft, as mysterious and incomprehensible as their inhuman gabble. And suddenly, as I watched them disappear, a suspicion crept into my mind, like a black beetle: the man who had fallen in a fit on the riverbank, the wandering fortune-teller who had been close by him, and these two clerks with their tight jerkins were in the service and pay of the same master. …

So when, as the bridge nears completion, it begins to suffer mysterious scratches and gouges and acts of structural damage below the waterline, Gjon also suspects human agency—unlike the superstitious local population, which is convinced that the angry spirit of the river is wreaking its revenge.

The bridge-building company also assumes that human hands, hired by “Boats and Rafts,” are to blame. At the same time, it is worried about the power of superstition, which will prejudice people against the bridge. It sets guards on the parapet, hoping to catch the nocturnal saboteur, but it also attempts a more cunning strategy, aiming to use myth against myth in the way that one nail drives out another. An agent of the company questions Gjon repeatedly about the old ballad of the building of the castle of Shkodër in northern Albania, which was also undone each night by unseen hands. Eventually, the ballad relates, it was revealed that the dismantling would cease only if a human being were walled up alive in the structure of the castle. The next day, this gruesome ritual was carried out on the wife of one of the three master masons, who was placed, alive and standing, in a cavity of the castle wall. In a popular version of the myth, one of her breasts was at first left exposed as they walled her in, so that she could continue to suckle her baby son; ever after, a strange, milky fluid would be secreted from the stone at that point. Delighted with this eminently suitable myth, the bridge-builders' agent arranges for new versions of the ballad to be popularized, in which an act of human sacrifice permits the completion of a bridge.

Not long afterward Gjon is hurriedly called out to the bridge by his parishioners. There he finds that a local man, already dead, is being immured in one of the piers. It is a ghastly sight: the man's head is left visible but quasi-petrified by the plaster that has been poured over it. While the people accept this as an elemental sacrifice, Gjon ponders a more rational explanation: he deduces that this man was the saboteur, working for the rival “Boats and Rafts” company, who had been caught by the guards and murdered on the spot. And, having sensed in advance that something of the sort was being planned, he cannot escape a guilty feeling of complicity in the murder.

Meanwhile the bridge is completed. The first trading caravan to use it is transporting war materiel; and in the final pages of the book the first Turkish horsemen arrive and fight a small but bloody battle against the Albanian guards on the bridge.

There was a clash of spears, and at last the repulse of the horsemen, and their retreat into the fog out of which they had come, with one riderless horse following them, neighing.

That was all. The horizon swallowed the horsemen just as it had given them birth, and you could have thought they were only a mirage, but … here was evidence left at the bridge. Blood stained the bridge at its very midpoint.

Obscurely, we are left with the impression that the bridge has opened the way to all the suffering of the centuries to come.

This brief summary, concentrating on the key elements of the story, does little justice to the book's most striking qualities: its atmospheric density, the setting of explicit symbols against a constantly suggestive background of implicit symbolism, and the poetic tautness of the language (beautifully captured in this translation by John Hodgson, who is one of the few English speakers in this century to have acquired a really fluent and idiomatic knowledge of Albanian).

Both sides, “Boats and Rafts” and the road company, used ancient legend in their savage contest. The former used it to stir up the idea of destroying the bridge, and the latter to plot a murder. …

They had come from far away. One side came from the water, and the other from the steppes, to accomplish before our eyes something that, as their collector of customs said, could still not be understood for what it was: a bridge or a crime. For it was still unknown which of the two would survive longer on this earth and which would be eroded by the seasons. Only then would we understand which was the real edifice and which the mere scaffolding that helped in its construction, the pretext that justified it.

At first sight, it seemed that the newcomers had calculated everything, but perhaps that too was only a superficial view. Perhaps they themselves imagined they were building a bridge, but in fact, as if in a delirium, they had obeyed another order, themselves not understanding whence it came. And all of us, as fickle as they, watched it all and were unable to discern what was in front of us: stone arches, plaster, or blood.

Despite the story's concern to demythologize superstition, the power of myth reverberates here on almost every page. The legend of immurement, or more generally of human sacrifice in the foundations of a building, is a universal motif of folklore: it has been found in Asia, Europe, Africa, and South America. The particular version chosen by Kadare is authentically Balkan. It derives from a Greek ballad about a bridge over the river Arta. (With a touch of cultural nationalism, Kadare presents the bridge version as an imitation of the northern Albanian ballad about the fortress of Shkodër; the true order of priority is the other way around.) The Greek legend spread throughout the Balkan region, generating many different versions: in Romania it was transformed into the legend of Meşterul Manole, about whom the great Romanian composer George Enescu once planned to write an opera. And Kadare is not the only modern writer to have taken up the theme: Ivo Andrić included it in his The Bridge over the Drina, and Nikos Kazantzakis made it the subject of a short tragedy, The Master-Builder.1

But Kadare's is the only treatment to focus on the nature of mythology itself, playing on the tension between symbolic significances and rationalist explanations of events. This means, perhaps, that readers need to be particularly suspicious of any schematic, simple-minded interpretation of the novel. Two such readings are in fact available.

The obvious one is the official, Hoxha-ite explanation: the novel presents Albania as the victim of historic processes (the development of capitalism) and foreign enemies (the Ottoman Turks). Both of these destructive forces have modern counterparts; the motif of the naval base is a transparent reference to Hoxha's confrontation with the Soviet Union over an Albanian submarine base in 1961. Above all, the story of the immurement means that capitalism is built on the blood and bones of the workers. This is just the message you would expect from a novel written by, in The Weekly Standard's words, an Albanian party hack.

Against this, Kadare has recently offered his own, radically different, account. Interviewed by the French critic Alain Bosquet, he describes The Three-Arched Bridge as the first in a sequence of works in which he tried “to recreate a different Albania, eternal and incantatory, as opposed to the sterile and arid Communist Albania.” He points out that the choice of a Catholic priest as a humane and basically “positive” narrator figure is unusual, even subversive, given that the Hoxha regime outlawed religion in 1967; and at the end of the book, Kadare has said, he suggests his own personal identification with the narrator.2

A short introduction to this novel by Kadare in the new Albanian-language edition of his works adds another suggestive idea: the priest's name, Gjon, is intended as a trans-temporal identification with the Catholic priest Gjon Buzuku, whose translation of the Missal (1555) is the earliest surviving book in Albanian.3 In 1990 Kadare's first public challenge to the regime was his suggestion that a statue of Gjon Buzuku should replace the statue of Stalin which stood in front of the Albanian Academy.

Most importantly, Kadare gives in his interview with Alain Bosquet a very different interpretation of the immurement myth. Sacrifice, he says, was a central theme of Communist propaganda: people were exhorted to sacrifice themselves for the country, for the Party, for Enver Hoxha. Kadare's real aim, therefore, was to show that such sacrifice is nothing more than a crime, a cynical murder. Some readers may balk at this interpretation, which requires them to take all the overt references to the bridge-builders as capitalists and somehow convert them symbolically into references to communism. And yet there is a striking piece of evidence to bolster Kadare's claim, all the more striking because he has not mentioned it himself.

At the Fifteenth Plenum of the Party of Labour (i.e., Communist Party) of Albania in 1965, Enver Hoxha devoted his closing speech to the role of literature and the arts in building a Communist society. This was the first time literature had ever been discussed at a Party Plenum; Hoxha's speech, calling for a type of socialist realism tinged with cultural nationalism, became the basis of all subsequent policy in that field. In one key passage, Hoxha urged creative writers to familiarize themselves with the day-to-day work of “the people”:

Our hydro-power stations, and the draining and irrigation of our land … [have not] been created by our people merely with dreams and imagination. These people … have tramped all over the country, have worked and lived in water and mud, with mosquitoes eating them, others have laid down their lives while working to build the dams, just as in our beautiful legends about when the bridges and castles were being built.4

If Kadare had this passage in mind when he wrote The Three-Arched Bridge, then it is not surprising that he hid his true thoughts under a mass of officially approved references to capitalism, foreign oppressors, the Soviet Union, and so on. One might say that his message was immured in the book, buried under a great weight of stone.

But then, if the “official” structure of symbolic references became strong enough to satisfy the censors, as it clearly did, might one not also say that, just as the bridge in the story later became a crossing point for Turkish soldiers, so too Kadare had built a structure solid enough to serve the purposes of his enemy? The subversive meaning of the book has become available to us only because Kadare, from his post-Communist, Parisian vantage point, has told us about it. Or at least, we have only Kadare's word for it that this possible reading of the text is the primary, central meaning, against which all others must be judged as mere camouflage devices.

There is, in the end, something just a little too tidy about Kadare's post-1990 explanations of his work, which set up an entirely unidirectional relationship between a “real” message and an apparent one—both of them ideological in nature. There is also something much too plaintive and insistent about his efforts to explain that everything he did under communism was part of some nonstop dynamic of persecution and resistance. Since the beginning of 1990 he has published no fewer than three defensive autobiographical books, plus two volumes of interviews, all of them traversing more or less the same ground.5 The author doth protest too much; and to a careful reader, the elisions and omissions of these five self-promoting volumes may do more damage to his reputation than any of the direct accusations of his enemies.

To start at the beginning: according to Kadare, his first book, a volume of poems entitled Frymëzimet djaloshare (Youthful Inspirations) was published when he was a seventeen-year-old schoolboy. He gives no explanation of this precocious achievement, and readers are left wondering whether it was normal for seventeen-year-olds to be taken on by publishing houses in 1950s Albania. In fact he was eighteen when the book was published (in 1954); he did, however, appear in print at the age of seventeen—which may explain the memory slip—when two of his poems were included in a commemorative book. They were “Lamtumira e fundit” (“The Final Farewell”) and “Pranvera dhe Stalini” (“The Springtime and Stalin”), and the volume, a memorial to Stalin, was called Mësuesit dhe Atit (To the Teacher and the Father). Such was the small key that opened the door to a literary career.

Let us not make too much out of this. Those teenage tributes to the great dictator may or may not have been heartfelt, and, even if they were, can hardly be used to “explain” the rest of Kadare's literary production. It is only the omission of this detail from his memoirs that is telling.

After his studies at Tirana University Kadare was given a place at the Gorky Institute in Moscow, from which he was hastily recalled after the Albanian-Soviet split in 1961. Two years later he published his first book, The General of the Dead Army, which immediately marked him as the most innovative of Albanian writers. The central figure of the novel is an Italian army general on an official mission to dig up the bodies of Italian soldiers who died in Albania during World War II. The atmosphere throughout is gloomy, even sinister, with mud, fog, and rain on almost every page and only the most perfunctory references to communism. Absurdly described by The Weekly Standard's critic as “a deft execution of the Stalinist genre of socialist realism,” this book was utterly different in spirit from the “socialist realist” novels of the time, with their bright sunshine, cheery peasants, and hydroelectric dams.

Its central theme was a twofold one: the futility of war, and the obsessive, clinging relationship between the living and the dead. As the morose and self-important general tours the Albanian countryside, his attitude toward the bodies he exhumes becomes a grotesque parody of a commander's pride in his troops. He keeps up the methods and appearance of a military mission: he is a stickler for accuracy, correct etiquette, and the observance of rank. He sees himself as leading an army of fallen heroes back to their homeland. But of course the substance, as opposed to the form, of this mission consists merely of smashed skulls, rotting bones, and sticking clay: it is a parody of an army, just as his command is a parodic inversion of the equally proud and senseless campaign which led the soldiers to their deaths in the first place. And in the final section of the book there is another inversion of values: the most famous of all these fallen heroes, the dashing “Colonel Z.,” whose fate obsesses the general, turns out not to have died on the battlefield but to have been killed by an old woman in an act of revenge, after he brutally raped her daughter.

After The General of the Dead Army, the overall pattern of Kadare's relationship with the state was fixed. He was respected as a major talent; suspected as an innovator who broke the bounds of the official aesthetic; and required, from time to time, to turn out more orthodox productions—a poem in praise of the Party, a novel about the progress of women's liberation under communism—to reassure the authorities. (The most important of these was a large-scale novel, The Great Winter, celebrating Hoxha's break with the Soviet Union.) Not that assurance was required because his other works were thought to be subversively anti-Communist. Rather, it was because his most vital novels took place on a different plane, at once more human and more mythic, from that of any type of ideological art, whether anti-Communist or pro-.

Typical in this respect was Kadare's Chronicle in Stone (1971), a magically fictionalized version of his childhood autobiography, set in his native town of Gjirokastër during World War II. Everything is seen through the eyes of the six- or seven-year-old boy; his sense of reality, of the rules of cause and effect, of the difference between the animate and inanimate worlds, has not yet become fixed and solidified. A modern, rational understanding of the world is, in any case, doubly hard to come by. First, because so many of the adults themselves are obsessed with witchcraft and the Evil Eye; and secondly, because the wartime intrusion of alien modern forces—sudden attacks by fighter planes and the unpredictable arrivals and departures of foreign armies—makes no apparent sense at all. To a child growing up in these bewildering times it does not seem unreasonable to regard the city itself—Gjirokastër is a steep hill town in southern Albania, with an extraordinary ensemble of stone houses, stone roof tiles, and stone streets—as a single living being, a prehistoric creature slowly stirring underfoot.

Just once in Chronicle in Stone Kadare refers to the fact that Gjirokastër was Enver Hoxha's home town too. (The Hoxha and Kadare families were geographically close, but not socially intimate; by a nice quirk of topography, the birthplaces of the writer and the politician are just two hundred yards apart, connected by a little street called the Alleyway of the Madmen.) But although the work makes some nods in the direction of Communist history (an older boy joins the Partisans, and so on), it is essentially a Bildungsroman about a child's imagination, not a pro-Communist political tract. Conversely, the attempt by one Albanian émigré critic, Arshi Pipa, to interpret it as a subversively anti-Communist work, on the basis of some “degenerate” peripheral characters and hidden pieces of word-play, remains very unconvincing.6

When news of Pipa's interpretation of this book reached Kadare in Tirana in the early 1980s, he reacted with horror and anger. In particular, Pipa's claim that he had surreptitiously alluded to Enver Hoxha's homosexuality (the ultimate taboo topic) made him fear, he now says, for his life. In return, he has waged a ceaseless vendetta against Pipa, issuing coarse insults—in one recent work he compares “Pipa” to “pipi,” i.e., piss—which do him little credit.7 And yet, ironically, Ismail Kadare is now committed to a version of his own past very similar to Pipa's account of his early literary works: the author as heretic, plotting a strategy of resistance. It is a version that can be rendered credible only by omissions and mystifications.

The biggest mystery about Kadare concerns his poem “The Red Pashas.” From his various recent accounts we learn that he submitted this one-hundred-line poem for publication in Tirana in 1975; that it depicted members of the Central Committee going by night to exhume class enemies executed in the revolution, taking their cloaks, and putting them on their own shoulders; that he was accused of “inciting armed insurrection”; and that he was “virtually deported” to a village in central Albania and forbidden to publish for three years. The text of the poem has never been printed: Kadare claims not to possess any version of it and to remember only a few lines. (One of his fiercest Albanian critics, the novelist Kapllan Resuli, says the poem never existed at all.)8

Without a text it is obviously impossible to judge “The Red Pashas”; but, given that all-out self-destruction has never been Kadare's modus operandi, it is hard to believe that the poem was intended as such a frontal assault on the entire Communist hierarchy. Possibly it was aimed at some disgraced former CC members, or at the Soviet Central Committee instead. The punishment Kadare received would have been absurdly mild had the poem really been seen as a direct attack on the regime; and in fact it was Kadare himself who suggested, at a “self-criticism” session organized by the Union of Writers, that he go to live among “the people” in a village—something that dozens of writers were doing anyway, not as a punishment but in emulation of Maoist China. Nor, finally, does his claim about a three-year ban on publication from 1975 square with the issuing of no fewer than four books by him in 1976-1977.

The point, once again, is not that Kadare was an “Albanian party hack.” Rather, it is that a simplistic post-1990 interpretation, offering only the crude alternatives of party hack vs. persecuted rebel, has warped the judgment not only of Kadare's critics but also of the writer himself. It is not an interpretation that will enable us to do justice to his novels, the best of which (including The Three-Arched Bridge) are too densely multilayered to conform to such schematic readings.

The danger today, however, is that Kadare is determined not only to rewrite his past to fit this scheme, but also to compose his new novels in accordance with it. The Pyramid, his first novel to be completed after the fall of communism, turns into a thinly didactic parable of anti-totalitarianism, positively preachy in its final pages. Set in ancient Egypt, it takes the building of the Pyramid of Cheops as an example of how rulers with absolute power impose huge and unnecessary labors and suffering on their people—the ultimate purpose, in every case, being not the glorification of the ruler but the humiliation of his subjects. The message of the book would be transparent enough, even to Western readers unaware that the Enver Hoxha Memorial Museum in the center of Tirana (designed by Hoxha's daughter and opened in 1988, three years after his death) was in the form of a pyramid. This novel lacks much of the density and mystery of Kadare's earlier meditation on the totalitarian state, The Palace of Dreams, published in 1981.

No one who reads The Palace of Dreams, one of Kadare's greatest works, could possibly accept the dismissive judgment of him as a party hack. It is set in a fantastical version of nineteenth-century Istanbul, and its central invention is the ultimate instrument of state control: a huge bureaucracy devoted to analyzing the dreams of the Ottoman Empire's subjects. The hero, a nervous young man who goes to work there, is a member of a famous Albanian family of Ottoman servants, the Köprülüs, whose name comes from the Turkish for “bridge.” Pointedly, Kadare links this book with The Three-Arched Bridge, claiming (in the text) that the original Köprülü was none other than the narrator-priest, Gjon.

This link is highly suggestive. Both Gjon and the hero of the later book are tainted by a sense of unwilled complicity in crime. (In The Palace of Dreams, it is the hero's own processing of one of the dream-reports sent to him for analysis that forms the vital link in a chain of events leading to the arbitrary execution of an innocent man, suspected—on dream-evidence alone—of treason.) In both cases, too, we can sense an identification between Kadare and his creation. The employee of the Palace of Dreams serves the Ottoman state, but retains in his heart another loyalty—to his distant homeland, and the songs and legends that celebrate it, Ismail Kadare, likewise, had his own complex loyalties to an inner, mythic world, while never ceasing to be an employee of the Palace of Nightmares that was Enver Hoxha's Albania.


  1. There are many studies of the Balkan myth; the most important are Giuseppe Cocchiara, “Il ponte di Arta e i sacrifici di costruzione,” Annali del Museo Pitre, Volume 1 (1950), pp. 38-81, and Georgios Megas, Die Ballade von der Arta-Brucke (Salonica: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1976). The Albanian critic Ardian Klosi has published a valuable comparative study of the legend's treatment by the three modern authors: Mythologie am Werk: Kazantzakis, Andrić, Kadare (Munich: Verlag Otto Sagner, 1991).

  2. Ismail Kadare, Dialogue avec Alain Bosquet (Paris: Fayard, 1995), pp. 62, 98-99.

  3. Ismail Kadare, Vepra, Volume 1 (Paris: Fayard, 1993), p. 363.

  4. Enver Hoxha, Speeches, Conversations and Articles (1965-1966) (Tirana: 8 Nëntori, 1977), p. 233.

  5. Ftesë në studio (Tirana: Naim Frasheri, 1990) and Pesha e kryqit (Paris: Fayard, 1991), both translated as Invitation à l'atelier de l'écrivain, suivi de: Le poids de la croix (Paris: Fayard, 1991); Nga një dhjetor në tjetrin (Paris: Fayard, 1991), translated as Albanian Spring: The Anatomy of Tyranny (London: Saqi Books, 1995); Entretiens avec Eric Faye: en lisant, en écrivant (Paris: José Corti, 1991); Dialogue avec Alain Bosquet (Paris: Fayard, 1995).

  6. Arshi Pipa, Contemporary Albanian Literature (Boulder: East European Monographs, 1991), pp. 60-65. (Pipa died in Washington this summer.)

  7. Ftesë në studio, p. 312. This sentence is prudently omitted from the French translation.

  8. Kapllan Resuli, Fytyra e vërtetë e Kadaresë (Geneva: published by the author, 1992), p. 41.

Richard Eder (review date 15 February 1998)

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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Roots.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (15 February 1998): 2.

[In the following review, Eder maintains that The File on H. functions as a “Balkan farce,” noting that the work is unusually absurd in comparison to Kadare's previous works.]

Two archeologists equipped with a cumbersome tape recorder arrive in a northern Albanian province in the 1930s. They have come to capture the recitations of the last few mountain bards, heirs of an oral epic tradition going back to Homer.

Their project sets off a series of paranoid janglings and clownish cross-purposes in a society as isolated then as it has been virtually ever since.

The Albanian legation in Washington advises the interior minister that the two men could be spies. The minister advises the provincial governor that they almost certainly are spies. He plans to win King Zog's favor by blackmailing them into writing the royal biography, something that his Foreign Ministry rivals have failed to persuade any Western scholar to do.

The governor is furiously bent on catching them red-handed. The governor's wife, Daisy, instantly imagines sex, though the repressed energy of her fantasy life is such that it blasts her past visions of ecstasy into visions of pregnancy, abortion and disgrace. The governor's favorite secret agent, Dull, prepares to cap his career by eavesdropping on the two scholars from their attic, even though he knows no English.

Ismail Kadare begins The File on H. as Balkan farce, as satiric and absurd as something by the early Evelyn Waugh or Lawrence Durrell. The farce is sustained, with touches of comic nightmare, almost to the end. Yet this remarkable Albanian novelist has simply used a lighter-than-air conveyance to shift some of the somber political and literary themes he develops more gravely in The Palace of Dreams,The Three-Arched Bridge and The Pyramid.

The lunacy that ignites around the archeologists, Norton and Ross, as they escape the stifling gossip of the provincial capital and start work at an inn out in the country, is a blithe variation on Kadare's vision of autocracy as self-destroying madness. A harsher note is provided by the Albanian minister in Washington.

He insists to the scholars that in the Iliad's first line—“Sing, O Muse, of the wrath of Achilles”—the initial Greek word, “Menin,” is the Albanian word for resentment. “Which means that of the first three or four words of world literature, the first and unfortunately the bitterest is in Albanian. … Ha ha!” exults this corrosive figure as if clamping darkness down upon the dawn light of Western culture.

As they record the old epics, chanted by the rhapsodes, or bards, who pass the inn on their way from the mountains, Norton and Ross stir up other tremors. Some are picturesque, such as a peasant's worry that the different poems will get mixed up in the tape box or that, if kept there, they will rust. Others are more dangerous: The whine of the tape starts a rumor that people's voices are being tortured.

Finally, there is the rage of Balkan history. The age-old enmity between Albanians and Serbs, just across the border, is fueled by rival claims over which people was there first. A Serbian monk visits the scholars: Why, he asks politely, are they honoring the Albanian side by treating their rhapsodes, rather than the handful of Serb singers in Montenegro, as Homer's descendants? He launches a circuitous rumor, and a mob breaks into the inn, smashes the tape machine and destroys the tapes.

File can be sketchy and seems hastily put together. Daisy is only a comic turn; so is a government agent who, sent from Tirana to take over the investigation, does little more than seduce her. Like the other characters, Norton and Ross are less resonant than the figures in Kadare's best work—until the end, that is, when they come to startling life.

Even before, though, the literary theme that is File's most distinctive achievement is woven into their speculations. Norton's notebook describes what set the two off on their quest. Casting about for doctoral subjects, they heard a scholar speak of “the last forge” of the Homeric epic: the mountain people of the Albanian frontier. Norton, whose mission turns increasingly mystical, rejoices that the tape recorder has just become available, “as if subconsciously it had preexisted its own creation.”

His hope is to study not so much the poems of the rhapsodes as the way in which they elaborate them, repeat them, vary them, thus to achieve an insight into ways that Homer used and shaped earlier bardic recitations; to what degree, scholars do not know.

A prodigious power to remember is essential, of course, for reciting an epic that may be 6,000 lines long. Of more interest is forgetting, which obliges the rhapsode continually to invent and refresh his recitation and keep it alive. “Can a rhapsode exist without a capacity to forget?” Norton asks. Kadare poses the question for its deeper artistic and humane significance.

The rhapsodes stand in the main hall of the inn, surrounded by their friends. Each starts with the majekra, a primeval gesture of invocation: palm held to the temple, fingers fanned out and protruding like a cock's comb above the head as if calling down the demiurge.

The scholars listen avidly for the slight changes that each rhapsode introduces when he repeats a poem—two or three lines out of several thousand. It is a tiny germination, a flicker of renewal in an art that is dying. The dying is evident. The last new subject matter was five lines inserted in a poem in 1913, a time of national disaster. Life has stopped nourishing the epics:

Norton and Ross depart, their work in ruins. “Now the epic is scattered again, just as it was before,” Norton bitterly remarks. He has been losing his eyesight, furthermore, and on the ferry to Italy he goes blind.

The blindness has the last word. Ross picks up an Albanian newspaper and reads an account of their disastrous adventure. It is followed by a poem using the traditional rhetoric:

A black aprath [apparatus] rose from the waves.

Some said it came for our good.

It will only bring grief, said the others.

Some said it brings frozen nightingales to life.

Suddenly Norton leaps to his feet, all but visibly swelling. He claps a hand to his head in the majekra and repeats the lines in guttural monotone, “making them seem to come from far away in time and space.” For that moment he is a blind Homer, invoking a living story in its bardic form, putting his stamp on it, asserting that the epic still has its work to do.

By anyone else, the climax would be willfully melodramatic. Perhaps through his buoyant mastery of darkness, Kadare makes it somber and disturbing. Ross, watching his friend, gets the last lines, and they purge melodrama into something more ancient.

“The word death crossed his mind twice over, but strangely it now seemed devoid of any significance. It was only a shell that encased something else.”

Robert Elsie (review date spring 1998)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of Poémes, 1957-1997, by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 72, no. 2 (spring 1998): 428.

[In the following review, Elsie evaluates both the poems collected in Poémes, 1957-1997 and Kadare's impact on the whole of Albanian poetry.]

The international reception of Ismail Kadare's works over the last thirty years has been mixed. In the Albanian and French-speaking worlds, he is and remains the Albanian prose writer par excellence and has enjoyed wide acclaim. The English, German, Italian, and Spanish-speaking publics have been more reserved, though this is understandable because of the paucity of readable translations until recently (literary translators from the Albanian are a rare breed indeed). But with a wide variety of works, such as Chronicle in Stone (1987), Broken April (1990), The Concert (1994), Albanian Spring (1994), The Palace of Dreams (1996), The File on H. (1997; see the Noted subsection below), and The Three-Arched Bridge (1997), having been published in New York and/or London over the last decade, English-speaking readers have begun to take note of Kadare, even though they are doing so at a point that is comparatively late in the Albanian author's literary career.

It may come as somewhat of a surprise to the Western reader to learn that the Albanian prose writer par excellence made his mark on Albanian literature, in the early years at least, not as a novelist but as a poet. Together with Fatos Arapi (b. 1930) and Dritëro Agolli (b. 1931), Kadare was part of a trio of talented young poets who in 1961, perhaps unwittingly, caused a minor revolution in early Stalinist letters and set modern Albanian verse on its course, steering past the looming icebergs of staid political conformity and meaningless panegyrics. It was thus entirely as a poet that he first won over the hearts of Albanian readers.

Since the launching of his career as an international—or should one simply say French—writer, poetry has, perhaps understandably, fallen by the wayside in Kadare's literary activities. For this, one can postulate two reasons: first, poets rarely succeed in foreign translations; and second, though it is the élan vital of Albanian letters, poetry is by no means a mainstream preoccupation in the Western world. Accordingly, Fayard's initial attempt to interest the public in Kadare's verse, in the volume Poèmes, 1958-1988 (1989), did not prove a great success. Kadare was simply too well known as a best-selling novelist for his readers to bother indulging in the esoteric pleasures of his verse, and this in a not always felicitous translation.

Now, a decade later, a second attempt is being made with the volume Poèmes, 1957-1997. The present selection of seventy-nine poems from the years between 1958 (not 1957) and 1997 is basically a second edition of the 1989 version, with the same discreet cover and the same introduction by Alain Bosquet. As opposed to the earlier edition, however, the poems are presented this time in chronological order, and, in order to justify a new edition, eighteen new poems have been added, mostly from the years 1981-91.

The new poems accompany Kadare through a decisive decade, both for himself as a writer now in exile and for the Albanians as a people. Since the collapse of the isolationist dictatorship in 1989-90, the once-proud “sons of the eagle” have begun wandering as unwanted refugees through “winter in a united Europe,” migrating rather “comme une couvée de jeunes hiboux dispersé.” A number of poems, which the author tells us were written under the dictatorship but not published at the time, contain political allusions not unlike the ones we find in his prose works. “La tombe,” written in 1986, testifies to Kadare's tacit refusal to submit to the collective folly which befell his people for half a century: “Dehors on dresse la pyramide de la honte. / Attristé, je referme les fenêtres / Sur les hurlements, les clameurs, les ovations, / Afin que ni le bruit, ni la poussière de l'époque ne pénètrent.” The construction of the pyramid-shaped Museum of Enver Hoxha in Tirana was also used as a theme for Kadare's allegorical novel The Pyramid (see WLT 67:3, p. 648). Other poems would seem to require more detailed explanatory notes to be fully appreciated by a foreign public.

Throughout the work, both in the old and new poems, hovers a sense of loneliness, a pale token of Kadare's solitary struggle with himself and with the world around him. He is most convincing in moments of quiet despair, staring at the rain as it beats against a windowpane or pondering in the waiting room of a gloomy airport.

Robert Elsie (review date spring 1998)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of The File on H., by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 72, no. 2 (spring 1998): 432.

[In the following review, Elsie commends The File on H. as a “tremendous satire” on Albania's former totalitarian dictatorship.]

The File on H. is a delightful tale from Ismail Kadare's mature period. It was published in Albanian under the title Dosja H in 1990 (see WLT 65:3, p. 529) and has already been translated into French (1989), Swedish (1990), Portuguese (1990), Norwegian (1992), Greek (1992), and Spanish (1993).

The story line takes us back to the early 1930s. Kadare's “fictional” tale is set safely in the prewar period to avoid any possible accusations from Albania's postwar communist rulers that he was criticizing or making fun of their revolutionary regime (which of course he was). In The File on H. two Irish-American scholars venture into the northern Albanian alps, the most isolated region of the Balkans, in search of the last extant cradle of Homeric poetry. The authorities are suspicious of the shifty foreigners and send off an intrepid secret agent in the person of Dull Baxhaja to follow their movements. The local populace, for its part, grows exceedingly nervous at the sight of the new-fangled tape recorders which the innocent scholars have brought with them.

In short, The File on H. is a tremendous satire on the isolationist and xenophobic regime which held sway in Albania for half a century. Originally written in 1981 and first published when the dictatorship was in its last throes, the novel gives clear proof of Kadare's endeavors as a literary “dissident” under a regime which was itself the very epitome of the dutiful Dull Baxhaja.

Ismail Kadare and Shusha Guppy (interview date summer 1998)

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SOURCE: Kadare, Ismail, and Shusha Guppy. “Ismail Kadare: The Art of Fiction CLIII.” Paris Review 40, no. 147 (summer 1998): 195-217.

[In the following interview, Kadare discusses his body of work, his literary influences, his time in the Soviet Union, and his creative process.]

In 1970 a novel by an unknown Albanian writer took literary Paris by storm. The General of the Dead Army was the story of an Italian general who goes back to Albania after the Second World War to find the bodies of the Italian soldiers killed there and take them back to Italy for burial. It was hailed as a masterpiece, and its author was invited to France, where he was welcomed by French intellectuals as an original and powerful voice from behind the Iron Curtain. The General was translated into a dozen languages and inspired two films: one under the same title starring Michel Piccoli, the other Bernard Tavernier's outstanding Life and Nothing Else (La vie et rien d'autre).

Since then over a dozen of his novels and several collections of his poetry and essays have been translated into French, English and other languages. He is considered one of the world's major writers, and has been suggested for the Nobel Prize several times. His French publishers are currently publishing his complete works in six volumes, in both French and the original Albanian. The first three have already appeared.

Ismail Kadaré was born and raised in the town of Gjinokastër in Albania. He read literature at the University of Tiranë and spent three years doing postgraduate work at the Gorky Institute in Moscow. The General was his first novel, published on his return to Albania in 1962, when he was twenty-six.

Kadaré has been compared to Kafka and Orwell, but his is an original voice, at once universal and deeply rooted in his own soil. For over forty years Albania lived under the Communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, whose particularly vicious brand of Stalinism lasted longer than in any other Eastern European country. Kadaré used a variety of literary genres and devices—allegory, satire, historical distancing, mythology—to escape Hoxha's ruthless censorship and deadly reprisals against any form of dissent. His work is a chronicle of those terrible decades though the stories are often situated in the distant past and in different countries. Two of his most famous novels, The Palace of Dreams and The Pyramid, take place respectively during the Ottoman Empire and in ancient Egypt, while The Great Winter and The Concert clearly refer to Hoxha's break with Russia under Khrushchev and with China after Mao's death.

Ismail Kadaré left Albania in 1990 and settled in Paris. In 1996 he was elected an Associate Member of the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences (L'Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques), replacing Austrian-born British philosopher Karl Popper, who died that year.

He lives with his wife and daughter in the Latin Quarter, in a spacious and bright apartment overlooking Luxembourg Gardens; he often travels to Albania. This interview took place at his home in February and October, 1997, with telephone conversations in between.

Kadaré has the reputation of not suffering fools gladly, but I found him gentle and courteous, and rather patient with someone who does not know his country and its literature, about both of which he cares passionately. He speaks French fluently with a distinct accent in a quiet measured voice.

[Guppy]: You are the first contemporary Albanian writer to achieve international fame. For the majority of people, Albania is a tiny country of three and a half million inhabitants on the edge of Europe. So my first question concerns the Albanian language. What is it?

[Kadare]: Half of the Albanian population lives next door, in Yugoslavia, in the region of Kosovo. In all, ten million people in the world speak Albanian, which is one of the basic European languages. I'm not saying this out of national pride—it is a fact. Linguistically speaking, there are six or seven fundamental families of languages in Europe: Latin, Germanic, Slavic, Baltic (spoken in Latvia and Estonia) and three languages without families, so to speak: Greek, Armenian and Albanian. Therefore, the Albanian language is more considerable than the little country where it is spoken, since it occupies an important place in Europe's linguistic cartography. Hungarian and Finnish are not Indo-European languages.

Albanian is also important for being the only descendant of the ancient Ilyrians' language. In antiquity there were three regions in southern Europe: Greece, Rome and Ilyria. Albanian is the only survivor of the Ilyrian languages. That is why it has always intrigued the great linguists of the past. The first person to make a serious study of Albanian was the German philosopher Gottfried Leibnitz in 1695.

The one Voltaire parodied in Candide as Dr. Pangloss, who said, “All is well in this the best possible of worlds.”

Exactly. Yet Albania did not exist at that time as a separate entity—it was part of the Ottoman Empire, like the rest of the Balkans, including Greece. But this German genius found the language interesting. After him, other German scholars produced long studies of Albanian, Franz Bopp for example, whose book is very detailed.

What about Albanian literature? What is its origin? Is there an Albanian Dante, Shakespeare or Goethe?

Its sources are essentially oral. The first literary book in Albanian was published in the sixteenth century, and it was a translation of the Bible. The country was then Catholic. After that there were writers. The founding father of Albanian literature is the nineteenth-century writer Naim Frasheri. Without having the greatness of Dante or Shakespeare, he is nonetheless the founder, the emblematic character. He wrote long epic poems, as well as lyrical poetry, to awaken the national consciousness of Albania. After him came Gjergj Fishta. We can say that these two are the giants of Albanian literature, the ones that children study at school. Later came other poets and writes, who produced perhaps better works than those two, but they don't occupy the same place in the nation's memory.

The Turks took Constantinople in 1454, and then the rest of the Balkans and Greece. What was the impact of Turkish on Albanian?

Hardly any. Except in the administrative vocabulary, or in cooking—words like kebab, café, bazaar. But it had no influence on the structure of the language, for the simple reason that they are two totally different machines, and one can't use the spare parts of one for the other. The Turkish language was not known anywhere outside Turkey. Modern Turkish has been constructed by Turkish writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, while the dry, administrative Turkish was not a living language and therefore could not have any influence on the other languages of the Ottoman Empire. I have met Turkish writers who have told me that they have problems with their language.

On the other hand, a great deal of foreign vocabulary has entered Turkish—Persian, Arabic, French, among others. Before modern times, Turkish authors wrote in Persian, or in Arabic if the subject was theology.

For me as a writer, Albanian is simply an extraordinary means of expression—rich, malleable, adaptable. As I have said in my latest novel, Spiritus, it has modalities that exist only in classical Greek, which puts one in touch with the mentality of antiquity. For example, there are Albanian verbs that can have both a beneficent or a malevolent meaning, just as in ancient Greek, and this facilitates the translation of Greek tragedies, as well as of Shakespeare, the latter being the closest European author to the Greek tragedians. When Nietzsche says that Greek tragedy committed suicide young because it only lived one hundred years, he is right. But in a global vision it has endured up to Shakespeare, and continues to this day. On the other hand, I believe that the era of epic poetry is over. As for the novel: it is still very young. It has hardly begun.

Yet the death of the novel has been foretold for fifty years!

There are always people who talk a lot of nonsense! But in a universal perspective, if the novel is to replace the two important genres of epic poetry—which has disappeared—and of tragedy—which continues—then it has barely begun, and has still two thousand years of life left.

It seems to me that in your oeuvre you have tried to incorporate Greek tragedy into the modern novel.

That is exact. I have tried to make a sort of synthesis of the grand tragedy and the grotesque, of which the supreme example is Don Quixote—one of the greatest works of world literature.

The novel has since divided into many genres …

Not at all! For me these genre divisions do not exist. The laws of literary creation are unique; they don't change, and they are the same for everyone everywhere. I mean that you can tell a story that covers three hours of human life, or three centuries—it comes to the same thing. Each writer who creates something authentic, in a natural way, instinctively also creates the technique that suits him. So all forms, or genres, are natural.

Listen, I think that in the history of literature there has been only one decisive change: the passage from orality to writing. For a long time literature was only spoken, and then suddenly with the Babylonians and the Greeks came writing. That changed everything, because before, when the poet recited or sang his poem and could change it at every performance as he pleased, he was free. By the same token he was ephemeral, as his poem changed in oral transmission from one generation to the next. Once written, the text becomes fixed. The author gains something by being read, but he also loses something—freedom. That is the great change in the history of literature. Little developments such as division in chapters and paragraphs, punctuation, are relatively insignificant; they are details.

For example, they say that contemporary literature is very dynamic because it is influenced by the cinema, the television, the speed of communication. But the opposite is true! If you compare the texts of the Greek antiquity with today's literature, you'll notice that the classics operated in a far larger terrain, painted on a much broader canvas, and had an infinitely greater dimension: a character moves between sky and earth, from a god to a mortal, and back again, in no time at all! The speed of action, the cosmic vision in a page and a half of the second book of the Iliad is impossible to find in a modern author. The story is simple: Agamemnon has done something that has displeased Zeus, who decides to punish him. He calls a messenger and tells him to fly to earth, find the Greek general called Agamemnon and put a false dream into his head. The messenger arrives in Troy, finds Agamemnon asleep and pours a false dream into his head like a liquid, and goes back to Zeus. In the morning Agamemnon calls his officers and tells them that he has had a beautiful dream, and that they should attack the Trojans. He suffers a crushing defeat. All that in a page and a half! One passes from Zeus's brain to Agamemnon's, from the sky to earth. Which writer today could invent that? Ballistic missiles are not as fast!

Nevertheless, there have been literary events, such as modernism—Joyce, Kafka …

Kafka was very classical, so was Joyce. When Joyce became really modernist, in Finnegans Wake, he failed. He went too far and no one likes that book. Even Nabokov, a great admirer of Joyce, said it was worthless. There are inventions and innovations that are not acceptable, for there is a vein that one cannot cut with impunity, just as one cannot slice off certain aspects of human nature. A man meets a woman, and they fall in love. In this love there are all manner of possibilities, diversities, but one can't imagine this woman with the body of another creature. If there is a total severance from reality, it is the end, one enters the realm of signs.

Do you mean that there is a certain continuity in human creativity?

Exactly. We are in a way trapped by the past of humankind; we don't need to know the psychology of, say, crocodiles or giraffes. The past may be a burden, but there is nothing we can do about that. All this noise about innovations, new genres, is idle. There is real literature, and then there is the rest.

You have also spoken about negative creation. What do you mean by that?

Negative creation for a writer is what he doesn't write. You need a great talent to know what you shouldn't write, and in a writer's consciousness nonwritten works are more numerous than the ones he has written. You make a choice. And this choice is important. On the other hand, one must liberate oneself from these corpses, bury them, for they prevent one from writing what one should, just as it is necessary to clear up a ruin in order to prepare the site for building.

This reminds me of Cyril Connolly, who said, “The books I have not written are so much better than the ones my friends have produced.” But let us talk about your beginnings. Your childhood first. You were very small when the war broke out, after which everything changed in Albania.

My childhood was rich, for I witnessed many events. The war started when I was five. I lived in Gjinokastër, a very beautiful town, through which passed the foreign armies, which was a continuous spectacle—the Italians, the Greeks … the town was bombarded by the Germans, the English, passed on from one hand to another. For a child it was very exciting. We lived in a large house with many empty rooms where we played—an important part of my childhood. My paternal family was modest—my father was a court messenger, the man who delivered the tribunal's letters—but my maternal family was quite rich. Paradoxically, it was my mother's family which was Communist, while my father was conservative and puritanical. We lived modestly at home, but when I went to my maternal grandfather's house I was the child of a rich family. My father was against the Communist regime, my mother and her family were for it. They did not quarrel about it, but they teased each other with irony and sarcasm. At school I belonged neither with the children from poor backgrounds, who were pro-Communist, nor with those of rich families who were terrified of the regime. But I knew both sides. That made me independent, free from childhood complexes.

After school you moved to Tiranë, the capital, and studied literature at the university. Then you went to the Gorky Institute in Moscow. It was at the time of Khrushchev, when there was a kind of liberation, a thaw after the long Stalinist freeze. How did you find the literary scene in Moscow?

I was sent to the Gorky Institute to become an official writer of the regime—it was a factory for fabricating dogmatic hacks of the socialist-realism school. In fact, they took three years to kill every creativity, every originality you possessed. Luckily I was already immunized by what I had read. At the age of eleven I had read Macbeth, which had hit me like lightning, and the Greek classics, after which nothing had any power over my spirit. What was happening in Elsinor, or by the ramparts of Troy, seemed to me more real than all the wretched banality of socialist-realist novels.

At the institute I was disgusted by the indoctrination, which in a way saved me. I kept telling myself that on no account must I do what they taught me but the exact opposite. Their official writers were all slaves of the party, except for a few exceptions like Konstantin Paustovsky, Chukovsky, Yevtushenko.

During my stay at the institute, I wrote a novel called The Town without Publicity. When I returned to Albania, I was worried about showing it to anyone. I published a short extract, in a magazine, entitled “A Day at the Café,” which was immediately banned. No longer was there any question of publishing the book. The head of the Communist Youth Organization who had recommended its publication was later accused of liberalism and condemned to fifteen years of imprisonment. Luckily this extract exists; otherwise no one today would believe that I wrote the novel. It was the story of two literary crooks who want to falsify a text in order to prove that it can be adapted to Marxism, thereby advancing their careers. It tapped into the fundamental problem at the core of socialist culture—falsification. This novel will be published in the sixth volume of my complete works, which my French publishers are preparing. Not a word of it will be changed.

Yet in your adolescence you were attracted by communism, weren't you?

There was an idealistic side to it; you thought that perhaps certain aspects of communism were good in theory, but you could see that the practice was terrible. Very soon I realized that the whole edifice was repressive, disastrous.

At the institute, were you permitted to read forbidden or dissident writers, such as Pasternak, Akhmatova, Tsvetayevna, Mandelshtam?

I read Gogol and Pushkin; certain novels of Dostoyevsky's, in particular The House of the Dead and Brothers Karamazov.

What about in Albania?

In Albania all these writers were forbidden. From time to time I managed to find a volume when I traveled abroad. I read Orwell and Kafka. I think the latter is more important. I liked 1984 but didn't care for Animal Farm because allegories of the animal kingdom don't touch me much. What happened in totalitarian countries was worse than anything that literature has ever invented.

Orwell was unique in England. At the time when the majority of the intellectuals were sympathizers or fellow travelers, he understood the nature of totalitarianism and exposed it.

I could not understand how Sartre could defend the Soviet Union. During the Cultural Revolution in China, he was told that thousands of writers, artists and intellectuals were persecuted, tortured, killed. And he became a Maoist!

What posthumous triumph for Camus, whose reputation has gained in recent years! He turns out to have been right on every political issue, while Sartre was always wrong. Camus stood firm despite all the pressures exerted on him, which was not easy in those days.

I have great respect for Camus—he was exemplary. Most Western intellectuals who lived here, free, unthreatened by totalitarian dictatorship, expected us to show courage and risk our lives. In China it was even worse than it was in Albania. Why didn't Western intellectuals protest?

You returned to Albania in 1960 and published the novel which was to make you famous—The General of the Dead Army. Was the story based on a real incident, a fait divers?

Enver Hoxha had just broken with the Soviet Union, accusing Khrushchev of revisionism, of making advances towards the West … attracting the interest of the West by pretending to cultural liberalism. Opposition to my novel came from the official critics after its publication. They blamed me for not being optimistic, for not expressing hatred toward the Italian general, for being cosmopolitan and so on.

Your second novel, The Monster, tackled the theme of political anxiety. How was that received?

The Monster is the story of a town in which one fine morning the Trojan Horse appears. Inside the horse there are characters from antiquity—like Ulysses—who just wait for the day the town will fall. But I did something odd: Troy does not fall; the horse stays there forever. The people live in permanent anxiety. They say: “How are we going to live, this has been going on for three thousand years, and the horse is still there, he is eternal. What can we do?” They whisper about plots, threats, and life is not normal. Because the totalitarian regime is founded on this paranoia about threats from outside, it needs an enemy to justify repression.

This novel was banned. So what did you live on? Because if one was not an official writer, a member of the Writers' Union, one could do nothing.

Though they published me and banned me by turns, once you were published and acknowledged as an author, you became a member of the Writers' Union, and you received a monthly salary, which was the same for everybody, whether a genius or a crook. This salary was one thousandth of the royalties I would have received for the number of books I sold.

In such a climate of repression, how did you manage to have The General translated and published in France?

In Albania, as in all Eastern European countries, there was an organization responsible for translating a number of books into a few important foreign languages. So they translated my book into French. By chance the journalist Pierre Paraf saw it, liked it and recommended it to a French publisher.

After its great success in the West, did you feel a little more secure, protected by your international fame?

Yes, but also more watched, because I was considered dangerous.

Let us move on to your influences. First of all, your interest in Greek tragedians, particularly Aeschylus about whom you have written a long essay: “Aeschylus or the Eternal Loser.” Why him?

I saw parallels between Greek tragedy and what was happening in totalitarian countries, above all the atmosphere of crime and the fight for power. Take the House of Atreus, where every crime leads to another until everybody is killed. There were horrible crimes in Hoxha's circle. For example, in 1981 the prime minister, Mehmet Shehu, committed “suicide”—murdered by Hoxha. For my part, I was somewhat protected from prison by my international fame, but not from the dagger—they could kill me and say that it was a suicide, or a car crash.

I'm going to become the devil's advocate, if I may, and suggest that in such a society survival itself becomes suspect, as in Stalin's Russia. We can mention those who perished, like Mandelshtam, or were garrotted, like Akhmatova, or stopped writing, like Pasternak—reduced to translating Shakespeare—and endless others. In 1970 you wrote a six-hundred-page novel, The Long Winter, which was not based on a myth or a historical event, but on the current political situation in your country. Your book seemed to be an attack on revisionism, and therefore a defence of Hoxha. What reason did you have for writing the book? After all, you could have just gone on writing the sort of covert, allegorical stories you had written.

From 1967 to 1970 I was under the direct surveillance of the dictator himself. Remember that, to the great misfortune of the intellectuals, Hoxha regarded himself as an author and a poet, and therefore a “friend” of writers. As I was the country's best-known writer, he was interested in me. In such a situation I had three choices: to conform to my own beliefs, which meant death; complete silence, which meant another kind of death; to pay a tribute, a bribe. I chose the third solution by writing The Long Winter. Albania had become an ally of China, but there were frictions between the two countries, which later led to a break. Like Don Quixote, I thought that my book could accelerate this break with our latest “ally” by encouraging Hoxha. In other words, I thought that literature could accomplish the impossible—change the dictator!

That book is the only one, to my knowledge, in which you tackle the political situation directly. Otherwise you have used various camouflages—myth, allegory, humor. I'm thinking of The Pyramid and The Palace of Dreams, set respectively in ancient Egypt and in Ottoman times. In The Pyramid, Pharaoh Cheops wants to build a pyramid that would be bigger and last longer than any other—an enterprise that justifies and legitimizes every sacrifice, every oppression. In The Palace of Dreams the control and classification of dreams goes wrong. Did your readers in Albania understand the allusions to the Soviet empire and to the Pharaoh Hoxha?

Yes. They saw clearly that I was alluding to the Communist empire, which is why they banned The Palace of Dreams.

Were you influenced by writers who used the same stratagems, such as Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita, Zamyatin in Z, which inspired Orwell's 1984, as well as Hrabal and Kundera, or Kafka in The Castle and The Trial—the prototypes of an oppressive and closed system?

I had read them, and I was conscious of certain similarities. At the same time, I was anxious to not use banal ruses. I had to be convinced that it would be real literature, with a global vision. In this sense The Palace of Dreams is a success.

The Soviet gulags have produced a rich witness literature in the works of Solzhenitsyn, Natalia Ginzburg, Nadezhda Mandelshtam and others. Were there gulags in Albania?

Yes, but fewer, as the country was small. Hoxha built thousands of antinuclear bunkers, in case of an atomic war breaking out, but they were utterly useless, as he knew: his purpose was to create a fear-psychosis.

Despite his suspicious attitude towards you, Hoxha made you a member of Parliament. Why?

It meant nothing at all. The list of MPs was drawn by him, and if anyone refused, he was eliminated, killed. No one ever refused, and it involved no work whatever. Once a year the Parliament was convened, and Hoxha dictated what he wanted—no discussion, no debate. The deputies were chosen from among workers, scientists, writers, so that the Parliament appeared representative of the population.

After the success of your books in the West, you could have left the country. Were you ever tempted? In your book The Albanian Spring, published in 1992, you say that several times you nearly stayed in France.

I did not leave because the reprisals on the relatives, friends, even acquaintances were terrible. In 1983 I came to France with the intention of staying. Then I realized that it was not possible. There was the risk of a complete break with my country, my language, all those I loved. My French friends advised me to go back, and I did.

The sad novel you wrote later, The Shadow, explains this déchirement: the choice between exile and freedom on the one hand, oppression and tyranny on the other. Were you afraid of exile?

No. The writer is always to some extent in exile, wherever he is, because he is somehow outside, separated from others; there is always a distance.

So why did you leave after the fall of Communism?

I left in 1990, when Albania was oscillating between democracy and dictatorship. I thought that my departure would help the cause of democracy. I said that if the country chose dictatorship, I would not return, and that threat stimulated the struggle for democracy. I had come to France for the publication of The Palace of Dreams, and I made a public statement. The media reported it, and that played a decisive role in favor of democracy.

The people wanted to elect you president, like Havel in Czechoslovakia, but you refused. Why?

I did not hesitate a second to refuse. My case was different from Havel's; I wanted to remain a writer and free.

It is quite a dilemma: should one resist dictatorship, become a dissident, as did some writers in Czechoslovakia, or leave the country, as did German writers when Hitler came to power—they left in droves?

One shouldn't be naive! The circumstances were different in each country. You can't compare Albania under Hoxha with Czechoslovakia. We did not have a Dubcek, the Czech Spring, and all that followed. If Havel had been in Albania, he would have been shot immediately. That is why there were no dissidents in Russia under Stalin. No one could do anything. In Albania, as in Romania, Stalinism lasted until the very end. When Havel was in prison, he had his typewriter, access to world media, everyone talked about him. Those who compare our situation with Czechoslovakia have no idea of Stalinist repression.

So you really survived by miracle?

Not entirely. Every regime needs to save face with respect to the international community, and if you are a famous writer, the regime has to be careful. Hoxha wanted to be considered a poet, a Sorbonne student, a writer, not a murderer. The only thing that a writer could do under such a dictatorship was to try to produce true literature. That way one does one's duty for eternity. To expect anything else is cynical and criminal. The Albanians had in me a writer who connected them with the world. I dominated our cultural life, and I was safeguarding Albanian culture with my work, for there was on one side what I was creating, on the other the Communist product, which was worthless. When a book of mine was published, in fifteen minutes it was sold out—every copy was immediately bought. People knew that it would probably be banned, so they rushed to buy it before it was. Sometimes the book was banned before distribution, but by then thousands of copies were in circulation, and people passed them on to one another.

Were you not supposed to submit your manuscript to the Writers' Union for inspection, which was the case in Russia?

No. In Albania there was no prepublication censorship, since there was so much terror, self-censorship was enough. This was one of Hoxha's idiosyncracies; as I said, he took himself for an intellectual. So it was the publishers who decided whether to publish a book or not. When I handed in the manuscript of The Palace of Dreams I knew it was a dangerous book. The publisher read it and said that he could not risk publishing it. So I told him that I accepted the responsibility: “If they start bothering you, tell them that you were impressed by my celebrity, and that I bullied you into it.” In such circumstances they always punished the author, not the publisher. That is in fact what happened. He said to the authorities that considering my prestige he had not dared to refuse my manuscript.

So writers like you gave signals, but people in the West did not want to believe how dire the situation was in Eastern European countries.

In Albania everybody knew that I was an antiregime writer. And the fact that the regime couldn't condemn me gave courage to others. That is the fundamental function of literature: maintaining the moral torch. In 1988 France made me an honorary member of the Institut de France, a very great honor. A French journalist interviewed me on the radio, asking me frankly if I was free to write what I wanted. I answered: “No. Because freedom in our country is different from here.” What else could I say? I could not speak more openly against the regime. What I was trying to do was give a chained people a certain nourishment—a cultural richness comparable to that of the free peoples of the world.

Can you explain what you mean by true literature?

You recognize it immediately, instinctively. Every time I wrote a book, I had the impression that I was thrusting a dagger into the dictatorship, while at the same time giving courage to the people.

In view of what has happened in Yugoslavia, I would like to ask you about religious intolerance. Half the Albanians are Muslims, including your family. Did you receive a religious education? Is there a danger of Islamic Fundamentalism in Albania now that religious practice has become free?

I don't think so. My family were Muslims in name, but they did not practice. No one around me was religious. Besides, the Bektashi sect of Islam that is practiced in Albania is very moderate, even more so than in Bosnia. So I don't think we need to worry on that score.

To come back to the professional side of things, how do you divide your time between Tiranë and Paris? And your day, wherever you are?

I am more in Paris than in Tiranë because I can work better here. There is too much politics in Tiranë, and too many demands. I am asked to write a preface here, an article there … I don't have an answer to everything.

As for my day: I write two hours in the morning, and I stop. I can never write more—my brain gets tired. I write in a café around the corner, away from distractions. The rest of my time is spent reading, seeing friends, all the rest of my life.

Is writing easy for you or difficult? Are you happy when writing, or anxious?

Writing is neither a happy nor an unhappy occupation—it is something in-between. It is almost a second life. I write easily, but I'm always afraid that it may be no good. You need a stable humor; both happiness and unhappiness are bad for literature. When you are happy, you tend to become light, frivolous, and if you are unhappy your vision becomes perturbed. You have to live first, experience life, and later write about it.

Do you write on the typewriter or by hand?

I write by hand, and my wife kindly types it.

Do you rewrite a lot?

Not much, just small adjustments, but no drastic changes.

What comes first—the plot, characters, ideas?

It depends. It is different for each book. The process is mysterious, vague. It is not the characters, but a mixture of everything. Take The Palace of Dreams. In an earlier novel, The Corner of Shame, there is one page where the idea of dream-control is for the first time introduced. Later, I thought it was a pity to use it so briefly, or perfunctorily. So I wrote a short story on the theme, without any hope of publication. But two chapters were published in a collection of short stories. When I saw that the authorities did not notice it, I was emboldened and expanded it into a novel. So you see, the genesis of a book is mysterious.

Those who read your work in the original Albanian remark upon the beauty of your prose. Is style a conscious preoccupation for you?

I am meticulous, even demanding, about language. For example, I always write poetry, because poetry forces you to work on the language. There are two kinds of linguistic richnesses: the first is similar to that of precious stones—metaphors, similies, little discoveries—the second is in the whole. The great felicity is a perfect mixture of the two, when a text is beautifully written and the content is substantial too. But there is no conscious stylistic effort on my part.

What are the things that prevent you from working? Hemingway said the telephone was the big work-killer.

In Tiranë no one dared use the telephone, except for the most anodyne purposes, because the phones were tapped. But as I said, I only write two hours a day, and it is not difficult to be isolated for that length of time.

Your last novel, Spiritus, had a very good reception in France, and I hope it will be translated into English soon. Have you started a new novel?

No. Is there any hurry?

Julian Evans (review date 13 May 1999)

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SOURCE: Evans, Julian. “A Thick Fog Covers the Plain of Blackbirds.” London Review of Books 21, no. 10 (13 May 1999): 30-1.

[In the following favorable review of Trois chants funèbres pour le Kosovo, Evans maintains that “the three elegies, like his other fiction, seek to establish not necessarily an exact historical truth but one based on an amalgam of ascertainable fact and the authenticity of literary tradition.”]

Ismail Kadare knew what was coming six years ago. ‘The Albanians have kept extremely calm in Kosovo,’ he told me, ‘because they know that the Serbs are only waiting for a sign of provocation to start a terrible massacre. Milosevic is biding his time. All his plans are ready. He is encouraged by the passivity of the European nations and the US … The Slavs are very good at these nationalistic campaigns. Someone aggressive makes a move, puts extreme pressure on a neighbour, and the civilised world, which is tired out, accepts.’ Reading his words, published in the Guardian in February 1993, you could be excused for taking them (as I did when I heard them) as an indication of great foresight. Having talked to him several times since then I would now put it differently: his remarks spring not from foresight, but from terrible hindsight. What we are seeing on our television screens and reading about in our newspapers has happened before.

Almost all the Muslims … were expelled from the Morava valley region: there had been hundreds of Albanian villages there, and significant Albanian populations in towns such as Prokuplje, Leskovac and Vranje. A Serbian schoolmaster in Leskovac later recalled that the Muslims had been driven out in December 1877 at a time of intense cold: ‘By the roadside, in the Gudelica gorge and as far as Vranje and Kumanovo, you could see the abandoned corpses of children, and old men frozen to death’ … By the end of 1878 Western officials were reporting that there were 60,000 families of Muslim refugees in Macedonia, ‘in a state of extreme destitution’; and 60-70,000 Albanian refugees from Serbia ‘scattered’ over the [Ottoman] vilayet of Kosovo … This was not, it should be said, a matter of spontaneous hostility by local Serbs. Even one of the Serbian Army commanders had been reluctant to expel the Albanians from Vranje, on the grounds that they were a quiet and peaceful people. But the orders came from the highest levels in Belgrade.

It was from a local Catholic priest that the Daily Telegraph learned of a massacre at Ferizaj, where the Serbian commander had invited the Albanian men to return to their homes in peace, and where those who did so (300-400 men) were then taken out and shot. The fullest and most chilling account was given by Lazër Mjeda, the Catholic Archbishop of Skopje, in a report to Rome of 24 January 1913. He said that in Ferizaj only three Muslim Albanians over the age of fifteen had been left alive; that the Albanian population of Gjilan had also been massacred, although the town had surrendered without a fight; and that Gjakova had been completely sacked.

Both passages come from Noel Malcolm's Kosovo: A Short History. The first describes the ethnic cleansing of Muslims from territories taken over by Serbia in 1877 and 1878; the second the conquest of Kosovo by the Serbian Army 34 years later. In 1912, Kosovo was still under Ottoman rule but about to become an autonomous state after a revolt of Kosovar Albanian chiefs; by a horrible irony it was this Albanian revolt which, by enfeebling the Ottoman garrisons, enabled the Serbs' anti-Ottoman campaign to be rapidly won.

Anyone who wants to look into the origins of Serbs and Albanians—Ptolemy's Serboi in the northern Caucasus; the Albanian Illyrian-or-Thracian argument—and of their enmities should read Noel Malcolm's brilliant account, on which I have drawn extensively in this review. The main elements of the present situation—the festering of Serb nationalism, the ideology of the ethnically pure state, the rhetoric of external threat—have relatively recent roots: as recent, in fact, as Serbia's struggle for independence in the 19th century. On the Albanian side it was not until the events of 1877-78 and, more conclusively, the policies pursued immediately after the 1912 conquest that a thoroughgoing hostility towards Serbia was created.

The inclusion of Kosovo in Serbia's territorial aims was in part justified by the claim that Kosovo is ‘the cradle of the Serbs’. When I spoke to him in 1993, Kadare was adamant that the claim was unfounded: ‘the Serbs—the Slavs—came to the Balkans in the eighth century, when the Albanians and the Greeks were already there.’ Noel Malcolm, who cautions against arguments conducted on the basis of which ethnicity has been where longest, nonetheless bears him out: of the eight centuries between the arrival of the Serbs in the Balkans and the final Ottoman conquest in the 1450s, Kosovo was under Serb rule only for the last two and a half.

The other reason Kosovo was so important, the reason the 1912 victory against the Turks (and Albanians) was greeted with euphoria in Belgrade, had to do with the persistent, unifying myth of Serbian history. No ideological landmark looms larger in Serbian historiography than the 14th-century battle of Kosovo, at the end of which a Serbian army under Prince Lazar was defeated by the Ottoman troops of Sultan Murat. For centuries the vanquished Serbs have held up their defeat as a cue for mourning and renewal. It is germane to what is going on now that they are encouraged by Slobodan Milosevic to base their identity, not on a common-or-garden victory—as they might have done after 1912—but on a glorious defeat, with all its connotations of vengeance. Rebecca West noticed this habit of clinging to victimhood in her Serbian guide, Constantine, in the late Thirties:

It was as if he were a very sick man, for he was sleepy, fretful, inferior to himself, and quarrelsome. He could put nothing in a way that was not an affront. Now he said: ‘We will stop at Grachanitsa, the church I told you of on the edge of Kossovo plain, but I do not think you will understand it, because it is very personal to us Serbs, and that is something you foreigners can never grasp. It is too difficult for you, we are too rough and too deep for your smoothness and your shallowness. That is why most foreign books about us are insolently wrong.’

The most foolhardy aspect of NATO's bombing, apart from clearing the territory for Milosevic and uniting moderate Serbs behind a dictator it has succeeded in transforming into a patriot, is that it will reinforce for decades to come the widespread feeling among Serbs that the world is out to get them.

It is the ‘myth of Kosovo’ that Kadare—a southern Albanian—has taken on in Trois chants funèbres pour le Kosovo. Laying himself open to charges that he is ‘insolently wrong’, he has sought to retell the story of the battle and its aftermath. This is not an easy task: there are few things that can be said about the battle with total certainty (though the lack of facts has itself allowed Balkan chroniclers great creative latitude). We know that it lasted ten hours; that there were heavy casualties on both sides; that Lazar and Murat were both killed, and that at the end of the day the Turks held the battlefield, the ‘field of blackbirds’, campus merulae in the Latin chronicles.

The most important point of disagreement between Serbian myth and Kadare's retelling has to be decided in his favour. In the eyes of the Serbs it is they and they alone who were defeated. Contemporary accounts differ as to exactly who fought with Prince Lazar, but it is certain that a Balkan coalition of some kind faced the camels and grey-dressed ranks of the Turks. There was Tvrtko, King of Bosnia, with his army; there were Albanian forces, possibly under the command of two princes, Balsha and Jonima (though Malcolm believes that Balsha was in Montenegro on the day of the battle); and there were others: Wallachians under the voïvod Mircea, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Czechs and Franks. There are also likely to have been Serbs on the Turkish side—Kraljevic and Dejanovic, rulers of Macedonian and Bulgarian territories who were Ottoman vassals—along with some tribal Albanians. In other words, Serbs and Albanians fought as allies on both sides.

Kadare is not trying to slant the confused historical position in the Albanians' favour. The three elegies, like his other fiction, seek to establish not necessarily an exact historical truth but one based on an amalgam of ascertainable fact and the authenticity of literary tradition. His novels and stories, even the darkest, most urban and political, are more like folk tales than anything else; one of his gifts is to transform everyday events into archetypes, ordinary incidents into spiritual and mythical (not false-mythical) events. In person, he is nerveless and articulate in political argument; as a novelist he also has the virtue of being able to ignore his own intellect.

The protagonists of two of the Trois chants funèbres, the rhapsodists Gjorg and Vladan, Albanian and Serb respectively, employed in Lazar's army to sing the glory of their princes, never talk politics. Their antagonism, expressed in unchanging formulas, becomes hilarious on the eve of the battle:

Meanwhile, each in his own language, the rhapsodists had begun composing their songs. They closely resembled those of long ago, and even the words were very similar. The old Serb men sang, ‘Oh, see how the Albanians are readying their weapons against us!’ and in the same way the bards from Albania took up the warning: ‘Arise, Albanians, the Slavs are on their way to attack us!’

Protests were heard. ‘Are you mad, or just pretending? The Turks are about to descend on us like a ton of bricks and you keep trotting out the same refrain: “The Serbs are out to get us, the Albanians are out to get us.”’

‘Yes, yes. Of course we know that,’ the rhapsodists replied. ‘But that's the form we model our songs on, and that's how we're going to carry on. Those forms aren't like moulds for making weapons, that change every ten years. Our models need at least a century to be changed.’

Two of the elegies describe the day of the battle, and what happens to our rhapsodists in their wanderings afterwards. Close attention is paid to the death of the Sultan, Murat, who in Kadare's version is killed by his own Ottoman vizirs (in defiance of the chronicles attributing his death to a Serbian knight) so that his expansionist son Bajazet can mount the throne. The third story is a coda, a ‘prière royale’ by the spirit of the Sultan whose blood and entrails have been buried, according to a Balkan custom adopted by the Turks, on the battlefield.

Coagulated blood loses none of its power. Even reduced to powder on the wall of the lead vase, it only becomes more savage.

Curse you, Balkan peoples who forced me in my old age to set off towards this plain where I was to leave my life. Curse you especially for having inflicted on me such loneliness!

British audiences might find Kadare's fable a slight tale, but this would be a mistake: almost every sentence offers a deeper understanding of life in the Balkans. ‘That spring, the whole world bristled with rumours. To fill the silences, there was no need for a caravan carrying cheeses to pass by, nor a messenger. The voids filled up by themselves … lacking fresh news, people went back over news of previous years.’ Reading this, I was reminded of a recent report in the Independent by the Albanian journalist Gjeraqina Tuhina about Kosovans in exile, in which she describes how, in Skopje's cafés, unable to discuss what was happening, people were seriously talking about being back in their homes in two weeks. Another example is the brotherliness of Gjorg and Vladan, the two rhapsodists. Until the rise of Serbian nationalism in the 19th century, there was assimilation across ethnic barriers in almost every direction. Many Albanians were Serbianised in the Middle Ages; in some areas Slavicisation continued into this century. In the other direction, Kosovo Slavs became Albanianised and/or Islamicised through marriage, though such mingling was then adduced by nationalist Serbs as indirect evidence that Albanians were really Slavs, and this was used to strengthen the Serb claim on Kosovo.

The first elegy, ‘The Old War’, is the story of the battle; the second and longest of the three, ‘A Great Lady’, traces Gjorg and Vladan's path in the following weeks. Separated in the commotion of battle, the clamour of cross and crescent, they are in due course gratefully reunited. Vladan (the Serb) has thrown away his gousla, Gjorg (the Albanian) has kept his mournful single-stringed lahouta; neither has a country; and so they head north, refugees, collecting former comrades and companions en route. During a discussion of the ‘Kosovo question’ with a Hungarian mercenary, Vladan looks straight at Gjorg: ‘This misfortune, dear brother, we sowed it ourselves. We have cut each other's throats for Kosovo for so many years, and now others have taken it from us.’ Barely able to hold back his tears, he asks Gjorg to allow him to play his lahouta. Reluctantly, the Albanian accedes to his comrade's unprecedented request. Either his hand will obey the instrument, or the instrument will submit to his hand. The Serb plucks the string and, un-altered, ‘like old tombstones’, the words are heard again: ‘Serbs, arise! The Albanians are taking Kosovo from us!’

In this cyclical enmity, each side mirrors the other. On the basis of Kadare's novella alone, no one could be surprised to learn that, six hundred years later, Albanian intellectuals were being attacked for their nationalist leanings, or that in the mid-Eighties Albanians were being accused of the widespread rape of Serbian women in Kosovo. The starting point for that campaign, incidentally, was a polemical history of Kosovo by Dimitrije Bogdanovic published in 1985, which accused the Albanian population of trying to create an ‘ethnically pure’ province. Ill-feeling was whipped up by the media reporting of the ‘Martinovic case’, an episode in which a Serb farmer was rushed to hospital in Pristina to have a beer bottle removed from his anus. Martinovic claimed to have been attacked by two masked Albanians. Albanian sources offered an alternative explanation: that he was a homosexual who had suffered an accident. In Belgrade media coverage associated Albanian aggression with personal humiliation and this led naturally to the theme of raped Serbian women. Subsequent independent statistics showed that the figures for rape in Kosovo were 40 per cent lower than in Serbia itself, and that fewer than five Serbian women a year were victims of Albanian men.

I very nearly didn't notice—such is the apparent even-handedness—that Vladan is always first in the battle of the refrains. The two protagonists are treated with equal sympathy: they are both ‘prisoners of their past, but from its old chains neither was able nor wished to free himself’. They meet a Turk on their journey from Kosovo, a confused, tragi-comic figure who doesn't know whether he's a Muslim or a Christian: tried by an Inquisition court, he is put to death—surely a judgment on the tolerant as well as the foolish—for attempting to ‘accomplish the unaccomplishable, to have a double religion, no doubt obeying the counsel of the devil’.

Continuing north, challenged often, searched for hidden icons, symptoms of plague or counterfeit coin, the pair finally stop at a castle whose lord, used to summoning French and German troubadours to his feasts, invites them to play. After songs of Roland and Siegfried, another blackly comic scene ensues as Vladan and Gjorg duly perform the only song they know:

A thick fog covers the Plain of Blackbirds;
Serbs, arise, the Albanians are taking Kosovo
                                                                                                                        from us!
—Of what a thick fog is all around us.
Stand up, Albanians, Kosovo is falling into
                                                                                          the hands of the Slavs!

Ridiculed for keeping up their old enmity when the Balkans are in tatters, they draw their knives, but one guest, a pale lady of great age, demurs. She asks them for a story, if they are unable to sing any other songs: ‘The places where you live, they tell me, hold many curiosities.’ And the truth is finally out: though the wanderers regard storytelling as little better than street-sweeping in comparison with their art, they begin, and their protector, thanks to her education, knows the meaning of the stories they tell: sacrifices at bridges, furies disguised as washerwomen, idlers in taverns, the avenger forced to participate in the funeral feast for his victim. Explaining to the other guests the significance of what they are hearing, she encounters the medieval equivalent of popular ignorance: like a pop-culture inversion of the High Court judge who has to ask who the Beatles are, the lord of the castle enquires: ‘And what exactly is a Greek tragedy?’

To find out how Kadare's neat and tragic knot is tied, linking ancient Greece and medieval Europe with today's torment in the Balkans, you will need to read the rest. A couple of phrases give an idea of how he makes the connection between modern Balkan barbarism and the treasure of the Greeks:

Fragments of the crown fallen from the antique sky had been brought to [the old lady] by these unhappy men, faces seamed and weathered by war … That region which we took to be Europe's backyard in fact constituted its storeroom. It was there that the root stock from which everything had been created could be found. And that was why it must not be abandoned, at any price.

At the age of 11, Kadare copied out Hamlet word for word and since that time has not deviated from his belief in ‘great universal literature’. If he has always sought to occupy the moral high ground in his career, well, he had reason to under Enver Hoxha, and he can be excused for doing so on this occasion. In any case, he is a serious, not a solemn writer: The Palace of Dreams is a political fable; Chronicle of the City of Stone a childhood memoir; The File on H. a detective novel; Broken April a rural folk tale; The Pyramid a historical allegory; there are also essays and poems.

The main goal of these three fables, as of his other work, is to transmit a message about freedom, in the sense that to write truthfully is to set something free. In this short book—and whoever retains the English-language rights should release them as a matter of urgency—Kadare has set Kosovo, the battle, the myth, free from the chains of untruth.

Robert Elsie (review date summer 1999)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of Novembre d'une capitale, by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 73, no. 3 (summer 1999): 569.

[In the following review, Elsie describes the circumstances surrounding the publication of Novembre d'une capitale as well as its subsequent revision.]

One of the most frightening moments in the history of the long Stalinist dictatorship in Albania was the so-called Purge of the Liberals at the Fourth Party Congress in 1973, which unleashed a reign of terror against Albanian writers and intellectuals lasting to at least 1975. Comparable in spirit to the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, this event followed in the wake of the Cultural Revolution in China, with which dictator Enver Hoxha had allied his little Balkan country. The years of the purge constituted a major setback for the development of Albanian literature and culture. Almost all major authors had a work withdrawn from circulation and “turned into cardboard,” and many intellectuals found themselves in concentration camps, even for minor ideological failings.

Ismail Kadare (b. 1936), the leading exponent of literary creativity and of a modicum of literary dissent in Albanian writing, felt the pressure as rarely before. Having published significant novels like Kështjella (Eng. The Castle) in 1970 and Kronikë në gur (Eng. Chronicle in Stone; see WLT 61:4, p. 668) in 1971, he turned precipitously and quite understandably to a safer theme. The subject matter of Nëntori i një kryeqyteti (November in a Capital), printed in 1975, was certainly conventional. The partisan “liberation” of Albania from the Germans in November of 1944 as part of the so-called national-liberation struggle was, after all, one of the party's favorite themes. The novel focuses on a unit of mixed partisans which has been charged with taking over the radio station in Tirana, needed to give the partisan movement a voice in the last days of the fascist occupation. The political conformity of the plot is relieved fortunately by a living mosaic of characters, not only from the ranks of the partisans themselves—the peasant Sherif Goreni, the shy Thanas, the Greek teacher Dino Sinojmeri, a young lady named Teuta, the urban Javer Kurti, the irascible Mete Aliu, and the Deaf One—but also neutral observers such as the writer Adrian Guma, a man in search of the truth and unsure which side of the political fence he belongs on. Kadare's portrait of “bourgeois” Tirana society on the eve of its destruction is infused with the magic realism characteristic of his mature style. As such, he managed to retain his integrity as a writer—to the extent possible in Stalinist Albania—and produce a readable and entertaining novel on a subject which was then and, to an extent, is even now of historical and political interest.

In 1989-90, as the dictatorship was in its last throes, Kadare revised the novel, [as Novembre d'une capitale,] making substantial alterations. With an eye to the Western and to the postcommunist Albanian reader, he cut out a lot of the period propaganda which had been essential to getting the novel published in the first place. Among the cuts was the deletion of the whole last chapter, in which Comrade Enver Hoxha enters the scene as a deus ex machina to make “profound suggestions” to the partisan fathers of a new Albania. A German translation by Robert Schwarz was published on the basis of this revised edition in 1990, and now a French translation by the eminent Jusuf Vrioni (b. 1916), currently Albanian ambassador to UNESCO in Paris, has appeared on the market, making another one of Kadare's classics known to a wider public.

Ismail Kadare and Shusha Guppy (interview date September 1999)

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SOURCE: Kadare, Ismail, and Shusha Guppy. “Poet of Freedom: A Profile of Ismail Kadare.” World and I 14, no. 9 (September 1999): 287.

[In the following interview, Kadare discusses Albania politics, his writing career, and his future aspirations.]

One day during the negotiations in Cheteau de Rambouillet, the leaders of the Kosovan delegation paid a visit to Ismail Kadare, Albania's greatest living writer, in Paris. They were seeking his advice about the final proposals. Over a drink they talked, laughed, took some photographs, and left. The next day they duly signed the accords, which the Serbs finally rejected. We know the tragedy that ensued: “It says something about the civilized Kosovars, that their representatives choose to consult a writer, instead of a politician or a general, and follow his advice,” comments Kadare, showing me the pictures—four men surrounding the writer, smiling happily for the camera.

I told them to sign, that otherwise they would share the responsibility for this war. Having signed in good faith, they have shown the world that it is [Slobodan] Milosevic who has caused it, who instigated this genocide.

In his Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, Samuel Johnson claimed that poets are “the legislators of mankind,” to which Shelley later responded with “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” It is encouraging that in some parts of the world, great writers can still command authority and influence events.

Kadare's latest book, Three Elegies for Kosovo, has recently been published in France to great acclaim. It recounts the famous Battle of Kosovo in 1389, in which several balkanic kingdoms joined forces against the Turks and lost. The battle lasted only one day, but Sultan Murad I was killed and the Turks left. Too busy with Tamerlane and other invaders from the East, they returned 150 years later, took the whole of the Balkans including Greece, and stayed for 400 years. In Kadare's book, the battle is described by three narrators—Turkish, Serbian, Albanian—in three short sections.

Ever since then, for six centuries, the Serbs and Albanians have been fighting over Kosovo: “Who owns this accursed plain, the Blackbirds' Plain as they call it, for which the quarrel started?” asks one narrator. “On the six hundredth anniversary of the battle in 1989, Milosevic launched the first massacre of Kosovars, and started the explosion of Yugoslavia,” Kadare points out.

Kadare once said that a writer has two ages: his natural age and his reputation, which lives on another timescale. His own reputation arrived in the West in 1970, when his novel The General of the Dead Army was published in France, taking literary Paris by storm. It tells of an Italian general who goes to Albania after World War II to recover the bodies of Italian soldiers and bring them back for burial. It was hailed as a masterpiece, and its author was invited to France, where he was received by French intellectuals as a new, powerful voice from behind the Iron Curtain. Not since Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago and Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich had a book created such a stir. It was made into a film starring the late Marcello Mastroianni and later inspired Bertrand Tavernier's masterpiece La Vie et Rien d'Autre (Life and Nothing Else).

Since then Kadare's vast oeuvre—some fifteen volumes of fiction, several collections of poetry and essays—has been translated into most major languages, and he has been suggested for the Nobel Prize numerous times. He has been compared to Gogol, Kafka, and Orwell, but his is an original voice, at once universal and deeply rooted in his own soil. He is profoundly involved with his country—“the antique Illyrium, the third region of southern Europe beside Rome and Greece”—and its language, a unique branch of the Indo-European family. He speaks in prophetic accents of “La Grande Literature Universelle,” which is his spiritual home: “Literature led me to freedom, not the other way round.” That a small, faraway country should have produced a writer and poet of his stature adds weight to his belief that Albania belongs to the mainstream of European culture: “I said to the Kosovan delegates: ‘Forget ethnicity; forget religion. You are part of this European civilization, of the European tradition of freedom. That is what you are fighting for.’”

Kadare was born and grew up in Gjirokast'r, a beautiful, ancient city, which is ironically also the birthplace of Albania's communist dictator Enver Hoxha: “At the end of the war, foreign armies passed through the town—Italian, Greek. The town was bombarded by the Germans, the English, passed from one hand to another. It was a continuous spectacle and exciting for a child.” He studied literature at the University of Tirana and spent three years doing postgraduate work at the Gorky Institute in Moscow. The General of the Dead Army was his first novel, published on his return to Albania in 1962, when he was twenty-six: “I read Macbeth when I was eleven,” Kadare remembers. “It hit me like a lightning, and I copied every word of it. Later I discovered the Greek classics, and after that nothing could have power over my spirit. I realized that there was a great universal literature that nothing can destroy. So when I went to the Gorky Institute, which was a factory for fabricating party hacks, I was already immunized—what was happening in Elsinore or by the ramparts of Troy was more real to me than the wretched banalities of socialist-realist novels. I read Gogol and Pushkin, Dostoevsky's House of the Dead, and later Orwell and Kafka. These writers were forbidden in Albania, but I managed to find their books when I traveled abroad. But what happened in totalitarian countries was far worse than anything that literature has ever invented.

I realized that I had three choices: to become a conformist, to stop writing, or to write as if I were free. I chose the latter. I wrote The Town without Publicity, the story of two literary crooks who try to falsify a text to make it compatible with Marxism, thereby advancing their careers. It touched the fundamental problem at the core of communism: falsification. It was published as a short story in Tirana and immediately banned, and the head of the Communist Youth who had recommended it went to prison for fifteen years.

The success of The General abroad made Kadare's life difficult at home. The official critics savaged him—where were the cheerful peasants, the Stakhanovite workers, the optimism about the glorious future? His book was gloomy, full of mud and rain, rotten bodies and the false heroism of war. Thereafter Kadare used a variety of literary devices—allegory, satire, mythology, historical narrative—to escape Hoxha's ruthless censors: “Hoxha fancied himself a poet and intellectual who had been to the Sorbonne, and he didn't want to be seen as an enemy of writers. Of course he could have killed me in a ‘car crash,’ or by ‘suicide,’ as he did many others.”

There followed three decades of deadly cat-and-mouse play with the dictator, during which Kadare's books were in turn published and banned, and he himself was made a member of Parliament one day and exiled to a remote region the next. He narrowly escaped being shot in 1975 when his satirical poem “The Red Pashas” was discovered by a government employee who denounced him. “The great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam perished in the Gulag for a similar offense against Stalin,” he remarks. Yet Kadare did not want to uproot himself by defecting to the West. Instead he chronicled the dark years of dictatorship in masterpieces such as The Pyramid,The Concert,The Palace of Dreams, and Chronicle in Stone, an enchanting account of his childhood.

Every time I wrote a book, I had the impression that I was thrusting a dagger into the dictatorship. Everyone knew that I was an antiregime writer, and the fact that the government could not condemn me gave courage to others. That is the fundamental function of literature: maintaining the moral torch.

He finally left Albania in 1990 and was welcomed in France as an honored guest: “One day I received a letter from Ramiz Alia, Hoxha's successor, in which the party was mentioned twenty-three times. I knew it was time for me to leave. There was a struggle between democracy and dictatorship, and I thought that my departure would help the cause of democracy. I was in France for the publication of The Palace of Dreams, and I made a public statement that was widely reported and played a decisive role in favor of democracy.”

After the fall of communism, the Albanian people wanted Kadare to become their first democratically elected president, just as Vaclav Havel was in Czechoslovakia, but he refused: “I did not hesitate one second. My case was different from Havel's; I wanted to remain a writer and free.”

Ismail Kadare is slim and shy. His dark, dapper suit and large horn-rimmed glasses emphasize his serious expression, while his deep voice and strong accent are mitigated by his courtesy and ready smile. When he relaxes, he reveals a robust sense of humor and laughs heartily at human absurdities. He lives in Paris with his wife and younger daughter in a spacious, bright apartment. Overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens, it belongs to the French Academy. In 1988 he was made a member of the prestigious Institut de France; eight years later he was elected to the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, replacing the British philosopher Karl Popper, and last year he was presented with the Legion d'Honneur, the first Albanian ever to receive the honor. Now, in an unprecedented act of homage, Kadare's French publishers are bringing out his complete works in six volumes, in both French and the original Albanian. The first three have already appeared.

Since the collapse of communism some Eastern European writers have stopped writing, as if they had lost their subject matter and their raison d'etre. Not so Kadare, who has since produced Spiritus, a novel about two ghosts who return to a postcommunist world; a book of poetry; volumes of essays and memoirs; and Three Elegies for Kosovo.

Has freedom of expression helped him? “For a writer, personal freedom is not so important,” says Kadare. “It is not individual freedom that guarantees the greatness of literature; otherwise, writers in democratic countries would be superior to all others, which is not always the case. Some of the greatest writers wrote under dictatorship—Shakespeare, Cervantes, even Dante. The great universal literature has always had a difficult, tragic relation with freedom. The Greeks renounced absolute freedom and imposed order on their chaotic mythology, like a tyrant. On the other hand, nobody forced Maxim Gorky to write Mother, in New York in 1905. Gorky's slavery was in his own head, and his piece of rubbish murdered half the writers of Eastern Europe, as it became a model everybody had to copy. In the West the problem is not absence of freedom. There are other servitudes—lack of talent, thousands of mediocre books published every year choking some good ones out …”

I suggest that writing having become a profession, writers have to keep producing for a living. What would he do if he didn't write any more? “In Albania, solidarity takes the place of social security,” says Kadare. “Family, friends, neighbors, everybody helps when there is a need. Without this support, survival during the decades of dictatorship would have been even more difficult. In the West, family structure seems to be weakened.”

Have success and fame affected his work? I wonder. “Not at all,” he replies. “What the French call les mondanites (glitzy social life) is sometimes interesting. There is a literary hierarchy in France; everyone knows his place, but I'm outside all that. I know my work is a gift from God, and I have neither false modesty nor idiotic pride.” Yet surely exile is harder for a writer, especially a poet, than for anyone, because of his constant engagement with the language and its dynamics? “To some extent a writer is always in exile,” he replies, “because he is somehow outside, separated from others; there is a distance. But I don't feel cut off. I travel to Albania frequently, and in three, four years I'll go back for good, perhaps keeping a pied-a-terre in Paris. At the moment I prefer working in Paris; it is quieter. There is too much politics back home; everyone wants me to be involved, and it is hard not to be.” He writes in a cafe near his home, as French writers—Sartre, Nathalie Sarraute, Camus—did in the postwar era.

Although brought up in a Muslim family, Kadare believes that Albania's Christian heritage is deeper and more dominant in his country: “Half the population converted to Islam under the Ottomans. But Catholicism was more deeply rooted. Close to Rome, Albania was considered the citadel of Catholicism in the Balkans. Christianity was also dominant in literature; Catholic monks were active in towns and villages. It was a village priest who wrote the Code of Daily Life in the seventeenth century. A remarkable document, it has been compared to the Magna Carta and deals with civil rights and moral obligations of citizens in detail. For example, it says, ‘A house belongs to God and to the guest, you are the third owner’; or that murder means killing another with one's own hand, and that as soon as a murderer has killed someone, he must inform the family of the victim. By contrast, the Ottoman influence was superficial—in the administration, the cuisine, commerce.”

Kadare feels deeply the misfortunes of his country—the poorest in Europe—and blames the West for Hoxha's entrenchment: “The West forgave Tito and helped Yugoslavia, but it did not forgive Hoxha. When Hoxha broke with the Soviet Union in 1962, he was ready to turn to Europe, but they rejected him. So he made an absurd short-lived alliance with China, and when that went awry he built thousands of antinuclear pillar-boxes, which he knew were useless, but he wanted to create a fear-psychosis. As a result, Albania suffered longer than any other Eastern European country. Ours is a tragic history.”

Since the beginning of the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia, Kadare has been active in giving moral and practical support to the Kosovars, with articles in the press, radio and television interviews, even leading marches and demonstration in Paris. “Why was Kosovo given to Serbia as a present after the war?” he asks. “No one dares ask that question. Yet 40 percent of all Albanians live in Kosovo. It was a tragic error, and Kosovo became a classic example of colonialism, worse than South Africa under apartheid—over 90 percent of the population bullied by less than 10 percent. When the Serbs evoke the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, it is as if Britain claimed Belgium because of the Battle of Waterloo.”

I point out the danger of disintegration of the whole Balkans if every bit became independent. Just as Kosovo followed Bosnia, others—Macedonia, Montenegro, and so forth—would come after Kosovo. “But you can't keep a people in slavery by that sort of reasoning,” says Kadare. “It is immoral. As I said, the Kosovars wanted only what they had before 1990, autonomy. Now the situation has changed, and perhaps a new formula has to be found. I agree that there is a danger, and for that reason the European Community should negotiate for serious compromises, even sacrifices, from all concerned. For example, that Kosovo would not join Albania for ten, twenty years, that Macedonia and Albania would not rock the boat by making demands. A lot can happen during that interim period, but at present we cannot leave it to the political class in these countries to sort things out; they have no democratic tradition; a Milosevic can't conceive of democracy.”

We watch the evening news on television—heart-wrenching scenes of refugees fleeing, villages burning, children dying. His anger and grief overflow: “This humanitarian catastrophe is happening in the heart of Europe! Whatever your point of view, you can't condone the massacre of unarmed innocent civilians by a ruthless army. The whole of Serbia bears a collective responsibility for Kosovo, just as Germany did for the Holocaust.”

Kadare believes that the joint effort of Americans and Europeans to stop ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia once and for all is the only solution: “I agreed with their decision to use force with great sadness, but what else could be done? And now they must go on until the conflict is resolved and the refugees can go back in safety.”

What of the future? “I will be working on my complete works. It is a long and arduous job … cutting, cutting. My French editor insists that the slightest change be entered into the French translation. I don't think I will write very much in future. Now it is a question of eliminating, of resisting the compulsion, and writing only when it is necessary. You recognize great literature immediately, instinctively, even in one short text. And that is enough to keep up the flame.”

Hugh MacPherson (review date 21 April 2000)

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SOURCE: MacPherson, Hugh. “The Songs of War.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5064 (21 April 2000): 21.

[In the following review, MacPherson praises Three Elegies for Kosovo as a lucid and insightful exploration into Kosovar politics and history.]

Three Elegies for Kosovo again creates the eerie world that was the setting for Ismail Kadare's novel The Three-Arched Bridge, a medieval equivalent of the 1930s, in which war between power blocs is inevitable, and in which the final period before conflict is made even more tense by rumour and propaganda. The stories that circulate claim to report the very words used by European kings, the Byzantine Emperor and the Turkish Sultan (whose recent assumption of that title is seen as ominous).

Among those assembling for the campaign are the minstrels for the allied forces gathered against the Turkish advance. In the phoney war that precedes real action, the Albanian and Serbian minstrels sing their standard numbers, to ribald and cynical reactions from their audience. “‘Are you out of your minds?—The Turks are marching on us, and you are singing the same old songs’—‘The Serbs are attacking, the Albanians are attacking.’” The minstrels reply that songs are not like weapons which can be constantly updated. “Our models need at least a century to adapt!” The battle itself is reported in the style of classic confusion established by Stendhal in La Chartreuse de Parme and continued from War and Peace onwards by writers who have a larger canvas than warfare itself to display. This is particularly appropriate for the Battle of Kosovo, where both leaders were killed, where it was not entirely clear in the aftermath who had effectively won, and about which there is practically no reliable detail available now. We must also consider the possibility that some of what was said or sung about it—years later but as good as we have got—may have been confused with the second Battle of Kosovo, fought in 1448 between Turks and Hungarians.

Kadare takes an ingenious approach to the problem of how the Turkish Sultan came to be killed, and why his elder son also died, while the younger took over the empire. In Three Elegies, this genuine historical uncertainty is explained by an intelligence report to the papacy, relaying the accounts of various informants, and giving the analyst's interpretation of what this meant in policy terms. The second elegy follows the minstrels—both Albanian and Serbian—in the flight after defeat. In the confusion and recriminations, the one Turkish ally to have joined the Christian side is executed in one of the towns they pass through, as being a man whose real sympathies—apparently open to the dilemmas of all sides—are insufficiently clear.

Reaching a refuge within Europe, and asked to tell their story, the minstrels again revert to traditional songs aimed against each other rather than the Turks. Challenged—by a woman of power and position who is the friend and correspondent of European politicians and intellectuals—to abandon these, and speak plainly either about the recent events or about the culture of their own countries, they explain that they are minstrels of war. They cannot speak of other things. The third elegy records the complaint of the unquiet blood of the Turkish Sultan, still at his place of death.

The English edition of the Three Elegies—done from the Albanian in a clear effective version by Peter Constantine—has on the cover a quotation from a review of the French translation, which came out in 1998. This suggests that the three stories “transmit a message about freedom, in the sense that to write truthfully is to set something free. … Kadare has set Kosovo, the battle, the myth, free from the chains of untruth.” Clearly, at present, nobody can read a book on this subject and of this title without being affected by the current political context we all know. Kadare has produced a narrative which, coolly and admirably, uses the historical events to provide another telling account of the destructive effect of conflict between political systems—one which has evident implications for the problems in Kosovo now. To that extent it is a message of freedom. It is, however, romantic hyperbole to suggest that writing, even writing as sophisticated as this, can remove the mists of passion from events and interpretations so bitterly contorted and contested. If the therapeutic knife of art cut so cleanly, it would be the magic weapon to solve most conflict, and poets would be not unacknowledged but undisputed legislators. Unfortunately, neither battle nor myth is likely to be free from acrimonious argument for many years.

In a publication available in French, Il a fallu ce deuil pour se retrouver—Kadare shows that he is certainly well aware of the realities of political life, in a diary that records his long-standing concerns about Kosovo, and his support for action to stop the Serbian killings and expulsions of the Kosovars. Kadare, who is well known in France, where he sought political asylum, has a meeting with President Chirac, takes part in public debates and writes articles for the European press (included in the book). He is an acute and lucid observer of the practicalities of political argument, both in international lobbying and in intellectual confrontations. An English version would be welcome as further revelation both of how Kosovo is viewed in France and of Kadare himself.

He is acerbic where required, explicitly aware that the intellectual vanity and lack of imagination he sometimes encounters can be lethal when it comes to debate about how to protect lives. He retains his perspective, however, and is amused rather than indignant to find a French confrontation between intellectuals set up in such a way that even the time of his arrival becomes part of the drama of Cartesian cut and thrust. He never loses sight of the real issue, and notes that the question he was tempted to put to those who opposed action to protect the people of Kosovo was “Why are you on the side of the killers?”

Maria Margaronis (review date 12 June 2000)

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SOURCE: Margaronis, Maria. “Palaces of Dreams.” Nation 270, no. 23 (12 June 2000): 28-31.

[In the following review, Margaronis asserts that Elegy for Kosovo should be read as fiction, rather than historical fact, and offers a biographical and critical overview of Kadare and his work.]

The Battle of Kosovo, at which the Ottoman forces of Sultan Murad I defeated an assortment of Balkan leaders under the Serb Prince Lazar in 1389, is mostly known to the world through the mythology of Serbian nationalism, which takes it as the holy funeral pyre from which the Serbian phoenix will one day rise again. It was on the 600th anniversary of that battle that Slobodan Milosevic so ominously rallied his supporters in an area inhabited mainly by ethnic Albanians, effectively announcing his intention to tear apart the state of Yugoslavia.

In 1998, the year before the Kosovo crisis drew NATO into the Yugoslav war, the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare published three linked fables that make of Kosovo a countermyth intended for Western eyes. Elegantly turned and subtly prophetic—for Kadare, like most observers of the region, needed no crystal ball to see what was coming next—his short book has won extravagant accolades in France and Britain. In a piece about the French edition published during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, the London Review of Books called for the work to be translated “as a matter of urgency,” claiming that “almost every sentence offers a deeper understanding of life in the Balkans,” and that Kadare “has set Kosovo, the battle, the myth, free from the chains of untruth.”

Well, up to a point. Kadare's version of the battle is certainly closer to the few historical facts we have than Milosevic's, which among other embellishments spirits away the Bosnians, Hungarians, Albanians, Wallachians and others who fought there to invent a purely Serbian crucifixion. But Kadare, too, makes imaginative leaps unwarranted by the historical record—about the manner of Murad's death, the composition of the opposing armies and other matters of fact and interpretation. His Elegy for Kosovo is a work of literature, not a rehearsal of events. With its made-up “ordinary” characters, its spotlight on the ruminations of kings and princes and its offstage alarums and excursions, it has something of the flavor of Shakespeare's history plays. Like those plays, it is designed to promote a specific ideological program.

At first glance, Kadare's book looks like a plea for unity against the divisive force of nationalism. His battle gives us a rainbow coalition of Balkan peoples, with their elaborate titles, long names and colorful banners, fighting against the faceless hordes from the East, “obedient, sober, mute, and nameless like mud.” But even as the Ottomans rout the Balkan allies, the Albanian and Serb rhapsodes Gjorg and Vladan, hired to turn their masters' exploits into epic song, can't abandon their old refrains: “Rise, O Serbs! The Albanians are taking Kosovo from us!” “Albanians, to arms! The pernicious Serb is seizing Kosovo!” Banished as refugees to unknown lands, they finally weep together: “Now that they were far away from Kosovo, it was as if they had been set free from its shadow. Now their minds could finally shed their fetters, and after their minds, their spirit.” Still the old songs won't let go. Singing for their supper in a castle somewhere in Europe, they come out with the same tired couplets: “Both men were prisoners, tied to each other by ancient chains that they could not and did not want to break.”

Setting aside for the moment the aid and comfort given by such passages to the “ancient hatreds” school of Balkan history, the brotherly sentiments expressed through Gjorg and Vladan seem surprisingly magnanimous in a book first published when Kosovo's Albanians were suffering bitterly at the hands of the Serbs. But, as so often with Kadare, there is another agenda. As in a dream, the meaning of the scene shifts subtly, almost imperceptibly. Seeing that the rhapsodes cannot change their songs, a great lady at the castle (“her eyes were fiery, but her face was white and cold”) asks them to tell some stories from their homelands. Reluctantly they oblige, and the stories remind her of the Greek tragedies (the connection is an old theme of Kadare's) still, in 1389, mostly lost to the West: “the same diamond dust, the same seed.” Uncannily prefiguring Tony Blair (who in 1999 called Kosovo “the doorstep of Europe”) and sounding more and more like Madeleine Albright, she has a revelation: “That region, which seemed to be but a distant forecourt of Europe, was in fact its bridal chamber. The roots that had given birth to everything were there. And therefore it should under no circumstances be abandoned. … ‘We must not abandon our outer court!’ she almost said aloud. ‘If it falls, we shall all fall!’”

And so what seemed at first to be an appeal for brotherhood between Serb and Albanian turns out to be something quite different: an appeal for intervention from the West. By gesturing at the political context of his book's composition and publication, smiling benevolently all the time, Kadare—look, no hands!—turns the Serbian myth of Kosovo neatly on its head. For if the enemy in 1389 was the Ottoman Empire (and in his last section, “The Royal Prayer,” Kadare blames the Sultan's blood left on the battlefield for all the evils that have followed), the barbarians threatening the bridal chamber in 1998—the faceless (read Communist) Eastern hordes—were none other than the Serbs themselves.

Kadare is one of Europe's greatest living novelists, frequently nominated for the Nobel Prize; he has been compared to Solzhenitsyn, García Márquez, Gorky and Grass. His technique of using the past to comment on the present while preserving maximum deniability was honed over many years in Enver Hoxha's Albania: Born in the southern town of Gjirokaster (also Hoxha's birthplace) in 1936, he finally left his native land for Paris in October 1990, when the movement for democratization stirring in Tirana appeared decisively to have failed.

Long established as a Parisian literary lion, Kadare was pushed into the limelight as a political commentator by the war in Kosovo. In the self-righteous climate that prevailed during NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia, few questions were raised about his rather black-and-white version of Balkan history, which sets an eternal European (Greco-Albanian) civilization against incorrigible Eastern (Ottoman-Slav) barbarism. Writing in Le Monde and elsewhere, he described the Serbs' atrocities as a genocide that “recalls the times of Genghis Khan, Hitler and Stalin … supported by an insane solidarity that sometimes calls itself Orthodox, sometimes Slav, sometimes communist, or all three at once.” But to murmur about Albanian nationalism while the Kosovars were being massacred and expelled from their homes seemed worse than bad taste; it seemed tantamount to condoning the ascendant and brutal nationalism of Milosevic's Serbia.

Now, though, the issue of Kadare's view of history seems more urgent than the political question that has dogged him, especially among Albanians, for many years: the nature of his relationship to the most rigid, repressive and paranoid of Europe's Communist regimes. A hint of the matted tangle of interpretation and counterinterpretation involved in that debate surfaced in 1997 in a dazzling but slippery New York Review of Books essay by Noel Malcolm, which, while claiming to free Kadare's reputation from “the crude alternatives of party hack vs. persecuted rebel,” still cast enough aspersions to occasion an outraged response from the author himself. Without venturing too far into this minefield, it is safe to say that Kadare was no Vaclav Havel—an idea with which he torments himself, Hamlet-like, in his memoir Albanian Spring. He was a lifelong member of the Albanian Writers' Union and remained close to the regime, attempting to influence it from within, until the moment of his departure for France. As late as May 1990 his old friend Ramiz Alia, then President of Albania (and no Harold Bloom), was able to write, “Your work … carries a well-defined message: it tells of the heroic struggle by the people, the Party, and Enver Hoxha to defend freedom, the independence of our native land and the socialist ideal.” But, by the same token, Communist Tirana was a far cry from Prague. “Stalin made two mistakes,” said one Albanian Central Committee member during the Khrushchev era. “First, he died too early and second, he failed to liquidate the entire present Soviet leadership.” The space available in Albania between compliance and the secret police was about the size of a cigarette pack, or perhaps a slim, densely overdetermined, crypto-allegorical novel.

Ramiz Alia's foray into literary criticism may offer one clue as to how Kadare managed eventually to publish so many of his books in his native land, though the novels available in English (eleven out of about eighteen) have no truck with socialist realism and barely touch on the heroic struggles of the party. (The one arguable exception is his simplest and most intimate novel, Chronicle in Stone, a hauntingly affectionate tale about his World War II childhood in Gjirokaster, held in the stony embrace of streets that seem to breathe and shift in their sleep, guiltily loving an Italian plane that nests on the airfield like a giant bird—though here, too, the realism is far more magical than socialist.) But Kadare's best defense against the censors was his ability to write parables as smooth and many-layered as onions, and far more difficult to peel apart. It is this whorled economy that gives his work its particular, mesmerizing grip—like Kafka without tedium, or Poe without creaking machinery—on both the intellect and the imagination.

Most of Kadare's novels involve a confrontation between two worlds: the old, irrational world of Balkan folk culture and a new bureaucratic or political or scholarly way of thinking that strives to contain it. In Doruntine, for instance, a medieval provincial official called Stres tries to come up with a plausible explanation for the events of a spine-chilling Balkan ballad: A young man has returned from the grave to bring his sister home from the distant village where she is married, keeping a promise he gave to his mother. Knowing that his superiors won't buy this ghost story, Stres secures a false confession from a man who says he staged the bizarre events as a cover for his illicit affair with Doruntine. But in a typically Kadarean twist, Stres himself becomes convinced that the supernatural explanation is the true one. The novel could be read as a Christian allegory; as an account of the origins of the Kanun, Albania's traditional honor code; as a justification of Communist Albania's fortresslike isolation; or as an antitotalitarian parable. At the same time, it unsprings the emotion tightly coiled in the old ballad, bringing the reader face to face with the terrible paradox of love that won't be stanched by death.

The encounter between the pre-Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment world is Kadare's obsession: He traces its fault-lines in Albanian culture with the precision of a geologist mapping tectonic collisions. It makes itself felt in odd corners of his writing through the recurring metaphors of water and stone, the shaping elements of his beloved northern Albanian landscape. The stone, in the form of bridges, or cisterns, or towers, or tombstones, or pebbles grating underfoot, stoically tries to resist the water, which drips endlessly from the sky, or bursts its banks, or threatens to flood the basement of the house.

Stone also marks the boundary, highly permeable in Kadare's Albania, between the world of the living and the world of the dead. His books, like the folktales of the Balkans, are haunted by revenants and men awaiting death, as if the black earth never quite shuts its gaping mouth, however hard we tamp it down with slabs. Broken April, his most suspenseful novel, narrates the final days in the life of a man who has committed a murder in one of the centuries-long vendettas that still simmer in the Albanian highlands, and who will be killed in turn at the expiration of the thirty-day ritual truce granted by the Kanun. Elsewhere in his work men are walled up in towers or immured in bridges; a pharaoh plans his pyramid; epic fragments “climb out of the grave where the bard's body has been rotting away for years, claw their way through the earth, and come alive in another's song.”

In some ways, these liminal figures are Kadare himself—an insider-outsider in his own land, an expert at moral levitation who appears to hover above both sides of the questions his books pile up. Like an anxious double agent tapping out his codes, Kadare peppers his writing with so many red herrings wrapped in symbolism and irony that a whole army of commissars schooled in Derridean deconstruction would be hard pressed to track them down. But the constant stream that runs through his work, implicitly in the novels, more explicitly in his nonfiction writing, is his view of the origins and destiny of the Albanian nation. Dipped in its water, the myths and folktales that give his novels such resonance take on a darker, more programmatic tinge.

In a nutshell, Kadare's version of his country's history goes like this: The Albanians, ancient inhabitants of the Balkan peninsula, developed alongside the Greeks and shared their role as founders of European civilization, which is based on the discovery, expressed in the Iliad, of guilt at the suffering of one's enemy. The laws of the Kanun and the old songs of the rhapsodes who forged epic out of history are remnants of the Homeric tradition, fractured by the violent incursions of Slav peoples into the Balkan peninsula from the seventh to the ninth centuries, which gave rise to the hatreds that still surface today. The Ottoman conquest, which brought about the conversion of large numbers of Albanians to Islam, drove an even deeper wedge between Albania and Europe, leading to the tragedy of Kosovo's subjection to the Slavs and the disaster of Communist dictatorship. Albania's hope now lies in a return to Christianity (this part is not popular with the 70 percent of Albanians who, before Hoxha's compulsory atheism, identified as Muslim) and to the arms of Europe, which owes it the recognition due one of its own.

This scenario is most wryly (and therefore sympathetically) expressed in Kadare's novel The File on H., a brilliant, slightly Tintinesque romp through 1930s Albania in the company of Bill and Max, an earnest pair of Irish-American classical scholars. Bill and Max have set out (like the American folklorist Albert Lord, whom Kadare once met at a conference in Ankara) to record the voices of the last rhapsodes and so analyze the workings of the “ancient Homeric workshop,” which they imagine as a kind of disused tannery on the outskirts of Dublin. The highlands of northern Albania, they believe, are the last place on earth capable of giving birth to epic poetry: “The rest of the planet had passed through the menopause.”

Unfortunately, Bill and Max run up against the old rivalry between Serbs and Albanians over whose version of the epics came first—and, therefore, over who can claim precedence in the Balkan peninsula. After a brief discussion with Max about whether this old conflict can be called a “racial war”—“For me that stinks of Nazism”—Bill gives way to the following reverie about the Slavs' arrival at the beginning of the Dark Ages:

The Slav tide, it seemed, would never stop. … It must have been an unending straggle of women and children moving forward to the muddled sounds of yelling and squalling, a cohort obeying no orders, leaving no milestones or monuments, more like a natural disaster than a military invasion. That was the shock that disturbed the Balkans most, he reckoned, especially the Albanians of yore. All of a sudden they were in the midst of a Slavic sea: a grey, unending, anonymous Eurasian mass that could easily destroy all the treasures of the land where art had flourished more than anywhere else on earth. So what had to happen, happened: the people who had lived here for centuries took up arms and bloodied the shores of the ocean. And the waves were held back at that precise point, the shores of Kosovo.

Even in this deft and humorous work, the chauvinist side of nationalist mythography quickly makes itself felt. Here are the same faceless Eastern hordes who appear in Elegy for Kosovo and elsewhere, and who represent for Kadare not just the historical enemies of Albania but the force of spiritual and moral evil in an epic struggle between civilization and barbarism.

In his incarnation as semi-dissident novelist under Albania's Communist dictatorship, Kadare used myth as a tool for undermining monolithic official ways of thinking about history. He sought to become, in effect, his country's last rhapsode, turning the dross of historical events into the gold of literature with such curious skill that the process could never be undone. Now, like Gjorg and Vladan in Elegy for Kosovo, he finds himself in the courts of Europe, singing before a different set of lords. His work has found great favor, but it is already weaving itself into the fabric of a larger epic sung not by Serbs or Albanians but by the Homers of the State Department, to whom small Balkan nations traditionally have a more instrumental value.

For if Kadare's Elegy subverts the Serbian myth of Kosovo, it does so by replacing it with a version of the master narrative sketched out in Samuel Huntington's famous 1993 essay “The Clash of Civilizations?” itself the latest in a venerable line of legends. Huntington's scheme, you may recall, aimed to fill the foreign policy gap left by the end of the cold war with a new division, between “Western civilization,” on the one hand, and the “Slavic-Orthodox” and Islamic world, on the other. Kadare's identification of Ottomans and Serbs as the enemies of European culture fits in neatly with this attempt to produce a new manicheism for our times. It also echoes the words of George Kennan, written for the Carnegie Endowment that same year:

What we are up against is the sad fact that developments of those earlier ages, not only those of the Turkish domination but of earlier ones as well, had the effect of thrusting into the southeastern reaches of the European continent a salient of non-European civilization which has continued to the present day to preserve many of its non-European characteristics.

Of course, there is nothing surprising about Kadare's position. As the historian Maria Todorova points out in her excellent book Imagining the Balkans (a kind of Orientalism for southeastern Europe), the people of the peninsula have struggled for centuries to shrug off the negative connotations of their collective label and win favor in the endless game the great powers have played with their lives. Inevitably, they have pushed one another down in the process: Me, me, choose me, I am the most like you! Inevitably, too, they have made use of the political clichés of their day: At the beginning of the last century the Albanian nationalist Christo Dako was promoting his countrymen as “not only an Aryan people, but European in their national instincts.” The masters of this art were probably the Greeks, who found in northern classical romanticism a powerful but double-edged weapon for their independence struggle.

But Kadare, of all writers, was uniquely well placed to express in fiction the contradictions facing his people in the post-cold war world. Instead he has chosen to continue the old game, throwing in his lot with those who see the Balkans as a caldron of atavistic hatreds while claiming favored status for his own tribe. In the long run, this does the Albanians no favors. Barbarism, like civilization, is a quality that belongs not to nations but to individuals and political movements. Nor does it do the Kosovars any good, as they try to rebuild their country with pitiful assistance from the West, to be compared to figures from a Greek tragedy, as they are in Kadare's recently published Kosovo journal, Il a fallu ce deuil pour se retrouver (roughly, “It took this grief to bring us back together”). Myth can be an antidote to politics, but it is never helpful to reduce political events to myth. In his novel The Palace of Dreams, set in an imaginary nineteenth-century Istanbul, Kadare tells the story of Mark-Alem, a young civil servant of Albanian origin whose job is to sift the dreams of the empire's citizens for news of secret plots. His rise through the bureaucracy is meteoric, but to his great dismay a dream that has passed through his hands brings down his illustrious family and causes the death of his beloved uncle. Kadare in Paris has more in common than one might think with his character Mark-Alem, for his work is now caught up in a system of political meanings far beyond his control. The liberal discourse of freedom and human rights has its own systems of dissimulation, its own hidden agendas. A pity that a novelist of Kadare's genius has not come forward to lay them bare.

Robert Elsie (review date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of Three Elegies for Kosovo, by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (summer 2000): 682-83.

[In the following review, Elsie elucidates the plots and thematic concerns of the novellas collected in Three Elegies for Kosovo.]

Nothing has been more central to the historical and emotional identity of the southern Balkans than the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. It was on 28 June, St. Vitus Day, of that year that a coalition of Balkan forces made up of Serbs, Bosnians, Albanians, and Romanians confronted an invading Ottoman army led by Sultan Mourad. Their defeat at the hands of the Turks led to five centuries of Ottoman rule and changed the face of the Balkans forever. The ghosts of Kosovo, where East meets West, where Europe meets the Third World, where the east-west axis of Islam meets the north-south axis of Eastern Orthodoxy, and where Slav meets non-Slav, have haunted the Balkans ever since.

In the slender volume Three Elegies for Kosovo, Ismail Kadare has assembled three of his tales about the Battle of Kosovo and its aftermath. The first, “The Ancient Battle,” is a literary narrative of the circumstances of the battle in the author's mature style. Though the Turks were the obvious victors over the uneasy coalition of Christian forces, the Ottoman sultan himself perished during or shortly after the battle: “The bizarre decision that the monarch's body be taken to the Ottoman capital, but that his blood and intestines should be buried in the Christian soil of Kosovo, had a clear significance. … By pouring the monarch's blood on the Plains of Kosovo, they wanted to give those plains, just as they had done with their invasion, a direction, a fatality, both a curse and blessing at the same time, in other words, a ‘programme,’ as one would call it today.”

The second tale, “The Great Lady,” views the defeat on the plains of Kosovo from the perspective of a group of minstrels, a Serb, an Albanian, a Walachian, and a Bosnian, who had been summoned to the battlefield to play near the tent of Prince Lazar and who, caught up in the fighting, escaped with the masses of Christian refugees fleeing from the victorious forces of Islam. The eternal message of the battle rings true when the Serb and Albanian minstrel friends attempt to explain their roles to a group of Hungarians they meet on their way: “It is a tangled matter. A Serb or Albanian can understand, but for you it would be too hard. … For hundreds of years the evil persisted, what I mean is that Serbian and Albanian songs said the exact opposite from each other, particularly when it came to Kosovo, as each side claimed Kosovo was theirs. And each side cursed the other. And this lasted right up to the eve of the battle. Which was why the princes in the big tent laughed at the songs, for the princes had come together to fight the Turks while the minstrels were still singing songs against each other, the Serbs cursing the Albanians, and the Albanians the Serbs. And all the while, across the plain, the Turks were gathering to destroy them both the following day!”

The volume concludes with the short tale “The Royal Prayer,” in which the weary ghost of Sultan Mourad, apprehensive that his blood may be the origin of six hundred years of horror, prays to Allah for release: “Make them remove my blood from these cold plains. And not just the leaden vessel, but make them dig up the earth around where my tent stood, where drops of my blood spattered the ground.”

Although the three elegies for Kosovo have nothing directly to do with recent political events—the 1998-99 Kosovo war and the final liberation of the long-suffering population—the very title of the book, and perhaps its modest size, have made it one of the most widely read and most widely translated books Ismail Kadare has ever written.

Brian D. Phillips (review date 8 September 2000)

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SOURCE: Phillips, Brian D. “Postbellum.” Commonweal 127, no. 15 (8 September 2000): 36-8.

[In the following review, Phillips discusses Elegy for Kosovo in relation to several other narratives concerning the political situation in Kosovo during the late 1990s.]

At the heart of his masterful Elegy for Kosovo, the Albanian fabulist Ismail Kadare places the poignant tale of two fourteenth-century minstrels joined in flight. Their epic journey follows the defeat of the massed Christian armies of southeastern Europe by the Ottoman forces at the legendary Battle of Kosovo. As Gjorg, an Albanian, and Vladan, a Serb, wander out of the Balkans into French and German lands in search of safety and purpose, their attempts at broader European integration and a postwar professional comeback seem doomed.

Performing at the castle of a northern nobleman, Gjorg and Vladan infuriate their hosts when it becomes clear that the redundant minstrels have no repertoire beyond the old songs of mutual hatred and martial exploits. Their recital appears even more absurd as this centuries-old enmity has now been rendered irrelevant in the wake of the Turkish conquest. As one exasperated listener puts it, “It is true that there is dissension everywhere, but dissension like yours is really unique in the world!” More helpfully, one gentlewoman seeks to spur Gjorg and Vladan on to a new and more inclusive cultural vision, telling them bluntly, “You must sing of other things.”

Just over one year after the end of the NATO intervention of 1999, what, if any, evidence do we have that the peoples of Kosovo have begun to “sing of other things”? Were the brutal events of last year the catalyst for a decisive break with history in the region, or have we succeeded only in adding new verses to the familiar, deadly ballads of ethnic and religious division? Recurrent violent attacks and campaigns of intimidation against minority populations designed to create an exclusively Albanian Kosovo—as well as continued Serbian intransigence in a town like Mitrovica—would seem to confirm the pessimism of Gjorg and Vladan's critics. However, a crop of new books considering the historical background of the 1998-99 war in Kosovo and sifting the political fallout from the NATO action also leaves one wondering whether the international community's catalogue of best-loved tunes is not in similar need of refreshment.

The most useful of these latest analyses of the Kosovo conflict comes from Tim Judah, a journalist and essayist whose incisive coverage of the wars in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s has rightly earned him a place in the front rank of Balkan commentators. Judah's Kosovo: War and Revenge provides an accessible overview of the political struggles that culminated in the outbreak of armed conflict early in 1998. While his digest of nearly six hundred years of Kosovar history cannot compare with the extended exploration of Serb and Albanian fact and fiction in Noel Malcolm's Kosovo: A Short History, the strength of Judah's book lies in his expert grasp of developments during the period following Milosevic's swift ascent to power during the late 1980s.

Judah recounts how the Kosovar Albanian population rallied ‘round the rather curious figure of Ibrahim Rugova and organized itself into a passive resistance movement after the suspension of Kosovo's autonomous status within Yugoslavia in rich and illuminating detail. Judah is especially good on the gradual disillusion with Rugova's strategy: the growth of a sense among Kosovar Albanians that “his idea that they would be rewarded for their ‘good behavior’ by Western countries had been just plain wrong.” The author's account of the unlikely emergence of the Kosovo Liberation Army and its rupture of the long, uneasy standoff between Serbs and Albanians makes for gripping reading.

Judah's treatment of the daily reality of repression and systematic human-rights violations experienced by Kosovar Albanians throughout this period is notably evenhanded. He is careful to point out, for example, that while, the Serbian response to an increasing pattern of attacks on police and other agents of the regime was indefensibly excessive, those targeted by the Serb authorities during these years were frequently engaged in a campaign of violence. His discussion of the politicization of the discourse of human rights in Kosovo (and the impact of this phenomenon on the international community) as the stakes grew higher throughout the past decade is one of his most significant contributions to contemporary debate.

Judah's portrait of the ill-fated Rambouillet negotiations immediately prior to the start of the air strikes against the Milosevic regime is especially sobering. The tensions within and among the various delegations, the high comedy of the living and dining arrangements in the chateau near Paris, and the drama of possibilities glimpsed and shattered are all retold with considerable skill. About the war itself, Judah's judgment is commendable. While rightly giving ample space to the appalling crimes committed by Milosevic's forces and their local allies, he chooses to view the events of March-June 1999 as a series of sometimes quite extraordinary miscalculations and misperceptions on all sides, rather than as a narrative of unqualified success and unambiguous moral victory on the part of the international community.

Michael Ignatieff, arguably the most visible “public intellectual” writing and broadcasting in Britain today, is also much preoccupied with the political and moral consequences of the NATO intervention. Ignatieff's Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond cannot match the narrative sweep of Judah's chronological study, but his questioning of the implications for Western democracies of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention and the new clinical warfare, where victors can emerge without having sustained a single casualty, is no less fervent and necessary.

As an ardent supporter of the NATO intervention, Ignatieff conducts a lively self-interrogation on issues around the notion of wars for human rights and their democratic control. He sounds some necessary warning bells about the risks inherent in the West's capacity to wage a kind of remote-control warfare where the consent and engagement of its citizens become at best marginal considerations for those in command. As he argues, “those who supported the war in Kosovo must face up to the unintended effects of moralizing the use of violence. For high-flown abstractions carry an inherent justification of everything done in their name. What is to prevent moral abstractions like human rights from inducing an absolutist frame of mind which, in defining all human-rights violators as barbarians, legitimizes barbarism?”

One of Kadare's three enigmatic fictions ends with the death of the visionary old lady who had urged Gjorg and Vladan to learn to sing bold new songs. As she expires, she repeats the word “Europe” to herself, “as if she were trying to seize this word transformed by ridicule and neglect.” If we are to reclaim that debased word in the new century—if we are to discover a fresh vocabulary in international politics—we shall need to display more imagination and resolve than we have done since the agreement ending the conflict in Kosovo a year ago June. Kadare's transcendent vision is mirrored in scores of civil and community initiatives in the region—among them the remarkable Zemlja Djece (Land of Children) in Bosnia, Otpor (Resistance), and Women in Black in Serbia, and the network of local youth centers in Kosovo set up by the International Rescue Committee—which are too often overlooked. These could be the music of the future, if only we are prepared to listen more closely and add our own supporting voices to the chorus.

Michele Levy (review date autumn 2000)

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SOURCE: Levy, Michele. Review of Elegy for Kosovo, by Ismail Kadare.World Literature Today 74, no. 4 (autumn 2000): 903.

[In the following review, Levy compliments the emotional depth of the stories in Elegy for Kosovo, arguing that “Kadare has shaped a powerful metaphor for Kosovo and the Balkans.”]

In 1389 Albanians and Serbs suspended ancient enmities to unite against the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo. Ismail Kadare's three-part prose poem [Elegy for Kosovo] traces the fate of war minstrels who must entertain the troops and memorialize the battle. His voice that of a medieval chronicler, his chosen moment mythic and historic, embedded with past, pregnant with future, his treatment of the various Balkan groups compassionate, Kadare shows how myth fuels violent history.

“The Ancient Battle” features minstrels singing hate songs to troops newly allied. Confronting mockery, they explain, “This is where we've always turned to find parts for our songs, and this is where we will always turn.” Their tainted songs presage Christian defeat.

In “The Great Lady” the minstrels flee westward, still frozen in their quest to sing the truth of unity in victimhood. The Serb minstrel tells his Albanian counterpart, “We ourselves have brought this disaster upon our heads, my brother! We have been fighting and slaughtering each other for so many years over Kosovo, and now Kosovo has fallen to others.” Straining for words, he finds only the traditional ones, “heavy as ancient headstones.” The minstrels recognize themselves as “prisoners, tied to each other by ancient chains that they could not and did not want to break.”

Their inability to transcend mythic memory hounds them throughout Europe. At a court banquet, where the minstrels reluctantly repeat their hate songs, northern lords disdain them: “Dissension like yours is really unique in the world!” Invited to tell, not sing, thus freed from hereditary forms, they move their audience with stories of Balkan culture and suffering that “bring to mind the Greek tragedies.” But these “minstrels of war” “cannot break out of the mold” without permission from their elders and the dead. Asked to play at the funeral of the old woman who linked their spoken tales to the origins of Europe, they once again sing verses about pernicious Serbs and enemy Albanians.

In “The Royal Prayer,” Sultan Murad, victor and victim at Kosovo, his blood and viscera buried by Turks in its soil, curses Balkan peoples for their barbarism and laments their bondage to ancestral myths, for what they sang “was inevitably done, and what was done was then added to their songs.” His vision spanning past, present, and future, he recounts with horror the passage of time from his moment to NATO and Milošević, and begs to have his blood, “the origin of all this horror,” “removed from these cold plains.” As he has learned, “A few drops of blood are enough to hold all the memory of the world.”

Finally, Elegy for Kosovo traces the tortured history of a place still marked by ethnic conflict. The cycle Kadare examines has not yet been transcended—as witness recent folk songs praising KLA heroes. Reconfiguring traditional Albanian forms and contents, Kadare has shaped a powerful metaphor for Kosovo and the Balkans.

Toby Mundy (review date 30 October 2000)

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SOURCE: Mundy, Toby. “Novel of the Week.” New Statesman 129, no. 4510 (30 October 2000): 55.

[In the following review, Mundy lauds The General of the Dead Army as a powerful and evocative parable for Balkan politics.]

In his famous essay “What Is a Nation?”, the French historian Ernest Renan suggested that nations are defined equally by what people choose collectively to remember and by what everyone decides to forget. The General of the Dead Army tells the story of an Italian general sent to Albania in the 1960s to repatriate the remains of the young Italians who fell there during the Second World War. Their defeat is something that Ismail Kadare's saturnine general would rather forget. Unfortunately for him, the bungled Italian invasion and the tireless and savage resistance it provoked are things that the Albanians will always remember.

The general approaches his irregular mission with solemnity. Prior to his departure for Albania, he receives streams of relatives—peasants and city dwellers alike—who crave an end to their feelings of loss and present him with fragmentary details of their sons' lives. He attends press conferences at which the expectations of a bereaved nation are loaded on to his shoulders. The people are as unable to forget their losses as they are to remember the fascist expansionism that led to the deaths.

Equipped with lists and maps, dental records and notes of distinguishing features, and with only a terse Italian priest for company, the general arrives in Albania. He finds an unforgiving landscape and a simple, determined people, steeped in tradition. As the general lies in his tent after a day digging for skeletons in the rain, he listens to the Albanian labourers sing mournfully of suffering and martyrdom, bravery and loyalty. Yet, despite where and when this book was written (Enver Hoxha's Tirana in 1963), the novel is not above criticising everyday peasant life. One of the reasons Kadare was able to survive the terror of Hoxha's totalitarianism is that he shared with those who governed him the Marxist ambition to liberate the country folk from their backward past. Thus village life in the novel is permeated by superstition and oppressive conservatism. Yet the villagers' sense of place and their connectedness with the land contrasts with the general's sense that he is lost and adrift.

There is no respite from memory and death in this book. Each grave contains a story. Each graveyard is a place where biography and history converge. At irregular intervals, and without warning, the voices of the dead ripple into the narrative: a deserter's diary; a fragment of front-line conversation; the thoughts of a nameless young man moments before death. In that it involves reconciliation, co-operation and exhumations, rather than burials, the general's purpose is the opposite of bellicose. Yet it is also an extension of the war, as, hour by hour and day by day, memories are disinterred with the bones. The general, who exclaims bitterly that he has “a whole army of dead men under my command”, is tortured by nightmares. In a mirror of his countrymen's defeat 20 years earlier, he is slowly vanquished by his task, his despair giving way to madness.

Piled up in hygienic bags, ready to be flown home, the remains of the dead are the last physical expression of the foundations upon which were built myths and stories, which are themselves extensions to the great mass of legend upon which a nation stands. (The German social historian Robert Michels has suggested that every nation has two myths: one of “origin” and another of “mission”.)

It is hard not to be affected by Kadare's bleak parable. This is a novel that grasps its reader around the ankles and mires you, pulling you down until you are forced to travel through the book at exactly the author's pace—trapped, like the general, by the smell of rotting corpses and quicklime and by the inscrutable, weather-blasted faces of the Albanian workers. Kadare is often mentioned as a future Nobel prize-winner; with its metonymic realism and fidelity to its characters, The General of the Dead Army reminds us why his work is so valued.

Alan Brownjohn (review date 10 November 2000)

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SOURCE: Brownjohn, Alan. “Kingdom of Bones.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5093 (10 November 2000): 24.

[In the following review, Brownjohn regards The General of the Dead Army as a “profoundly moving novel” and notes that the narrative remains engaging, despite the ambiguousness of the lead characters.]

The Albanian novelist, poet and critic Ismail Kadare both enjoyed the cautious favour of the Hoxha regime as someone applauding the Marxist “modernization” of his country, and suffered from its humiliating disapproval; he was banned from publishing for three years, when he brought out a political satire in verse in 1975, and then attacked in 1981, when he “evaded politics” in one of his lighter fictions. Since 1990, he has been living in France. This, his first (and still most celebrated) novel, originally published here in 1971, returns to us now in the author's definitive final version of 1998, and by the same indirect route. With no literary translator from the Albanian then available, the 1971 English edition was translated from the French of Albin Michel by Derek Coltman, who this time round adds numerous small-scale authorial revisions incorporated in the 1998 French version. It all reads immaculately, suggesting meticulous and inspired effort by the two translators in rendering a spare, astringent and lucid prose style.

The General of the Dead Army manages to compel attention without encouraging empathy with any of its principal characters. As with almost everyone else, they are not named, remaining just “the general”, “the priest” (who accompanies him everywhere), “the Albanian expert”, “Colonel Z”. Apart from Tirana, and Kadare's mountain birthplace, the city of Gjirokastër, none of the locations is named. Whether in the mountains or on the plains, they are rendered similar and anonymous by the unvarying grimness of the Italian general's mission; he faces everywhere “the same black mud … the same stones, the same roots, the same vapour”; being charged with the task of recovering from this foreign, Albanian soil whether they were properly or haphazardly buried, the remains of all of his countrymen who died there during the Second World War. To assist him, he has only inadequate maps and lists of names with brief physical descriptions and dental records, for the exhumation of what amounts to a “kingdom of bones”.

Illusions of the nobility of the enterprise, compared by him to the solemnity of funeral rites in the world of Homer, give way to revulsion and fatigue with the repetitiousness of the work and the attitude of the Albanian labourers employed in the digging; they are old soldiers for whom “pulling old enemies back out of their graves” offers a satisfying extension of the war. Kadare avoids repetition in his storytelling by introducing harsh anecdotes from the war period itself. These underline the realities, horrible or merely grotesque, of the past which the general, his laconic priest and their workers unearth with the bones, and they vary what might otherwise be an unremittingly grim account. The author's mordant humour is telling, at the rare moments when he uses it.

The novel is rich in poignant details, which enable it, despite the remoteness of the region and the facelessness of the characters, to work on a wholly realistic as well as an allegorical level. This is Kadare's most remarkable achievement; the army is symbolic, but has inescapably been a real one, reduced now to a smallish cargo of phosphorus and calcium set for burial in thousands of miniature coffins. War is not only about slaughter during the conflict but also its pathetic and unresolved aftermath; before his journey, the general receives numberless requests from relatives of the dead petitioning him with sketch maps and pitiful entreaties to seek out and restore their loved ones' remains.

Exhausted by the seeming endlessness of the undertaking, the general surveys the rescued bones stowed in blue plastic bags and thinks of all the battles he himself (a “peace-time general”) could have won with them. The priest, who speaks a little of their language, categorizes the Albanians as “given to war by their very nature”. In a passage which has a dreadful resonance in the present, he reflects that, “deprived of war and weapons his people would just wither away. … It is fortunate for their neighbours that the Albanians number only a few million.” The judgment seems brutal, but Kadare allows his itinerant workmen and taciturn villagers, with their recurrent vendettas and violent folklore, to bear it out.

Two subplots embellish the main narrative. The general and priest encounter another team excavating graves with the same purpose. They are Germans on the same mission, making comparable collections of disinfected bones; the incident demonstrates the universality of the yearning to recover and rebury the dead. The second, more important strand, concerns Colonel Z, commander of the “Blue Battalion”, the infamous punitive force feared as much by its Italian comrades as by foreign enemies. The general is attracted to the colonel's widow, and suspects that she is having an affair with the priest. It is essential to recover Z's remains, but they seem untraceable. Kadare's unravelling of this mystery, in relating the general's ill-advised visit to a wild wedding feast, is wholly unexpected, and harrowing in its understatement. It provides an extraordinary conclusion to this profoundly moving novel, which recovers dignity from the banal and dirty horrors of war in chronicling the general's recovery of the bones from the ground.

Emily Apter (essay date winter 2001)

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SOURCE: Apter, Emily. “Balkan Babel: Translation Zones, Military Zones.” Public Culture 13, no. 1 (winter 2001): 65-80.

[In the following essay, Apter discusses the recurring themes of language politics in Balkan literature, citing how Kadare's works—particularly The Three-Arched Bridge and The Palace of Dreams—portray the challenges of multilingualism in the Balkan region.]

As the field of translation studies begins to respond to new directions in transnational literary studies, there has been a foregrounding of topics such as the “dependency” of minoritarian languages on dominant, vehicular ones; the links among linguistic standardization, nation-building, and the colonial export of European languages; the ways in which a global economy reinforces the imperium of English; the emergence of an international canon of books that are translation-friendly (in a market sense); and the definition of a “translational transnationalism” in terms of diversal relations among minoritarian languages.1 This last conceptual area is clearly indebted to the pioneering study of Franz Kafka by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature.2 In a seminal chapter entitled “What Is Minor Literature?” Deleuze and Guattari analyzed Kafka's German as a pastiche of the “vehicular” tongue—meaning, in this case, the impoverished bureaucratese, the hollow state language imposed on Czechoslovakia by the Prussian state. According to their reading, Kafka subverted the vehicular by freighting it with unwelcome baggage, from Yiddish inflections to scraps of Czech vernacular. Now, even if the newly edited and translated Malcolm Pasley and Mark Harman editions of Kafka reveal a very differently textured use of the German language from the one characterized by Deleuze and Guattari, their idea of minor literature has been crucial to defining the “trans” unit in literary transnationalism.3 In the field of transnational translation studies, the ramifications are clear: rather than a major language acting as the general equivalent between two or more minor languages, the translation process is now conceptualized as occurring within a field of the minor.

Translational transnationalism, as it moves beyond Deleuze and Guattari, points to a future space-time of translation between, say, Tagalog and Ogoni or Wolof and Spanglish. And if these exchanges still seem far off, we already have the example of Michel Tremblay's Les belles-soeurs, the pioneering work of Joual theater that was put on at the Edinburgh Festival several years ago as The Guid-Sisters in Scots translation, or, more recently still, the translation of Irvine Welsh's Scottish argot in Trainspotting into Quebecois Joual.4 The British Council translation Web site refers us to the collaboration between Martin Bowman, born in Montreal of Scottish parents, and Wajdi Mouawad, a theater director born in Beirut and brought up in Montreal, in which they arrived at a particular orthography and transposed demotic to capture the language of Welsh's Scots speakers in Joual. In the following excerpt from the Joual translation, the parenthetical numbers refer to the translators' explanatory footnotes: “J'ai envie d'me battre (1) tabarnak (2)! J'veux dire (3)! Tu m'connais tsé, j'sus pas l'genre de grosse plotte tabarnak à charcher (4) des hostis d'problèmes, mais j'étais le gars avec le câlisse de bat de billard din's (5) mains et c'te grosse plotte là à face d'étron (6) pouvait bien se r'trouver a'c (7) le câlisse du bout gras du bat dans sa câlisse de grosse yeule, si y'avait envie (8) J'suis prète à l'faire (9) tabarnak!”5 The notes reveal how the problems typically attending standard language translation—compensation for nonequivalency, the rendering of sound values and rhythm, the carryover of sedimented layers of linguistic history and “lost” inflection—become particularly acute when the transference is between so-called minor or highly idiomatic languages. Bowman and Mouawad explain:

The translation attempts to reflect the rhythm of the original sentence, but to do so within its own sound system, certain literal elements had to be dropped, (eg. ‘ensemble’, i.e. together, replaces ‘ah mind’, i.e. I remember) The main phenomenon to observe here is the use of the expletive language to create the rhythm and to observe the use of one of these words as a verb, i.e. tabarnaké. This creative use of the vocabulary of religious words, turning what are usually nouns into verbs and adverbs, underscores the vitality of the vernacular for all the poverty of imagination of the speaker. We liked the repetition of the hard ‘c’ in tabarnaké, câlisses, corps, criss, crabes, câlisse as the sound functions to underscore the violence in the action being described and is captured in such words in the original as smashin, fuckin, crabs, bits, stanes, cunt, fuckin, ken. In the Scots the violent effect is reflected not only in the consonants but in the use of monosyllabic plurals. In other words, the translators here are trying for an effect based as much in sound as in meaning.6

This translation from dialect to dialect, or from minority to minority tongue, bypassing (while certainly acknowledging) standard usage, lends substance to theoretical speculations about translation's relationship to transnationalism: it is precisely a meeting between argots over the bodies of the official tongues from which they depart. Like the “trans to trans” of transnational affiliations, the bonds forged between ethnic and proletarian vernaculars in different cultures defy the gold standard of vehicular languages such as English and French. They also serve inadvertently to question the grounds of aesthetic judgment by drawing attention to the difficulty of distinguishing between vernacular deviations and poetic warpings of standard language. One reader's “bad English” or “bad French” will be another's high poetry, and, of course, no writer has brought this ambiguity more pointedly into focus than James Joyce. These tensions among vehicular, literary, and colloquial speech define the abrasive edges of translation studies; and it is where these edges meet—the volatile zones of translation, the zones of linguistic warfare—that I would situate my own discussion of what I call “Balkan Babel.”

Balkanism is a term wielded by Maria Todorova in her book Imagining the Balkans as a self-conscious counterpoint to Saidian Orientalism.7 Todorova and other scholars of Balkanism caution judiciously against regional stereotyping that equates “Balkan” with ethnic cleansing, bloodletting, a perpetual underground and mongrel regionalism, “semi-developed, semi-colonial” Europe, “an incomplete self of the West.”8 There is nonetheless, in representative literary works from southeastern Europe, a pronounced thematic focus on border wars and fractious linguistic copopulation. It is from these works that I take my cue in treating “Balkan” as a synonym of a particular kind of translational transnationalism, in which emphasis is placed not so much on market determinations of the flow of minor languages and literatures but, rather, on the question of what occurs semiotically and socially when dialects, or marginalized world languages, are in a war of maneuver unmediated by a major language of position.9

A subset of politics at large, with particular agendas and strategic interests, language politics defines its theater of war in the space where a military zone may be superimposed on a linguistic hot spot or translation zone. The expression translation zone could well refer to the demarcation of a community of speakers who achieve an ideal threshold of communication (the utopia of Gottfried-Wilhelm Leibniz, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Jürgen Habermas). But when war is at issue, it makes more sense to define it as a translation no-fly zone, an area of border trouble where the lines dividing discrete languages are muddy and disputatious; where linguistic separatism is enforced by high surveillance missions; or where misfired, off-kilter semantic missiles are beached or disabled. Construed in terms of border patrols and military operations, the paradigm of a translation zone at war may be applied beyond the Balkans to the way in which monolingual nations police their internal linguistic borders and to revolts against the computer as a machinic labor force in the economy of global translation. From the market in pocket translators to the onslaught of universal standards of technological literacy and the rise of comprador computer dialects that aggressively squeeze out weak competitors, a language war of the information age is taking shape with a distinctly bellicose rhetoric. Recent reports of attacks on Internet sites (Yahoo,, eBay) consistently rely on the language of ballistics: assault, barrage, fortification, siege, bombardment, and the loss of public safety. In this context, the declaration that “wars between languages are as fateful as wars between men”10 is truly premonitory and indicative of a present condition in which la guerre de Troyes will not, indeed, take place without computer-assisted violence and defense strategy.

In the Albanian author Ismail Kadare's 1978 novel The Three-Arched Bridge, this statement is made by a European monk on his return from a diplomatic visit to Byzantium. It is spoken to the novel's main character, a translator who is negotiating the terms of the construction of a bridge that would span rivalrous Balkan and Ottoman territories.11 Set in 1377, Kadare's novel uncannily anticipates the most recent Balkan conflagrations, specifically the way in which the Mitrovica bridge on the Ibar River in northern Kosovo, flanked by self-appointed Serbian “bridge keepers,” Albanian militants, and NATO peacekeeping forces, made the question of partition and permanent secession the order of the day. Kadare's searing portrayal of mountain country vendettas in Broken April (1978) is equally prescient;12 the erasure of Tito's Yugoslavia and the collapse of Soviet hegemony have introduced a wild card politics of East-West realignment that enables ancient ethnic, religious, and cultural feuds to reignite in the guise of modern mafia warfare.

The Three-Arched Bridge traces how language wars fit into the larger picture of political misalliance, blood feuds, and border trauma. Balkan babble—a condition of failed semantic transmission—obtains an isomorphic fit with Balkan Babel, a Tower of Babel turned on its side to form a hapless bridge intended to ford the unbridgeable gulf between Europe and the so-called East. In the tense negotiations around the erection of the bridge, multilingualism asserts its importance at the bargaining table, raising stakes in what is already a lethal game of diplomatic and cultural one-upmanship. For example, the politics of laying claim to linguistic superiority is paramount, as when the narrator, a professional translator in the employ of an impoverished Albanian count, heaps contempt on the “foreigners” (Turks) by derogating their speech (it is “easier to interpret for woodpeckers”) (TB [The Three-Arched Bridge], 18). And in another instance: “The new arrivals did indeed speak the most horrible tongue. My ears had never heard such a babble. Slowly I began to untangle the sounds. I noticed that their numbers were Latin and their verbs generally Greek or Slav, while they used Albanian for the names of things, and now and then a word of German. They used no adjectives” (TB, 10-11). This confusion issuing from strangers' mouths is transliterated as broken English: “This road bad because non maintain, mess complete. Water smooth itself, road non, routen need work, we has no tales, has instruct, we fast money, give, take. Water different, boat move itself graciosus, but vdrug many drown, bye-bye, sto dhjavolos. Funebrum, he, he, road no, road sehr guten but need gut repair” (TB, 13; emphasis in original). The translation implies a corrupt original language—Slavo-Germanic pidgin—whose broken grammar and encrypted allusions to bad roads, vengeful waters, and drowning men foretells the contested construction of the bridge and the ensuing cycle of violent retribution that culminates in the encasement of a living man in the bridge's rampart.

If, as some have said, language is a dialect protected by an army, then The Three-Arched Bridge may be read as a study of what happens when the security forces protecting the reigning tongue start to lose their strategic advantage and become vulnerable to the invading force of multilingual language users whose polyglot idiolect has yet to select a dominant dialect for standardization. Here this situation relates specifically to the Albanian claim to “first language” status, a claim that remains active even today in the politics of regional chauvinism. “I told him,” says the narrator, “that we are the descendants of the Illyrians and that the Latins call our country Arbanum or Albanum or Regnum Albaniae” (TB, 69). After informing his listener that Albanians, together with the ancient Greeks, are the oldest people in the Balkans, with roots in the region “since time immemorial” and with a tradition that has embittered the “newcomers” (the Slavs), the narrator makes the familiar argument that the Albanian language “is contemporary with if not older than Greek, and that this, the monks say, was proved by the words that Greek had borrowed from our tongue”—and, he then adds, they are “not just any words, but the names of gods and heroes” (TB, 70). This linguistic patrimony is now under threat from the Ottoman language (“casting its shadow over both our languages, Greek and Albanian, like a black cloud”) (TB, 70). The -luk suffix, he laments, is pounding the originary tongue like “some dreadful hammer blow,” and “nobody understands the danger” (TB, 70). It is in the context of these observations that the sympathetic interlocutor makes the remark about wars between languages and wars between men.

Kadare's novel poses the proverbial question, What's in a name? The insidious beginning of an embattled condition is the answer, when it comes to the word Balkan itself. To the narrator's amazement, the term passes from the Turkish language virtually unnoticed into the vocabulary of the Albanians after the count sells the Turks a stretch of highway: “More than by the desire of the Ottomans to cover under one name the countries and peoples of the peninsula, as if subsequently to devour them more easily, I was amazed by our readiness to accept the new name. I always thought that this was a bad sign, and now I am convinced that it is worse than that” (TB, 25). The seeding of conflict in the very name “Balkan” repeats a prior history of Germanic self-appellation: “A century previously,” the narrator says, “it was the ‘Jermans’ who were coming, they were described as ‘people who talk as if in jerm, in delirium.’ … According to our old men, these people have even begun to call their own country Jermani, which means the place where people gabble in delirium, or land of jerm” (TB, 27). This embedding of a story of Babel within ethnic and regional nomination acts as a secret weapon—a Trojan horse conceit—deployed by Albania's invaders. Smuggled across the border in the guise of a commercially motivated translation operation, the Turkish language behaves like germ warfare; impossible to contain, yet capable of spreading linguistic chaos once released into the atmosphere. Polyglot chatter breaks out at the bridge—Europe's symbolic weak link and the physical site of blood sacrifice—spreading confusion and narrative disorientation. As the Albanian locals lose their ability to distinguish legend from fact, or beginnings from endings, the “Ottoman hordes” advance upon them, subjecting their “majestic language” to the “terrible ‘luk’” that strikes their native tongue like “a reptile's tail” (TB, 183). Here one must caution against a neutral reading of this decidedly negative portrayal of linguistic Ottomanization in the light of Kadare's political orientation. A dissident exile living in Paris since 1990, he is known for his pronounced pro-Europe, anti-Turkish, and anti-Islamic stance, as evinced in a polemical pamphlet on “the anatomy of tyranny” in which he refers derisively to the “baggage of the Ottoman overlords” while longingly prognosticating “a great rectification of [Albania's] history that will hasten its union with the mother continent—Europe.”13

Kadare's professed commitment to removing the traces of Turkish language and cultural influence on a future Albania surely render his texts problematic as exemplars of language politics, if one is committed to warding off the latest iterations of Orientalism. But it is also in their denunciation of the East that these texts function effectively as symptoms of what they diagnose—a condition of Balkan Babel defined by the acute anxieties that surround possession of a discrete language in territories of intense linguistic variegation and border conflict. Though not unique to the Balkans, this anxiety is aggravated by East-West barriers of untranslatability;14 by the sameness between languages (such as Serbian and Croatian) that have been declared separate by official decree; by the physical proximity of differential language groups (with a language shift occurring at virtually every train stop); by the historic failure of nationalist linguistic policy to eliminate discrepancies; and by the proliferation of hybrid dialects that fall short of qualifying as standard languages. In the Balkans, the vindication of a language, or even a word, may be a lethal affair, and many writers have fastened on this problematic as key to understanding not only regional factionalism but also the symptomatology carried, for better or for worse, by the term Balkanization.

The Nobel prize-winning Serbian author Ivo Andrić, whose 1945 novel The Bridge on the Drina clearly served as inspiration for, if not as the occasion of rewriting, The Three-Arched Bridge, gives special focus to the responsibility language bears for making Balkanization a synonym of profound regional dysfunction. Set in Bosnia, The Bridge on the Drina spans several centuries and replays the smoldering tensions between Orthodox Serbs and Islamic converts. The fateful construction of a bridge excites the wrath of the boatmen, who destroy by night what has been built by day, and who, as in The Three-Arched Bridge, must forfeit the life of one of their own as punishment. As the novel moves forward to the end of the nineteenth century and the outbreak of civil war, the politics of blood tribute evolve seamlessly into the politics of occupation, with local militias doubling as military troops, and vice versa. Violence, as in the Kadare novel, erupts on the occasion of a diplomatic translation: an old man from the Turkish side, thought to be a dervish, wanders unsuspectingly into the Serbian camp and is subjected to interrogation through the intermediary of a translator with “poor knowledge of the Turkish language.” Intentionally performing a shoddy job, the translator puts “the worst possible construction on the old man's exalted phrases” such that they seem to “smell of politics and seditious intent.”15 And so the old man is marked for execution, setting in motion the tit-for-tat engine of a language war. Turkish soldiers find their opportunity for retribution when they happen upon a mill attendant in a remote forest area as he is giving full throat to a ballad of ancient Serbia normally reserved for “closed houses” (BD [The Bridge on the Drina], 87). The verse that speaks of a maiden whose lover hopes to carry a standard for her into battle is particularly offensive to the Turks, convinced that the words maiden and standard have been subversively purloined from their language. The narrator explains: “In that great and strange struggle, which had been waged in Bosnia for centuries between two faiths, for land and power and their own conception of life and order, the adversaries had taken from each other not only women, horses and arms but also songs. Many a verse passed from one to the other as the most precious of booty” (BD, 87-88). In the fictional worlds of Andrić and Kadare, the anodyne practice of linguistic border-crossing—from the adoption of loan words to the appropriation of a rival country's verse—becomes enmeshed in a paranoid psychology of transferential identification with the other's words in which each side hears the theft of its patrimony in the other's language. Tracked like illegal transients, words become subject to military patrol, their border infractions punishable by death.

In Kadare's novels, the Balkans become a microcosm of a state of civil society driven by what Manuel de Landa calls “intelligent machines.”16 Only here, de Landa's vision of smart bombs and robotic channelers of human will are replaced in the Balkan context by age-old linguistic technologies, propelling themselves through maneuvers independent of individual agents. From this perspective, consider specific moments in The Three-Arched Bridge. As East and West, Christendom and Islam, proceed full tilt into battle, the war machine is set in motion by a “commination,” a gestural speech-act or ritual curse (from the Latin comminari, to threaten punishment or vengeance). Formally launched by the Turks against Europe, the commination resembles a machinic technology, built according to strict rules and safety measures culled from archival manuals. The commination has the power of first strike, embodying the terrible seriousness of cursing in Balkan lands. The curse activates a code of honor that exacts blood payment for the redemption of good name and commits future generations to unrequited warfare. Evidence of how this fatal heritage gets passed on to future generations crops up in The Palace of Dreams, a sequel novel to The Three-Arched Bridge, in which the protagonist discovers that his family name is a cursed patronymic because an ancestor had adopted the name of the “bridge with three arches in central Albania. … built with a man walled up in its foundations,” thus dooming, for ever after, his descendants to an association with the “stigma of murder.”17 With its grammar of threats and punishments, vengeful cycles and blood sacrifice, the commination reveals how war is structured like a language.

In Broken April, perhaps Kadare's most harrowing novel, this structuralist vision of tribal peoples bound together in community by a common language of perpetual war is exemplified to the extreme. The inhabitants of a remote Albanian mountain village, locked into the rules of the besa (code of honor), survive in a state of permanent war that recalls Pierre Clastres's theory of “the archeology of war,” specifically the case of the Tupi-Guarani Indians, who he claims “participated in the same cultural model without ever constituting a ‘nation,’ since they remained in a permanent state of war.”18 Operating according to strict rules of linguistic and social contract, there is zero-sum ambiguity in the moves each side makes. Each infraction of the laws of hospitality triggers ritual killing, economized in the currency of truce periods and funeral tithes, debt wound paid off by human life, or the right to “own a death” redeemed by taking X number of family hits. The war machine, though reduced to local scale, nonetheless exhibits the key structural functions attributed by Georges Bataille to military subcultures in his notes on “The Structure and Function of the Army”: the psychic economy of the sacrificial victim, mystical corporatism, fealty to the autonomous engine of destruction, with its power to transform humans into a caste of fabricated beings called “men at war.”19

Over and over, Kadare depicts war as language—that is, as a transparent accounting of death's score, charting wins and losses without affect, or with the precision and dryness of mathematical notation. This “dead” language—something on the order of what George Steiner would identify as the “post-linguistic” condition of inhumanism20—describes language as pure linguistic technology geared up for militaristic use. This description is reminiscent, certainly, of Carl von Clausewitz's intimation of “combat no longer guided by the ‘will of a guiding intelligence,’” of war that would “drive policy out of office and rule by the laws of its own nature.”21 Unlike the messy border wars that prevail in The Three-Arched Bridge, pitching Ottoman polyglotism against European monolingualism in a fight that can only end in Balkan Babel, Broken April constructs its paradigm around a technocratic language of almost digital simplicity: strokes and naughts, hits and misses, minimal margins of error. In this paradigm, dialects and standard languages alike are flattened into the Esperanto of intelligent machines.

The Three-Arched Bridge and Broken April offer, respectively, two distinct models of language war that eventually join up with each other: the first, following the Guyanese writer Wilson Harris, characterizable as mafia war; the second, following the French theorist Paul Virilio, characterizable as Total War.22 Harris makes careful use of the term mafia, referring not to the “Family” Italo-American style or, for that matter, to “any other aspect of a hegemonic underworld,” but to a “perverse commitment to a privileged frame or family, a hidden authoritarianism that cements its vested interest in the preservation of ruling convention.” “Mafia,” thus abstracted, suggests a logic of “divorced or separated or closed orders and worlds,” an “invariant code or fate,” leading inexorably to “an institutional self-division of humanity.”23 In Harris's ascription, “mafia” becomes virtually synonymous with Balkanization in its most recognizable contemporary dress; that is, an arms-trafficking, vigilante or guerilla force of organized crime, politically invested in social apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and border patrol.

When extrapolated to the battlefield of language wars, “mafia” represents the fortification of linguistic essentialism and the patrolling of creolization. In this sense, we can discern a fanned out version of the “mafia-effect” in the “English Only” movement in the United States, or more pointedly still, in groups that attempt to safeguard the purity of a national standard language. Consider, in this regard, the way in which a recent essay bemoaning the decline of French as a global language warns against the auxiliary evil of pidginization: “If the fate of French is to become the ancient Greek of the twenty-first century, the situation of English is even less enviable—that of kitchen Latin—broken English as the vehicular language is no more favorable to culture as we understand it.”24 According to this argument, the preservation of “culture as we understand it” would chase hybrid tongues underground, forcing them to assume such tactics of self-defense as camouflage or mottling. This idea of camouflage could be applied to writers like Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi who may be seen as ushering in Indian “corruptions” of standard English under the auspices of vernacular literateneness. Mottling, by contrast, could be used with reference to the bilingual code-switching of the Chicano writer José Montoya, whose poems frequently take on the territorial contests between Anglos and Latinos raging over the freeways, vacant lots, and swimming holes of California. In the poem “Gabby Took the 99,” “wetback” Spanish or Calo may be read as mottled language. Phrases such as el troque for truck, or El highway 99 blend in with a landscape that is itself a quintessential translation zone between Mexico and the United States. In another poem “Until They Leave Us A Loan,” the homophonic play between a financial loan and the angry message “leave us alone” underscores the jarring collision between English and Spanish within hybrid speech.25

Moving back to the Balkans, we see that mottling appears in the Internet activism of opposition groups. The (frequently censored) satirical journal Feral Tribune, published in Split, Croatia, and accessed through the aptly named Web site and, mixes Croatian and English in its texts and graphic designs, creating what is, in effect, a hybrid language media pamphlet accessible to readers beyond the Balkans. Typical Web pages are rife with anticapitalist, anti-U.S. sentiment: while Mickey and Minnie Mouse cavort with corrupt politicians, the caption reads “Welcome to Daytonland.” In another image, the familiar army recruitment shot of Uncle Sam mobilizes insulting language as activist invective: I WANT YOU TO EXPLAIN ME WHAT A FUCK IS GOING ON HERE! Feral Tribune's Slav-inflected English and Anglo-Slavic puns belong to an arsenal of vulgar, vitriolic, high camp caricatures deployed in a war against repression at home and indifference abroad.

If mafia war, applied to language, coincides with what Virilio calls an “intestinal” localism, Virilio's notion of Total War (referring to the universal language of bunker architecture and antiaircraft shelters that function as “reference points or landmarks to the totalitarian nature of war in space and myth”) might be keyed to Nuclear English.26 The linguist Randolph Quirk invented the term Nuclear English to designate a language akin to C. K. Ogden's Basic English (BASIC)—that is, a language, in his words, that would be as “culture-free as calculus.”

Culture-free as calculus, with no literary, aesthetic or emotional aspirations, it is correspondingly more free than the “national Englishes” of any suspicion that it smacks of linguistic imperialism or even (since native speakers of English would have to be trained to use it) that it puts some countries at an advantage over others in international communication. Since it is not (but is merely related to) a natural language, it would not be in competition for educational resources with foreign languages proper but rather with that other fundamental interdisciplinary subject, mathematics. Nor, by the same token, could its teachers be accused of wasting resources (as sometimes happens, distressingly, with foreign languages and literatures) on an elitist disciplinary ornament for the few. The relations of Nuclear English are less with the ivory tower than with public convenience.27

Nuclear English, in Quirk's ascription, advertises itself politically as a force of democracy, but a democracy aimed at the boardrooms of multinationals. In execution, it seems to boil down to “restricting modalities,” that is, reducing the incidence of polysemy wherever possible, constraining unconventional or pidgin grammar, and maximizing semantic intentionality. Nuclear English seems to promote a denationalized, Taylorized literacy in which signs do not misfire but, rather, hit their mark with mathematical precision. Carried to its logical end, Nuclear English is tantamount to a prescription for Total War on linguistic diversity and cultural inflection—nothing short of a nuclear attack on the language of humans. But the obvious humanist rebuttal may be all too easy. What makes the idea of Nuclear English rather interesting, it would seem, is that it updates the old dream of a perfectly standardized, universal language for an age of intelligent machines.

For what is Nuclear English if not the culmination of intertwining strands of imperial politics and utopian language philosophy—the former going back to revolutionary and colonial histories, the latter to the explosion of lingua francas at the turn of the twentieth century? As regards the revolutionary heritage, Renée Balibar, Clastres, and the Jesuit linguist Louis-Jean Calvet have traced how, particularly during the Terror, language squadrons were billeted to rural areas in a campaign to bring dialect into line with newly established codifications of French standard language.28 Clastres writes:

The Revolution of 1789, in allowing the triumph of the Jacobins' centralist thought over the Girondins' federalist tendencies, brought the political ascendancy of Parisian administrations to an end. The provinces, as territorial units, had each relied on an ancient, culturally homogenous reality: language, political traditions, etc. Provinces were replaced by abstract division into departments, intended to break all references to local particularisms, and thus facilitate the penetration of state authority everywhere. The final stage of this movement through which differences would vanish before State power was the Third Republic, which definitively transformed the inhabitants of the hexagon into citizens, due to the institution of free and obligatory secular schools and obligatory military service. Whatever remained of autonomous existence in the provincial and rural world succumbed. Francification had been accomplished, ethnocide consummated: traditional languages were attacked as backwards patois, village life reduced to the level of folkloristic spectacle destined for the consumption of tourists, etc.29

Calvet shows how this French linguistic colonization of itself was extended to the colonies; he documents the application of French language policies outre mer and the consequent consolidation of a dominant French culture in territories outside the Hexagon. He also examines the lack of tolerance for minority languages in Russia—both before and after the revolution. The doctrine of “one tsar, one religion, one language,” is transformed by the Soviet regime into the mandate of a society without frontiers or nations. This “unique culture” was supposed to evolve in stages, from rastvet (the flowering of different cultures), to sblizheniye (their coming together), to sliyaniye (the emergence of harmonious unity in a single world language).30

In addition to spelling out causal connections between the rise of universal language ideology and imperialism, Calvet interprets the rise of Esperanto as a response to the growing divisionism of Europe on the eve of World War I. Nineteenth-century “logothèthes,” he notes, invented around five hundred schemes for artificial languages that would transcend the imperfections of natural languages: Cosmoglossa (1858), Universalglot (1868), Volapük (1879), Weltsprache (1883), Esperanto (1887), Mundolingue (1890), Dil (1903), Simplo (1911), and Europeo (1914) were among the most popularly disseminated. Volapük, for example, sustained twenty-five journals, 283 societies, and an academy.

The idea of Nuclear English reveals the reductive drive inherent in Leibnizian schemes for a scientific language that were famously castigated by Ernest Renan in De l'origine du langage (1859) as “mangled, tortured, artificial, painfully constructed, and inharmonious,” in short, “plus barbare que l'iroquois” [more barbaric than Iroquois]. Even worse than their infelicitous form, he argued, was their specious pretense to logic: “Premeditated linguistic reforms … are often less logical than humble patois.”31 If Nuclear English derives on the one hand from Leibniz—from revolutionary standardizations of language, state-sponsored single-language policies, and lingua franca movements in turn-of-the-century Europe—on the other hand, it has also been traced (by Alastair Pennycook among others), to British philosophical traditions of pragmatism, positivism, and utilitarianism that influenced Ogden's development in 1930 of BASIC (an acronym for British American Scientific International Commercial).32 Comprising a vocabulary of only 850 words, boosted by Winston Churchill in the 1940s as part of a meliorist colonial platform, Basic English aspired to technological rationalism and mathematical simplicity. BASIC set a precedent for future wars against linguistic proliferation and prepared the way for future fetishizations of a supersimplified English vulgate or technological Globalspeak.

Of course, one can argue, it is precisely at the moment when Globalspeak becomes feasible in the age of intelligent machines that Balkan Babel breaks out on the borders. In Japan, for example, Babel can be identified in the teenage pidgins used to “evade parental surveillance.”33 This code language draws on the transliteration of English words pronounced with a Japanese accent (wonchu for “I want you”); pig Latin mixing of product names with Japanese verbs (deniru for “let's go to a Denny's restaurant,” hageru for “let's get a Haagen-Dazs ice cream”); and various forms of techno-babble (as in daburu-kurikku mausu for “double-click the mouse”).34 Here it would seem, the greater the reach of English, the greater the production of “other Englishes” that both undermine and reinforce monolingual orders.

For English to maintain and enhance its growing grip on international communication, it needs to contain Balkanization by patrolling linguistic breakaway groups, supporting linguicide or the stamping out of “useless” endangered language species, and routinely “cleansing” the language of rebarbative localisms or mongrel incursions. But already this task is complicated by the latest side effects of technological literacy whereby hackers—enabled by the Internet—“break in” and disable the languages and codes by which computers protect themselves.35 In an era of Internet attacks, the future theater of war, the future translation zone, is removed to electronic turf and the crucial question becomes, How do we wage war, make peace, or control the enemy, when we do not even know who or where the enemy is?


  1. I discuss the term translational transnationalism in more detail in my essay “On Translation in a Global Market” (in this issue of Public Culture).

  2. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

  3. For broader applications see, for example, David Lloyd, Nationalism and Minor Literature: James Clarence Mangan and the Emergence of Irish Cultural Nationalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). For an example of the new translation, see Franz Kafka, The Castle: A New Translation Based on the Restored Text, trans. Mark Harman (New York: Schocken Books, 1998).

  4. Michel Tremblay, The Guid-Sisters, trans. William Findlay and Martin Bowman (Toronto: Exile Editions, 1988); Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting (London: Minerva, 1994).

  5. “The Text in Joual,” in Trainspotting at, available as recently as June 2000.

  6. “The Text in Joual,” n. 2.

  7. Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

  8. Maria Todorova in discussion of her book, University of California at Los Angeles, 25 May 2000.

  9. For a discussion of the marketing of translations of non-Western literature and the historic difficulties these works have in breaking into the global literary canon, see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “The Politics of Translation,” in Destabilizing Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debates, ed. Michèle Barrett and Anne Phillips (London: Polity Press, 1982); Edward Said, “Embargoed Literature,” in Between Languages and Cultures: Translation and Cross-Cultural Texts, ed. Anuradha Dingwaney and Carol Maier (Pittsburgh, Penn.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995); and Emily Apter, “‘Untranslatable’ Algeria,” parallax 7 (April-June 1998): 47-60.

  10. Ismail Kadare, The Three-Arched Bridge, trans. John Hodgson (New York: Vintage International, [1978] 1997), 71. Hereafter cited as TB.

  11. Bernard Lewis has identified this translator as a dragoman or turgeman, an interpreter-middleman specialized in relaying information between the Holy Roman and Ottoman empires. See Lewis, “From Babel to Dragoman: The Tortuous History of the Interpreter in the Middle East,” British Academy Elie Kedourie Memorial Lecture for 1998, Times Literary Supplement, no. 5012 (23 April 1999): 12-14.

  12. Ismail Kadare, Broken April, trans. John Hodgson (New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1990).

  13. Ismail Kadare, Albanian Spring: The Anatomy of Tyranny, trans. Emile Capouya (London: Saqi Books, 1994), 34. First published as Kadare, Printemps albanais (Paris: Librairie Fayard, 1991).

  14. If at times border wars are fueled by the lack of official recognition accorded small linguistic differences, in other instances it is the threat of sameness that sparks discord. The political motivations of linguistic separatism are no more clearly in evidence than in the post-Bosnia decision to break Serbian and Croatian into separately classified tongues, despite their overriding grammatical homologies. As George Steiner noted in 1963, decades before the Berlin Wall would come down, language divisionism could be most acute where homonymy was greatest. Observing the way in which “The East German language is developing its own jargon and dialect,” Steiner concludes: “The words may continue to sound alike, but have contrary definitions. A young East German might come to be more at home, in the syntax of his politics and feelings, in Peking or Albania, than in Cologne.” Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, [1958] 1998), 348-49.

  15. Ivo Andrić, The Bridge on the Drina, trans. Lovett F. Edwards (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1945] 1977), 86. Hereafter cited as BD.

  16. Manuel de Landa, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (New York: Zone Books, 1991).

  17. Ismail Kadare, The Palace of Dreams, translated from the French of Jusuf Vrioni by Barbara Bray (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1993), 13-14. Cited passage italicized in the original text.

  18. Pierre Clastres, Archeology of Violence, trans. Jeanine Herman (New York: Semiotext(e), 1994), 55. Translation of Clastres, Recherches d'anthropologie politique (Paris: Seuil, 1980).

  19. Georges Bataille, “Structure et fonction de l'armée” (1938), in Denis Hollier, Le collège de sociologie: 1937-1939 (Paris: Gallimard, 1979), 255-67.

  20. George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998), vii.

  21. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976), 87.

  22. Wilson Harris, “Creoleness,” in Selected Essays of Wilson Harris: The Unfinished Genesis of the Imagination, ed. A. J. M. Bundy (London: Routledge, 1999). Paul Virilio and Sylvère Lotringer, Pure War, trans. Mark Polizotti (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983).

  23. Harris, “Creoleness,” 238-39.

  24. Antoine Compagnon, “Pourquoi le français devient une langue comme les autres,” le débat, no. 104, March-April 1999: 103 (my translation).

  25. José Montoya, Information: 20 Years of Joda (San Jose, Calif.: Chusma House Publications, 1992).

  26. Virilio and Lotringer, Pure War, 2-3.

  27. Randolph Quirk, “International Communication and the Concept of Nuclear English,” in English for International Communication, ed. C. J. Brumfit (Oxford: Pergamon Institute of English, 1982), 19.

  28. Renée Balibar, L'institution du français: Essai sur le colinguisme des Carolingiens à la République (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1985); Clastres, Archeology of Violence; Louis-Jean Calvet, Language Wars and Linguistic Politics, trans. Michel Petheram (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). Originally published as Calvet, La guerre des langues et les politiques linguistiques (Paris: Payot, 1987).

  29. Clastres, Archeology of Violence, 49.

  30. Calvet, Language Wars and Linguistic Politics, 155-56.

  31. Ernest Renan, De l'origine du langage (Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 1859), 95-96 (my translation).

  32. Alistair Pennycook, English and the Discourses of Colonialism (London: Routledge, 1998); Pennycook, The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language (London: Longman, 1994).

  33. Nicholas D. Kristof, “Stateside Lingo Gives Japan Its Own Valley Girls,” New York Times, 19 October 1997, 33.

  34. Kristof, “Stateside Lingo,” 33.

  35. A New York Times editorial on Internet hacking is foreboding: “The Internet is nearly impossible to police, for the same reason that it is so difficult to define. It is not owned or regulated by the government. Nor is it ‘owned’ by private businesses or individuals. It consists of telephone lines and countless computer sites linked together in a system through which anyone can navigate anonymously. In this environment, freedom of expression, commercial transactions, political activity and the simple pleasure of gathering information and communicating have come to flourish in ways few thought possible only a few years ago. These very qualities are what make the Internet vulnerable to anonymous attack. … Even more insidiously, the hackers have apparently enlisted unknowing allies in the attacks by invading vulnerable computer systems and using those computers to help carry out the assaults.” Editorial, “Hacker Attacks on the Internet,” New York Times, 11 February 2000, A30.

Robert Elsie (review date spring 2001)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of Lulet e ftohta të marsit, by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 75, no. 2 (spring 2001): 406-07.

[In the following review, Elsie finds parallels between Kadare's Broken April and Lulet e ftohta të marsit.]

The nineties were busy and productive years in the literary career of Ismail Kadare. Now in permanent residence in Paris, far from the chaotic Balkans, he had to reaffirm his talents as an international writer without the exotic political and ethnic role as Albania's writer in exile. Over the last seven years he has republished almost all of his works in two impressive nine-volume series, one in Albanian and the other in French, with a total of over 5,000 pages in each language. Only a few youthful and politically imposed writings have been omitted. Despite this undertaking, he has also found time to offer his readers new works of prose and to maintain his momentum.

Born near the Greek border, Kadare is a southerner, a term which in Albania, as opposed to many other countries with a north-south dichotomy, denotes the more advanced, prosperous, and civilized part of the country. Yet it is to the more rugged—dare one say primitive?—culture of the northern Albanian mountains that he has turned once again in his most recent novel [Lulet e ftohta të marsit]. Cold Flowers of March, which his French translator has preferred to entitle Cold Flowers of April, reminds one immediately of Kadare's acclaimed novel Broken April (1990; see WLT 65:2, p. 343). This time it is the painter Mark Gurabardhi who is confronted with the constraints and legendry of northern Albanian society in a small provincial town in the mountains. Though the plot has much in common with Broken April, the novel is set not in the 1930s but in the 1990s, when the bloody rites of vendetta had returned to the country with a vengeance after fifty years of suppression under the communist dictatorship.

The backdrop to Cold Flowers is thus one of blood and the rules of vendetta as codified in the famed Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini. Feuding was and is practiced as a means of exercising tribal justice in wide regions of northern Albania and Kosovo. Behind the blood feud is the principle of “male honor”—i.e., that a man cannot cleanse his honor until he has given satisfaction in blood for a crime or infringement upon that honor. Vendettas usually occur between families, but they can also take place between entire tribes and may last for decades, even after the original cause of the feud has been forgotten. A murder committed in revenge is usually carried out according to specific customs and norms and is considered fully justified by the community in question. The murderer must inform the family of his victim and ensure that the body be transported home. He must also see that the victim's rifle be returned to the family and, after the arrangement of a twenty-four-hour ceasefire, he is even expected to attend his victim's funeral. The Kanun originally sanctioned the slaying of the murderer himself, but the practice was later extended so that male honor or blood could also be “cleansed” by the slaying of any male relative of the murderer.

It is in this framework that a simple love story between the painter and a young woman evolves until the customs of the north offer a dramatic turn of events. Albanian legendry, too, plays its part. Interwoven into the novel is Kadare's literary adaptation of the tale of the maiden who was forced to marry a snake.

Cold Flowers of March, or April, is very much a novel in the traditional style of Kadare. A complex work with many levels of interpretation and intertwining themes, it will be appreciated in particular by anyone with an interest in northern Albanian culture and legendry.

Peter Morgan (essay date February 2002)

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SOURCE: Morgan, Peter. “Ancient Names … Marked by Fate: Ethnicity and the ‘Man without Qualities’ in Ismail Kadare's Palace of Dreams.European Legacy 7, no. 1 (February 2002): 45-60.

[In the following essay, Morgan examines the role of ethnicity in The Palace of Dreams, concluding that Kadare utilizes “ethnicity as a central factor of social change in post-communist societies.”]


The Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare made a radical break with the tradition of socialist realism in his novel, The Palace of Dreams.2 In this work, published in Tirana in 1981 and banned shortly afterwards, Kadare identifies ethnicity as a category of social and individual identity in the context of communist Central and Eastern Europe and thereby foregrounds ethnicity as a central factor of social change in post-communist societies. Kadare uses Albanian ethnic identity to thematize the “Balkan syndrome” of imperial domination in which minority ethnic identity is at once repressed and perpetuated. He does so by tracing the crisis of identity of a typically “Eastern European” bureaucrat and “man without qualities,” in an allegorical Ottoman Empire at the end of the last century. However, while Kadare's novel takes place in an imagined late Ottoman Empire called the UOS (United Ottoman States), there is little of the colour of Istanbul or the Ottoman Empire in this novel. It reads very much as an allegory of post-war Central and Eastern Europe.


Kadare's hero, Mark-Alem, is the pampered and protected scion of a ruling caste family of Albanian origins. For generations the Quprili family have served the Sultan as viziers, government officials and bureaucrats of the Empire. The name Quprili, derived from the Slav word meaning “bridge,” refers to the family's association with a “bridge with three arches in central Albania, constructed in the days when the Albanians were still Christians and built with a man walled up in its foundations.” After the bridge was finished, one of the builders and founding ancestor of the family adopted after his first name, Gjon, the name of Ura (bridge) “together with the stigma of murder attached to it” (9).3

Mark-Alem is about to start work in the Tabir Sarrail or Palace of Dreams, a ministry of the Sultan responsible for collecting the dreams of the Empire and analysing them for signs of social or political unrest:

The idea behind the Sovereign's creation of the Tabir is that Allah looses a forewarning dream on the world […] the interpretation of that dream, fallen like a stray spark into the brain of one out of millions of sleepers, may help to save the country or its Sovereign from disaster; may help to avert war or plague or to create new ideas. […] All that is murky and harmful, or that will become so in a few years or centuries, makes its first appearance in men's dreams.


The hierarchy of the Palace of Dreams extends from the Copying rooms and Archives below, to the offices of Selection and Interpretation above. Mark-Alem is soon promoted from his first position where he selects dreams for further attention, to providing interpretations of potential Master-Dreams, the most significant of the thousands of dreams which flow in each week from throughout the Empire. “The road to the heights in the Tabir Sarrail passes through Interpretation” (69), Mark-Alem is told shortly after his promotion, and later his uncle confirms that “whoever controls the Palace of Dreams controls the keys of the State” (113). The Master-Dreams are the basis for the political decisions of the Empire.

This mechanism of control is made palatable for the people through a myth of altruism and reward. A legend tells about “some poor wretch who lived in a forgotten byway and whose dream saved the State from a terrible calamity.” In reward he is offered one of the Sultan's nieces in marriage (39). The reality is different: the dreamer of the “Master-Dream” is subjected to interrogation, torture and finally death in the state's relentless pursuit of control.

That must be the real object of his incarceration: to make him forget it. That wearing interrogation night and day, that interminable report, the pretence of seeking precise details about something that by its very nature cannot be definite—all this, continued until the dream begins to disintegrate and finally disappears completely from the dreamer's memory, could only be called brain-washing, thought Mark-Alem. Or an undream, in the same way as unreason is the opposite of reason. […] It must be a question of flushing out subversive ideas which for some reason or other the State needed to isolate, as one isolates a plague virus in order to be able to neutralise it.


The huge process of instrumentalization of the dreams of the Empire is a satire on the types of control through cultural and ideological avenues typical of the Eastern European communist dictatorships. Like George Orwell's Ministry of Truth in 1984, it is a massive and powerful state organ in control of the mass unconsciousness of the Empire. In Kadare's hands the Palace becomes an allegory of the ways in which Central and Eastern European communist dictatorships functioned: the murky power-structures, the instrumentalization of myth and legend in the service of ideology, the creation of a ruling class or nomenklatura, the bureaucratization of human relationships and the insecurity, anxiety and fear which this gives rise to, the ostentatious display of order and stability in a situation in which power-structures no longer have a rational base, where change occurs as the result of “seismic” eruptions among factions, where civil society as a binding and mediating force is absent, and where the individual is a cipher in the algebra of power.


Mark-Alem's influential family is responsible for placing him at the Palace. However from the beginning he is unsure of himself and his new environment. The administration and the functions of the organization are opaque. The process of selection and assignment of duties is mysterious, as is the rationale for his accelerated promotions. Mark-Alem's family is powerful, but their relations with the Palace and with the Sultan himself have been strained, even adversarial in the past. In the first weeks of his employment, Mark-Alem's uncle, the Vizier, warns him that the bureaucracy of the Tabir is corrupt and that “dreams” are planted by those in power in order to damage their enemies. The Quprili family itself, it turns out, has been the object of such attacks in the past:

“Some people,” the Vizier went on, “think it's the world of anxieties and dreams—your world, in short—that governs this one. I myself think it's from this world that everything is governed. I think it's this world that chooses the dreams and anxieties and imaginings that ought to be brought to the surface, as a bucket draws water from a well. […] It's this world that selects what it wants from the abyss. […] They say the Master-Dream is sometimes a complete fabrication,” he whispered. “Has that ever occurred to you?” Mark-Alem went cold with fright. A fabrication? The Master-Dream? He could never have imagined a human mind daring to think such a thing, let alone say it in so many words.


Shortly after commencing work, Mark-Alem's attention is taken by the dream of a local fruit-seller:

A piece of wasteland by a bridge, the sort of vacant lot where people throw rubbish. Amongst all the trash and dust and bits of broken lavatory, a curious musical instrument playing all by itself, except for a bull that seems to be maddened by the sound and is standing by the bridge and bellowing […]


He initially consigns it to the Archives. But then he changes his mind, sending it to Interpretation in the fear that he might have missed something. After he has been promoted to “Interpretation” the dream turns up again, but he is still puzzled by it, despite his uncle's warning.

Wasn't the bridge connected with his family's own name? […] Perhaps this was some sinister omen? He re-read the text and began to breathe more freely again: the bull wasn't really attacking the bridge at all. It was just rushing around the piece of waste ground. It's a dream without any meaning, he thought.


Ironically, he recognizes that the dream could be of significance, if the bull were attacking the bridge—but it is not. In his literal-mindedness he misses the clue. With its lahuta, the bridge and the raging bull, this dream turns out to be of great importance, signifying to the “powers that be” in the Palace of Dreams a threat from the Quprilis.

Mark-Alem fails miserably in not recognizing the importance of the dream of the three-arched bridge. However his failure can perhaps be better understood in context. Most of the dreams he is given are extremely suggestive, and could be interpreted to indicate ethnic unrest or changing power-relations in the Empire. Mark-Alem never realizes this, and hence does not learn the central lesson that his uncle is trying to teach him, namely that he must be on guard against any dream which specifically points towards the Quprilis, because it will most probably have been planted in a political manoeuvre to unseat the family.

Mark-Alem's responses to his family, his career and his place of employment have been marked from the beginning by fear and intimidation. He is continually afraid that he will make a mistake and miss a vital clue, or will show himself too ignorant or too knowledgeable and hence suspect to his superiors. When warned by his uncle, the Vizier and Foreign Minister to the Sultan, of the machinations and intrigues behind the scenes in the Palace, his response is to plead for rescue: “Mark-Alem had an almost irresistible desire to fling himself at the Vizier's feet and implore him: ‘Get me out of there, uncle! Save me!’” (117). His obtuseness comes about as a result of his desire not to know, which has its roots in his family history. From his earliest childhood he remembers the crises and tragedies of the family as individual members were catapulted into favour and the highest offices or fell to disgrace, imprisonment and execution, and his mother's main aim since his father's death has been to protect her only son from this destiny (52f).


The dream of the three-arched bridge links Mark-Alem's position at work to his family. For centuries the Quprilis have celebrated their power and influence in the Empire by inviting Bosnian Serb bards to visit the capital and recite a heroic song in which the deeds of this Muslim family are glorified. Mark-Alem's memories of this ritual go back to his earliest childhood:

[…] at first he'd imagined the epos, as they called it, as a long thin animal, midway between a hydra and a snake, which lived far away in some snowy mountains, and which, like a beast of fable, carried within its body the fate of the family.


This epic is a provocation to the Sultan. It manifests the Quprilis' power and pedigree as a Muslim Ottoman family and has been the source of contention and conflict in the past. At a family gathering Mark-Alem's uncle, Kurt, announces that he has invited some rhapsodists from Albania to recite the Albanian version of the epic at the forthcoming annual celebration. Kurt is a very different type to his serious, career-minded siblings.

He had fair hair, and with his light-coloured eyes, reddish moustache and half-German, half-Albanian name, Kurt, he was regarded as the wild rose of the Quprili tribe. Unlike his brothers he had never stuck to any important job. He'd always gone in for strange occupations as brief as they were odd: at one time he'd devote himself to oceanography, at another to architecture, and lately it had been music. He was a confirmed bachelor, went riding with the Austrian consul's son, and was said to carry on a sentimental correspondence with several mysterious ladies. In short, he led a life that was as pleasant as it was frivolous, the absolute opposite of the lives led by his brothers.


Through the Albanian epic he introduces a new element of ethnicity to the power-relations between the Sultan and the Quprilis.4 For the Albanian epic, in which the Quprilis do not play a role, foregrounds the theme of Albanian over Ottoman identity. At this point Mark-Alem's uncles discuss the precarious balance in the family between Albanian ethnic identity and Ottoman political power. Albanians like themselves have used the power of the Ottomans to escape the limitations of their tiny land. Without the Ottomans they would:

lose all those other possibilities, […] the vast space in which they could fly like the wind, and be shut up in their own small territory. Their wings will be clipped, and they'll flap clumsily from one mountain to another until they're exhausted. Then they'll ask themselves, “What did we gain by it?”


Albanians, shqiptare or “sons of eagles,” are caged animals in the modern world unless they can break out of their mountain fastnesses.5 But this has brought with it complicity in the deeds of the Ottoman Empire, including the suppression of Albanian nationhood in the name of the Empire. Kurt accuses his family of having betrayed their Albanian roots for the sake of power.

We never discover whether Kurt is a bored rich playboy flirting with adventure and manipulated by the Austrians, or whether he has turned into a renegade intellectual and ethnic nationalist, hoping to liberate his “homeland” with the help of the Austrians. He certainly appears to have an agenda for national change:

“Anyhow,” said Kurt, “for the moment they don't say anything about us.”

“One day they'll understand us,” said the governor.

“But you just said they don't say anything.”

“Then we should listen to their silence,” said Kurt.

[…] “But we are in the Slav epic,” said Kurt.

“Isn't that enough?” […] “You said yourself that we're the only family in Europe and perhaps in the world that's celebrated in a national epic. Don't you think that's sufficient? Do you want us to be celebrated by two nations? You ask if that isn't enough for me,” said Kurt. “My answer is no!” […]


Kurt went on for some time, speaking with passion. He spoke again of the link between their family here and the Balkan epic there, and of the relations between government and art, the evanescent and the eternal, the flesh and the spirit […]


Up until this point the family has manipulated its Albanian identity for political purposes within the multinational empire. The theme of the Albanian versus the Serb epic introduces a new level of complexity, revealing the inconsistencies and the contradictions in the family's Albanian self-identification. For Kurt however, the issue is clear: the family has betrayed its Albanian roots.

Mark-Alem is present during these discussions at the end of chapter two. However he fails to make the link even now with the dream of the bridge, the lahuta and the bull. This dream, whether planted by enemies of the family or dreamt by a provincial from the western—Albanian—provinces of the Empire, alerts the Sultan to Kurt's new-found ethnicity, and leads him to suspect Kurt of fomenting ethno-national unrest and laying himself open to the influence of the Austrian Habsburgs sitting in the western wings of the Empire. Mark-Alem's failure to intercept this dream leads directly to the arrest and execution of Kurt, the humiliation of the Vizier, the assassination of the Albanian rhapsodists and the punitive expedition against Albania at the climax of the novel.


Surprisingly, given his passivity and lack of character, Mark-Alem is strongly conscious of his Albanian heritage. On the morning of his first day of work he goes into the library and peruses the family history stretching back to the building of the three-arched bridge in central Albania. We are told that he “set great store by his Albanian origins and automatically registered anything that concerned Albania” (41). Early in the novel an opposition is established between the life of the bureaucrat imprisoned in gloomy rooms along endless dimly-lit corridors behind the high walls of the Tabir Sarrail and the world of snow, rain and springtime blossoms which is associated with the Albania on whose soil Mark-Alem has never set foot, but whose name promises escape, freedom, and fulfilment.

[…] suddenly he looked up. He felt as if someone were hailing him from a long way away, sending out some strange, faint, doleful signal like a call for help or a sob. What is it? he wondered. The question soon absorbed him absolutely. Without knowing why, he looked at the high windows. It was the first time he'd done so. Beyond the window panes the rain, so familiar but now so distant, mingled as it fell with delicate flakes of snow. The flakes eddied wildly in the morning light, now distant too—so far away it seemed to belong to another life, another world from which perhaps that ultimate signal had been sent out to him.


This sense of longing for freedom is evoked throughout the novel and is set in contrast to the environment of the Tabir Sarrail. Later it is explicitly related to Mark-Alem's sense of ethnic identity, to the “lahuta in his breast.” Hence when Kurt introduces the topic of the Albanian epic and evokes the romanticism of lost homeland, he finds an avid, if naive, audience in his nephew. Mark-Alem is eager to hear the hitherto unknown Albanian version of the epic, in the hope that it will arouse the sense of solemnity and profundity which he misses in the familiar Serb version. He is initially disappointed that the instrument, the lahuta, is a simple single-stringed instrument no different to the Serb gusla, not the “strange, weighty, majestic and imposing” instrument he had imagined as necessary to accompany the solemnity of the subject matter. The music begins as a “long, too long, stifling lament,” redolent of death and eternity. But then a transformation occurs.

Mark-Alem couldn't take his eyes off the slender, solitary string stretched across the sounding box. It was the string that secreted the lament; the box amplified it to terrifying proportions. Suddenly it was revealed to Mark-Alem that this hollow cage was the breast containing the soul of the nation to which he belonged. It was from there that arose the vibrant age-old lament. He'd already heard fragments of it; only today would he be permitted to hear the whole. He now felt the hollow of the lahuta inside his own breast. […] Though his chest was constricted with tension, Mark-Alem suddenly felt an almost irresistible desire to discard “Alem,” the Asian half of his first name, and appear with a new one, one used by the people of his native land: Gjon, Gjergj or Gjorg. Mark-Gjon, Mark-Gergj Ura, Mark-Gjorg Ura, he repeated as if trying to get used to his new half-name, every time he heard the word “Ura,” the only one of the rhapsodist's words he could understand.


At this point Mark-Alem undergoes an epiphanic experience, finding in the music of the lahuta the powerful expression of a hitherto unarticulated desire for freedom felt as ethnic belonging. Just as at the beginning the name in the ancient chronicle arouses his sense of kinship, he now feels the pull of his origins in the story and its music. This is highly ironic, of course, since the gusla and the lahuta are basically the same instrument with different names—the latter sharing its etymological root with the word lute, and the former having a Slavic derivation. The Slav epic which he has known since childhood as played on the gusla has not had this effect on him.

At the height of the recital, however, the Sultan strikes. Troops arrive to disperse the guests. Kurt is arrested, later to be executed, the Albanian rhapsodists are assassinated and the Vizier is publicly humiliated. At the same time as his past, undefined sense of ethnic Albanian identity and solidarity is given a focus, Mark-Alem sees his family ruined and himself put into danger. His private fantasy of freedom, ethnicity and self-determination is enacted before him as a scenario of humiliation, political intrigue, and murder.

Most importantly, he realizes that he himself has been unwittingly involved in the coup. The morning after the catastrophe, he returns to work to find that rumours are flying about the state of emergency, about the power-contest between the Quprilis and the Sultan, and about possible ramifications for the Palace and its staff. He waits for some dreadful fate to befall him, and discovers that the dream which he had twice held in his hands, and had been tempted to discard, was indeed the Master-Dream which alerted the Sultan to Kurt's activities. With its three-arched bridge, the lahuta playing in isolation, the raging bull and the desolate plot of land it pointed to the Quprilis, indicating their Albanian ethnic identity, suggesting their potential involvement in subversive political activity in far-off homelands, and identifying them as a dangerous force close to the seat of power. The presence of the Albanian rhapsodists was seen to have validated this interpretation of the dream, and the Sultan acted, as Mark-Alem witnessed the previous night, to forestall any dangerous political developments. Mark-Alem hears that a group of officials is being sent to the Balkans “to eliminate the Albanian epic, which is regarded as the cause of the whole trouble” (166).

At the Tabir Sarrail in the days following the blow against the Quprilis, gossip and anxiety are rife, but little happens. It is rumoured that the Sultan has sent back the Master Dream, rejecting it, or rejecting the interpretation of it. Mark-Alem fears that he will be punished, but then, some days later, further political ructions occur as soldiers are seen swarming through the courtyards of the Palace. Watching from a window above, Mark-Alem thinks of the family carriages with the letter “Q” on their doors rushing back and forward across the city, and it is whispered throughout the halls of the Palace that the Quprilis have retaliated. Just how this has occurred is not made clear, but

some confrontation, some secret and terrible exchange of blows has taken place in the darkest depths of the State. We've felt only the surface repercussions, as you do in an earthquake with a very deep hypocentre. […] during the night a terrible clash took place between the two rival groups, the two forces that counterbalance one another within the State. […] even we, who're at the very source of the mystery, are still in the dark.


It is implied that the Quprilis have powerful mining interests in distant provinces and that they have used these to strike back at the Sultan. But the nature of the conflict is never clarified (177).


The original Albanian title of the novel, Nëpunësi i pallatit te endrrave or The Employee of the Palace of Dreams, places emphasis on Mark-Alem rather than the Palace itself. His influential uncles brought about his appointment in the first place (17), but their role after that is not clear, and it is implied that Mark-Alem's presence in the Palace is desired by the powers that be for some sinister purpose (“You suit us” 43, 68). His rapid rise through the hierarchy of the Palace of Dreams, from initiate to director is never explained.

Being related to the Quprilis through his mother, Mark-Alem does not share their name. He has been a naive, passive and timid participant both in his family's political affairs and at work in the Palace of Dreams. Soon after the Vizier is toppled, however, Mark-Alem is unexpectedly promoted. And with his promotion a certain change comes about: he becomes important, taciturn and unapproachable, identifying “more and more with the sort of people he'd always liked least: the senior civil servants” (178). In the meantime Kurt is summarily executed. Mark-Alem still expects the fall-out from the coup against his family to affect him, but again he is promoted, this time to the position of First Assistant Director of the Palace of Dreams.

In his new position he returns to the Archives and reads through the Master-Dreams of the past months, from those dreamt on the eve of the Battle of Kosovo to “the fateful Master-Dream that had led his uncle to the grave and raised him, Mark-Alem, to be a director of the Tabir” (184). The city greengrocer who had the dream has been located, is interrogated over weeks and like his predecessor, whom Mark-Alem had seen carried out in a coffin earlier that year, disappears shortly afterward. With that, the coup seems over. Mark-Alem “never succeeded in clearing up the mystery of that night, with the attack on the Quprilis followed by their counter-attack” (184). Nor is his position ever clarified for the reader. It is unclear whether his promotion to the position of Acting Director General of the Tabir Sarrail is the result of his family's powerful counter-attack against the Sultan, or whether more insidious forces are at work. For while the family was instrumental in placing Mark-Alem in the Palace of Dreams to begin with, the Vizier makes it clear that the upper echelons of the Palace were powerfully against the interests of the Quprilis. But on the other hand, important changes have taken place in the leadership of the Palace, with Mark-Alem himself set to take over full control from his ailing Director General in the wake of the coup and the counter-attack. Mark-Alem now belongs among the most powerful of officials, responsible for the sleep and dreams of the whole Empire.

Mark-Alem is not a maverick like Kurt. Characterless and insipid, the classic Central European “man without qualities,” he is slow on the uptake but surprisingly accessible to the habitus of power once he finds himself in charge.7 After some months in his job he begins to prefer the environment of the Palace to the dreary and mundane world outside:

How tedious, grasping and confined this world [i.e. his everyday world outside the Tabir—PM] seemed in comparison with the one he now served!


By the end of the novel he has accustomed himself to the gestures of the powerful without having shown any comparable increase in understanding the way power has worked to further his interests. Moreover he will be the perfect tool of those who wield power because he is the instrument of his own humiliation. For if Mark-Alem represents the resurrection of the Quprili family fortunes in the Ottoman state, he does so under a very different mantle to his forebears. The political power represented in the figure of the Vizier has been dashed and will take time to reassert itself. The ethnic nationalism represented by Kurt has been dealt a body blow. Mark-Alem is deeply traumatized by the events surrounding Kurt's execution and his own involvement in the affair. He sees the result of political positioning, he recognizes his own role in the power-struggles, and most importantly he learns how dangerous his ethnic longings can be. By the end of the novel Mark-Alem will have internalized the structure of his own humiliation in repressing his desire for self-identity and projecting the frustration of his desires into an image of death and transfiguration.

For centuries power has changed hands as a result of intrigues, machinations, coups and palace revolts among factions of the ruling class around the court of the Sultan, but no structural change has taken place. In this closed civil-bureaucratic state-structure power is exercised from above, and the individual, such as Mark-Alem, born into a ruling class (or Nomenklatura), must internalize the rules of appropriation of power—including its gestures and habitus. In order to do so, he must become “characterless,” a “man without qualities,” since he must be ready to follow the dictates of power regardless of personality and personal allegiances (such as family etc.) In the works of Kafka, in particular The Trial and The Castle we see the middle-man, the individual who is sandwiched between the holders of power and those without power; in Orwell's 1984, likewise, we see in Winston Smith the middle-man as intellectual and member of the lower state apparatus, whose attempt to maintain a personality is at odds with his position in the power-structure of the state. Mark-Alem is born into the ruling caste of the Quprilis. He is a born “man without qualities” who discovers in himself a “quality”—his sense of Albanian ethnic identity—and who is faced with the existential choice in this closed society, to either become a renegade like his uncle Kurt, or to accede to the structures of power which infiltrate his innermost being, and to submit the sense of identity expressed in his dream of ethnicity to the demands of the state for complete subjugation. In facing this existential choice, Mark-Alem is one of the passive heroes of Central and Eastern European literature, whose life-options are already mapped out in advance by the power-structures of the state. He has no choice even in his privileged position, and Kadare, working within a post-enlightenment tradition of the individual, demonstrates in the figure of Mark-Alem the deformation of human character which takes place as a result of the suppression of individual dreams and longings in the service of total social control.


In, the meantime Spring has come around. Mark-Alem, now 28, arrives home one evening to find his uncles discussing his betrothal. Life has resumed its course. Returning to the family chronicle with which the novel began, Mark-Alem thinks back to the image of the falling snow in his ethnic homeland which has been the touchstone for his desire for freedom and personal integrity:

As for Albania […] It grew more and more distant and dim, like some far cold constellation, and he wondered if he really knew anything about what went on there […] He sat there uncertainly, his pen growing heavy in his hand, until finally it rested on the paper and instead of writing “Albania” wrote: There. He gazed at the expression that had substituted itself for the name of his homeland, and suddenly felt oppressed by what he immediately thought of as “Quprilian sadness.” It was a term unknown to any other language in the world, though it ought to be incorporated in them all.


Mark-Alem has learned his lesson: Albania, the romantic homeland, has become the undefined “there.” Suppression of identity leads to “Quprilian sadness,” the sense of loss felt by this dynasty which has traded ethnic identity for political power. “Quprilian sadness” is represented in this novel as having recurred throughout the history of the family's collaboration with the Ottoman Empire. It is linked with the theme of betrayal of Albania symbolized in the blood on the bridge, the immurement of the sacrificial victim, and in the family's name-change first to the Albanian Ura and then to the Slav Quprili.

It must have been snowing […] there […] Then he stopped writing, […] he thought of the distant ancestor called Gjon who on a winter's day several centuries before had built a bridge and at the same time edified his name. The patronymic bore within it, like a secret message, the destiny of the Quprilis for generation after generation. And so that the bridge might endure, a man was sacrificed in its building, walled up in its foundations. And although so much time had gone by since, the traces of his blood had come down to the present generation. So that the Quprilis might endure […]

The destiny of the Quprilis is symbolized in the bridge. They are identified in terms of their split identity: as Albanian, originally Christian, on the eastern fringe of Europe, the creators of the three-arched bridge symbolizing the land of Albania itself on the one hand, and as Ottoman, converted Muslims, at the centre of the Empire, having betrayed their ethnic origins on the other.8 The immured man symbolizes the repression of ethnic identity in this family who created a bridge to pass through central Albania and thereby opened up their land to the Empire—and the Empire to themselves.

After all that has happened, Mark-Alem reflects nostalgically on his desire to throw off the “Islamic half-shield” of Ottoman identity superimposed over the original language, religion and culture of the Albanians, and resume his ethnic identity, understood as his original, “native” identity after all these centuries.

Mark-Alem […] remembered how on the fateful night he had longed to throw off the protective mask, the Islamic half-shield of “Alem,” and adopt one of those ancient names which attracted danger and were marked by fate. As before he repeated to himself: Mark-Gjergj Ura, Mark-Gjorg Ura […] still holding the pen poised in his hand, as if uncertain what name to append to the ancient chronicle […]


But in the end, of course, he does not. We can only smile at the incongruity as this pampered only son remembers those “ancient names which attracted danger and were marked by fate” (189). Mark-Alem still toys with the idea of reclaiming his life and becoming a hero, but deep down he has known all along that he could never become another Kurt.9 It is hard to imagine him following his heart and turning his back on the Quprili traditions of power and prestige. The romantic nostalgia of his dreams is in direct proportion to the unlikelihood of his ever realizing them.

The novel ends with a powerful evocation of the coming of spring. This itself may be a parody of Kafka's springtime image at the end of The Transformation, where the Samsa family return to the world of everyday life after the crisis of Gregor's change and death has passed:

Something beyond the window was calling him insistently. […] The almond trees are in bloom, he thought. […] There, a few paces away, was life reviving, warmer clouds, storks, love—all the things he'd been pretending to ignore for fear of being wrested from the grasp of the Palace of Dreams.

Mark-Alem retains the Islamic “shield” of his double-barrelled name and suppresses the siren-call of his ethnic homeland, “the lahuta in his breast,” to become another colourless, faceless official of the Empire. He has remained in the service of the Sultan: fear, power and prestige have overridden ethnic identity and the desire for freedom which it expresses.

But despite these thoughts he didn't take his face away from the window. I'll order the sculptor right away to carve a branch of flowering almond on my tombstone, he thought. He wiped the mist off the window with his hand, but what he saw outside was still no clearer: everything was distorted and iridescent. Then he realized his eyes were full of tears.


His tears on the last page manifest the “Quprilian sadness,” the melancholy arising from repression of desire, the killing of this life-force explicitly associated in the novel with ethnic identity. In his vision of a tombstone of flowering almond we can see the vicarious romanticism of a successful young man who has never “lived,” and is now about to be consigned to a life of constriction and routine. Mark-Alem's nostalgia for a life of heroic action is safely circumscribed by the window of his Director's carriage. His life-choice has been made for him in the power-structures of the Sultan, his family and the Palace of Dreams.

Kadare's hero has a position of power at the centre of the Empire yet he remains a victim of structures beyond his control. This is perhaps the most devastating aspect of Kadare's satire: his hero, unlike Orwell's Winston Smith, is part of the innermost circle of the Empire. He holds a post of supreme importance, but like Kafka's heroes, the most damning images of rootless individuality and uncomprehending existence in modernity, he is completely alienated. This powerful bureaucrat and “man without qualities” is the instrument of repression of his own desires.

The final image of springtime is undercut by the associations with death and rebirth. Mark-Alem's life as an official of the Palace of Dreams has taken place in an environment of winter and spiritual death and he realizes that the wind of winter can return at any time:

He felt that if he was crouching there it was to protect himself, and that if ever, some late afternoon like this, he gave in to the call of life and left his refuge, the spell would be broken: the wind would turn against the Quprilis and the men would come for him as they'd come for Kurt, and take him, perhaps a little less unceremoniously, to the place from which there is no returning.


Sitting in his Director's carriage, Mark-Alem imagines one last time what he most desires: death, martyrdom and spiritual life in his ethnic Albanian homeland. Spring can only be captured forever in cold bronze and the blooming almond trees promise more in the relief of death than they do in the new life around him. Meanwhile, ironically, all Albania has fallen “prey to insomnia” (178): it is 1878 and the “National Awakening” is well under way as the Albanians translate their dreams of national autonomy into reality.

In Mark-Alem's imagination Albania represents escape from the grim world of the Palace of Dreams. This dream of ethnic liberation and self-fulfilment is captured, submitted to interrogation, killed before his eyes and held up as a trophy to the politics of dictatorial, centralized power. With the assassination of the rhapsodists we would expect Mark-Alem to be thoroughly disabused of this dream of ethnic self-identification. But, strangely, it lives on, resurfacing at the end as a desire for death and self-sacrifice and manifesting all of the negativity and morbidity of the Quprili epic. Like the epic, this dream survives the individual—even in presaging the death of the individual. In its appeal to an imagined community, based on the ethnic identification of family, tradition, culture and homeland, Mark-Alem's dream links him to something which is missing from his life-world: a sense of civil society and community, no matter how romantic in inspiration, morbid in expression, or impossible in reality. For Mark-Alem ethnic identity is imbued with the spirit of freedom. But that spirit is deformed into a dream of death, an expression of thanatos. Finally we are left with an image of the polarization of instrumentalized power and romanticised ethnicity. Mark-Alem's romantic nostalgia for ethnic identity has been deformed by the instrumental politics of power just as the first dreams of ethnies are deformed into nations, states and empires. The assimilated bureaucrat, Mark-Alem, has internalized the reality of imperial power alongside its opposite, the romantic dream of imagined community. Mark-Alem betrays himself by internalizing the polarized structure of control and romanticism. He is not an outsider like Winston Smith, whose opposition is smashed by the invasive and technologically advanced machinery of the Party. Dreams threaten the Empire. They are the expression of individualism and of anarchic desire. But they are also the key to complete control, the aim of all dictatorships. In Mark-Alem the Empire has come close to finding its ideal subject: one in whom the Gleichschaltung of dream and reality, of desire and control has been achieved.

Mark-Alem does not succumb to the pull of his Albanian origins to become a champion of ethnic identity and national separatism like his uncle Kurt. Nevertheless the struggle between ethnicity and empire is powerfully evoked in the novel as a contest imbibed by each generation from history, environment and family tradition and internalized as the desire for an identity drawing on a powerful repository of stories and music, myths and images and promising an identity which is more than the individual. The blood of that first sacrificial victim to the bridge, which was to enable the Quprilis to leave their mountainous homeland, reappears in the myth for each generation, a reminder of the origins and the sacrifice which they made in becoming Ottoman Albanians.10 Mark-Alem's Albania of the imagination is born of his family's history, memories and stories. It taps a deeper and wider sense of being, a timeless, “oceanic” collectivity, which is a measure of the shallowness and narrowness of his life-world. Its most powerful image in this work, even if tinged with irony, is that of the Albanian rhapsodists' “vibrant age-old lament,” sung in a voice

in which the throat of man and the throat of the mountains seemed […] to have attuned themselves to one another and merged […] until they joined in the lament of the stars. Words and voice alike might as easily have come from the mouth of the dead as of the living […] this hollow cage [the lahuta—PM] was the breast containing the soul of the nation to which he belonged.


Kadare represents ethnic identity as a category of human feeling with roots deep in the psyche of the individual and the group—whether the dynastic clan, the ethnic group or the nation.


Ethnicity was unacceptable as a category of social identity in the internationalist ideology of orthodox Marxism-Leninism. Yet ethnic identities survived communism and by the early 1980s had become a powerful destabilizing force throughout the Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe.11 Feelings of ethnic and national identity had not been supplanted by the unity of workers of the world, or even the brotherhood of nations. Ethnicity, implying a deeper and less tangible sense of belonging than merely participating in a communist nation-state, was making a come-back.

However ethnic identity was considered suspect among oppositional circles as well. For most Eastern European dissident intellectuals, with their roots in Enlightenment as well as Marxist cosmopolitanism, ethnicity began in political romanticism and ended in fascism. Hence it received little validation as a category of social analysis in socialism, least of all as a category of opposition to dictatorial regimes. In the literature of socialist Central and Eastern Europe the use of ethnicity as a positive identifying factor was prohibited. In the theory of socialist realism ethnic identity could be remembered, perhaps, as a relic of the bourgeois or fascist past, and nation-states were retained as a necessity in the transitional phase of real-existing socialism. But neither was relevant to the future of communism.

While Enver Hoxha in Albania differed from most of his counterparts in his national separatism, this was wedded to a version of Marxism-Leninism in which ethnic and cultural aspects of national identity were sacrificed to the ideology of modern socialist nation-building.12 According to Arshi Pipa, Kadare was criticized by Dritëro Agolli, the President of the League of Albanian Writers and Artists for “subjectivist treatment of historical material and legends,” even to the point of an “excessive modernization and actualization” resulting in “mannerism.” This was at the 1982 Plenum, around the time of the banning of The Palace of Dreams. In his response, Kadare accepted criticism regarding “disproportion between actual and historical themes” in his works, but after paying “lip service to the communist practice of self-criticism,” he counterattacks, taking the lead from Hoxha's saying that “the times demand the enlargement of the thematic range […] in order that the great tableau of socialist realism be completed by writers and artists,” not through “schematism, but real life, not poverty, but richness, not narrowness, but breadth.”13 It seems clear in this context that the ethnic dimension of The Palace of Dreams represents exactly the type of “mannerism” that Kadare was being accused of and which he defended himself against while still in the country.

Kadare's exploration of ethnic consciousness and the politics of empire reveals ethnicity to be a powerful force of individual and group identity, a part of the individual and social imaginary capable of being instrumentalized and romanticized within the context of political power-structures. Ethnicity is given its place as one of the central categories of group-identity, of Elias's “Wir-Gefühl” or Castoriadis's “social imaginary.”

By using the dream as the image of the interface between the personal and the political, Kadare creates a satiric metaphor for the aim of totalitarian societies to control individual freedom. While his literary forebears are Orwell and Kafka, and his fictional institution of the Palace of Dreams owes its conception to the Ministry of Truth and the Castle, Kadare's surreal image of dictatorial control is far from derivative. In linking contemporary Eastern European literature with the tradition of the European political novel, Kadare deepens the understanding of the mechanisms of psychological intimidation of 1984, and introduces the theme of ethnic identity into the existential novel after Kafka. In the context of the Eastern European novel, the stylistic link with Kafka makes a politically loaded statement of creative-aesthetic association, just as the echoes of Orwell imply an identification with the Western European anti-Stalinist political novel. Where Western European political writers such as Orwell revealed the oppositions between individual desire and dictatorship, Kadare goes beyond this in identifying ethnic identity on the individual as well as the group level as the primary threat to dictatorships at the end of the twentieth century. Using the Albanian example, he explores the “Balkan syndrome” of imperial domination in which minority ethnic identity is repressed and thereby perpetuated. At the same time he provides a critical framework for this dream of liberation of “the captive mind.” For while ethnicity can express itself as a liberating component of identity, in the figures of Kurt and the Albanian rhapsodists it turns into a fundamentalist version of utopia. This took one form, perhaps, in the national isolationism of Enver Hoxha, other forms perhaps, in any number of Balkan ethnic separatisms.


  1. I would like to record my thanks to the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, whose support enabled me to undertake the research for this article.

  2. Ismail Kadare, The Palace of Dreams, translated from the French of Jusuf Vrioni by Barbara Bray (London: Collins/Harvill, 1993); Ismail Kadaré, Le palais des rêves, roman traduit de l'albanais par Jusuf Vrioni (Paris: Fayard, 1990). Page numbers in brackets following quotations are to the English edition unless otherwise noted.

  3. Kadare's Quprilis are based on the Albanian Köprülü dynasty, which as noted in the text is listed in successive editions of the Larousse encyclopaedia: “Koeprulu, famille d'origine albanaise, dont cinq membres furent, de 1656 à 1710, vizirs de l'Empire ottoman. Les plus connus sont: Mohammed Koeprulu, né a Koepri en 1596, mort à Adrianople en 1661. Pétit-fils d'un Albanais établi en Anatolie, il entra comme marmiton au sérail, et parvint au poste de grand écuyer du vizir Kara-Moustafa, qui le fit nommer gouverneur de Damas. La sultane validé le chargea, en 1656, de gouverner l'empire avec une autorité sans contrôle pendant la minorité de Mohammed IV. Koeprulu releva la situation militaire et pécuniaire de l'empire, conquit Ténédos et Lemnos (1657) et réprima la révolte de Syrie et de l'Egypte (1659).—Fazil-Ahmed Koeprulu Oglou, fils et successeur du précédent, né en 1633, mort à Adrianople en 1691. Il ne remporta que des succès dans les guerres de Hongrie, mais il fut battu à Saint-Gothard par Montecucolli (1664) et à Choczim par Jean Sobieski (1673). Cependant il conquit le Crète (1669) et Kemenez (1672), il recula les frontières de l'empire ottoman, dan lequel il rétablit l'ordre et la tranquillité. Il favorisa les savants et fonda une riche bibliothèque qui s'est conservée jusqu'à nos jours.—Mustapha Koeprulu, frère du précedent, surnommé le Vertueux, mort à Stankomen en 1691. Le sultan Soleïman III le nomma grand vizir après la déposition de Mahomet IV (1689). Il gouverna sagement l'empire et fit avec succès une campagne en Hongrie, reconquit Belgrade (1690), mais fut tué dans une bataille contre les Impériaux.—Amoudja-Zadèh-Hussein Koeprulu, cousin du précédent, mort en 1702. Il fut d'abord gouverneur de Belgrade, et Mustapha II le nomma grand vizir en 1697. Ce fut lui qui négocia la paix de Karlowitz (1699) et il chercha à relever le niveau moral de l'empire en fondant des écoles et en faisant disparaïtre les barrières qui séparaient les chrétiens des musulmans; mais, violemment combattu dans ses projects par le mufti il se démit de sa charge, et mourut peu après.—Noman Koeprulu, grand vizir de l'empire ottoman, fils de Mustapha, mort à Négrepont en 1710. Le sultan Ahmed III lui confia le grand vizirat en 1710; mais, il fut destitué au bout de deux mois.” Larousse du XXe Siècle en 6 Volumes (Paris: Librairie Larousse, 1931) 4: 257. Later editions of the Larousse Encyclopaedic Dictionary include shortened versions of the article. See also Barbara Jelavich, History of the Balkans. Vol. 1: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries; Vol. 2 Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 1: 81; Maximilian Lambertz, Die Volksepik der Albaner (Leipzig: Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Karl Marx Universität, 1954-55), Vol. 4, 243-89 and 439-70, especially 270; Stavro Skendi, The Albanian National Awakening, 1878-1912 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967), 21.

  4. For a full analysis, interpretation and discussion of the Albanian and Bosniak versions of the epic, see my article, “Between Albanian Identity and Imperial Politics: Ismail Kadare's The Palace of Dreams,Modern Language Review 97 (2002): 1-15.

  5. The name Albania is believed to derive from the Albanoi, an Illyrian tribe living in central Albania from the second century BC. Since the sixteenth century, however, Albanians themselves have called their language Shqipe, their country Shqipëria and themselves Shqiptar. It was earlier believed that these names derived from the word shqipe meaning “eagle,” “Albania” thus translating as “land of the eagle.” More recent research has indicated that the name derives from the word shqiptoj, meaning “to speak intelligibly” [see William B. Bland, Compiler, Albania: World Bibliographical Series, vol. 94 (Oxford: Clio Press, 1988), xvii]. The text here clearly refers to the Albanian self-identification as “sons of eagles” in their mountainous homeland.

  6. The name, Gjergj or Djerz in particular occurs in Albanian and Bosnian epic, respectively: “The famous hero, Gerz-Iljas, is also mentioned in the long account … of the fighting in the Bosnian borderland in the years 1479 to 1480.” See H. T. Norris, Islam in the Balkans: Religion and Society between Europe and the Arab World (London: Hurst & Company, 1993), 159; cf. also Lambertz, Die Volksepik der Albaner.

  7. This phrase, deriving from Robert Musil's novel (1930-1943), is used as a generic term for the passive and instrumentalized protagonists of twentieth-century Central and Eastern European fiction.

  8. Kadare uses the image of the bridge with three arches as a symbol of Albania, in particular in his historical novel of 1978, The Three-Arched Bridge. Each arch stands for a long period of the country's foreign occupation: Roman, Byzantine, Turkish.

  9. “Mark-Alem might have thought of imitating him, but he knew he was incapable of it” (50).

  10. This image of the bridge has archetypal significance in the pre-Slavic Greek and “Illyrian” folklore of the Balkan peninsula. See Georgios A. Megas, Die Ballade von der Arta-Brücke: Eine vergleichende Untersuchung (Thessaloniki: Institute for Balkan Studies. Megas, 1976), and Ardian Klosi, Mythologie am Werk: Kazantzakis, Andrić, Kadare (Munich: Verlag Otto Sagner, 1991).

  11. Recent research has focused on the role of ethnic politics in the disintegration of the Soviet Union. See Graham Smith, ed., The Nationalities Question in the Soviet Union (London: Longman, 1990); Victor Zaslavsky, “Nationalism and Democratic Transition in Postcommunist Societies,” Daedalus 121(2) (1992): 97-122; Nadia Diuk and Adrian Karatnycky, New Nations Rising: The Fall of the Soviets and the Challenge of Independence (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1993); Ronald Grigor Suny, The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993); Ben Fowkes, The Disintegration of the Soviet Union: A Study in the Rise and Triumph of Nationalism (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997).

  12. Cf. Robert Elsie, “Evolution and Revolution in Modern Albanian Literature,” World Literature Today 65(2) (1991): 256-63, especially 258: “The persecution of intellectuals … and the break with virtually all cultural traditions created a literary and cultural vacuum in Albania that lasted until the sixties, the results of which can still be felt today.”

  13. Quoted from Arshi Pipa, “Subversion vs. Conformism: The Kadare Phenomenon,” Telos 71 (1987/88): 47-77, especially 74.

Works Cited

Haroche, Charles, “Gespräch mit Ismail Kadare,” Sinn und Form 42 (1990): 706-14.

Vickers, Miranda and Pettifer, James, Albania: From Anarchy to a Balkan Identity (London: Hurst & Company, 1997).

Robert Elsie (review date spring 2002)

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SOURCE: Elsie, Robert. Review of L'envol du migrateur: Trois microromans, by Ismail Kadare. World Literature Today 76, no. 2 (spring 2002): 242-43.

[In the following review, Elsie praises the skillful French translation of the short stories collected in L'envol du migrateur.]

One of the most surprising buildings in Albania is a wooden hunting lodge built in the marshlands of Lezha by Mussolini's foreign minister Count Ciano (1903-44). Ciano had intended it as a retreat, where the leaders of Fascist Italy could go bird-hunting in their newly acquired colony. It was used as a hotel complex during the Stalinist dictatorship and survives today with its modestly surrealist Visconti decor as a rather out-of-place structure standing in the middle of an otherwise barren landscape. It is to the history of this lodge and the itinerary of a crime committed in it that “Le Chevalier au Faucon” (“The Falcon Knight”) is devoted, the first of three tales which make up the volume L'envol du migrateur (The Stork's Flight).

Ismail Kadare was a prominent member of the Albanian Writers Union during the most oppressive decades of the dictatorship and was subjected to political surveillance by the party and its omnipotent leader Enver Hoxha just as much as any other writer was. The second tale in the collection, “Histoire de l'Union des Ecrivains albanais telle que reflétée dans le miroir d'une femme” (“History of the Writers Union as Reflected in a Lady's Looking-Glass”), is a belated but nonetheless fascinating requital on the Writers Union and on the Stalinist regime in general. The protagonist, a young Tirana writer in the late 1960s, is bedazzled by Marguerite, a reputed “lady of the night,” and is on the point of making contact when a political purge breaks out in the capital. Writers and artists are called to plenary sessions of the party in order to denounce one another and themselves for their big-city bourgeois proclivities, foreign influence, and alienation from the working class. Many are swiftly dispatched to the countryside to learn from the peasants what real life is all about. The author highlights the workings of the campaign, modeled on the 1973 Purge of the Liberals which wreaked havoc in intellectual circles in Albania in the early seventies. Kadare fell victim to one such campaign himself and was sent into internal exile for a brief period of time. His skill comes best to the fore in his rendition of the tense atmosphere of the purge and its impact on Albanian intellectuals of the period.

The final tale, “L'envol du migrateur,” conceived in 1986, focuses on a love affair rumored to have been enjoyed by the aging poet Lasgush Poradeci and on the political implications it had in a town where everyone was spying on everyone. Poradeci (1899-1987), one of the truly great Albanian poets of the twentieth century, lived his final years in seclusion on the banks of Lake Ohrid, from which he had always derived his inspiration. Kadare interprets the love affair as the only thing the dictator could not take away from the poet, a tiny victory which the destitute old man could carry to the grave with him. In this connection, Kadare counters the old Russian saying, “Ruler, be merciful with the poet,” with his own: “Poet, be merciful with the ruler.”

The French-language edition of the book was prepared by two translators: the late and much-lamented Jusuf Vrioni (1916-2001), whose linguistic skills assisted Kadare in obtaining the deserved renown he now enjoys, at least in the French-speaking world; and the writer's new voice, Tedi Papavrami, who is also a violinist of note. The Albanian-language original Ikja e shërgut contains only the one tale, but presents it in two different versions, one from the year 1986 and the revision of 1998, together with an interview with and study of the writer by Bashkim Kuçuku.

Peter Morgan (essay date April 2002)

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SOURCE: Morgan, Peter. “Between Albanian Identity and Imperial Politics: Ismail Kadare's The Palace of Dreams.Modern Language Review 97, no. 2 (April 2002): 365-79.

[In the following essay, Morgan proposes a critical reexamination of The Palace of Dreams, suggesting that scholars have failed to pay attention to the “socio-cultural significance of material relating to little-known Albanian and Bosnian epic traditions used by Kadare to articulate the problems of imperialistic power structures and ethnic identity during a time of political change in the Balkans.”]

Ismail Kadare is one of the best known of contemporary Balkan novelists and probably the only Albanian writer known widely outside his country. Among Albanian dissidents Kadare has been a controversial figure, condemned by some on account of his ambiguous relationship with the ruling party of Enver Hoxha.1 Nevertheless a recent commentator has written that ‘no-one who reads The Palace of Dreams, one of Kadare's greatest works, could possibly accept the dismissive judgment of him as a party hack’ (Malcolm, ‘In the Palace of Nightmares,’ p. 24). The novel, published in 1981, foreshadowed the re-valorization of ethnic identity as a socio-political category that has taken place in Central and Eastern European societies since the end of Soviet-style communism. Yet it was published in ‘the strictest Marxist-Leninist regime on earth—with the possible exception of North Korea’,2 when ‘that country was going through its most ugly and dangerous phase’.3 Despite having been translated into French in 1990 and English in 1993, it has been neglected by Western critics and reviewers, who have done little more than note the power of Kadare's writing and point to the influence of Orwell.4 Kadare's language, Albanian, had virtually disappeared from global view during the post-World War Two era, and his novel belongs to an Eastern European literary tradition little known in the West. It is the aim of this article to raise the critical profile of The Palace of Dreams by showing the socio-cultural significance of material relating to little-known Albanian and Bosnian epic traditions used by Kadare to articulate the problems of imperialistic power structures and ethnic identity during a time of political change in the Balkans. The argument falls into three parts: the first is an analysis of the significance of Bosnian and Albanian epics in the novel; the second is an interpretation of this material in terms of the implied historical setting, and the final part is a reading of the novel as a political allegory in the Albanian context of the early 1980s.

The Palace of Dreams is set in the UOS (‘United Ottoman States’), an imagined Ottoman Empire late in the last century.5 The Palace itself, or Tabir Sarrail, is a vast state organization dedicated to the interpretation of the dreams of the subjects throughout the length and breadth of the Empire. All dreams are recorded, scrutinized for signs of impending social and political unrest, interpreted and classified. On the basis of the interpretations, policy is formulated by the Sultan and his powerful ministers, and the administration of the Empire is carried out. The most significant dreams are classified as Master Dreams and carry great weight in the decision-making processes. At the beginning of the novel, Kadare's protagonist, Mark-Alem, has just commenced working at the Palace of Dreams, first in selection and later providing interpretations of potential Master Dreams. The plot depends on the tension between Mark-Alem's function as an officer of the Sultan, and his position as the youngest son of an Albanian Ottoman dynasty at a time of political unrest in the Empire. Warned by his uncle, the Vizier, of the politically sensitive nature of his work at the Palace, Mark-Alem nevertheless misinterprets a crucial Master Dream, bringing about the downfall of his family. However, at the same time, he discovers in himself a hitherto unrecognized longing to reclaim his Albanian roots, which draws him to sympathize with the ethnic nationalism of his maverick uncle, Kurt. The novel ends with Mark-Alem torn between his sense of Albanian ethnicity and his blossoming career as a functionary of the Sultan's Empire.

Kadare uses the period of decadence, when ‘the Turkish Empire was consumed by a slow fever’,6 to represent the changing dimensions of ethno-national identity both in the provincial homelands and at the centre of the Empire. Various powerful dynasties are jockeying for influence around the Sultan in Istanbul, while in distant provinces subject peoples are becoming restive. Central to Kadare's political vision is the opposition of ethnic community and empire, rendered as a political allegory of South-Eastern (Balkan) Europe. Power is wielded through the politics of inducement, intrusion and terror, and ethnic identity exists as the repressed substratum of the ‘individual’ and ‘social imaginary’ (Castoriadis). The historical costume allows Kadare to raise questions of ethnicity and identity, and social and political allegiance at a time when the discussion of these issues was prohibited throughout socialist Central and Eastern Europe. The setting in late nineteenth-century Istanbul bears resemblance to nothing so much as Moscow, Belgrade, Tirana, or any of the eastern bloc capitals in the last decades of the socialist era. Kadare's satiric and surreal image of the Palace is strikingly original in the literature of post-war European socialism. Like George Orwell's Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is a powerful state institution in control of the mass unconsciousness of the Empire. However, Kadare's novel is more than a satire on the types of control typical of the Eastern European communist dictatorships. Alongside the political satire runs a second, intricately coded theme of ethnic identity at a time of decline and change in power-relationships in the Empire.

Mark-Alem is the pampered and privileged scion of a powerful ethnic Albanian dynasty, the Quprilis, who for generations have lived in the capital of the Empire as viziers, government officials and bureaucrats in the service of the Sultan.7 The family name, Quprili, which Mark-Alem inherits through his mother's line, is a translation of the Albanian word Ura (meaning ‘bridge’) into the Slavic Qyprija or Kuprija. It refers to the family's original association with a ‘bridge with three arches in central Albania, constructed in the days when the Albanians were still Christians and built with a man walled up in its foundations’. (The three-arched bridge possibly derives from Christian trinitarian symbolism, thus linking the Quprili family to the different historical destinies of South-Eastern Europe.) After the bridge was finished, the builder and founding ancestor of the family adopted after his first name, ‘Gjon’, the name of Ura (bridge) ‘together with the stigma of murder attached to it’ (The Palace of Dreams, p. 9). The symbolism of the bridge, with its powerful associations in the Balkan literatures,8 introduces the theme of ethnicity as something deeply embedded in Mark-Alem's consciousness, a part of his individual imaginary, as well as part of the social imaginary which would manifest itself in the national uprisings of the Albanians in the late nineteenth century.

The Quprilis are a family of assimilated Ottomans, for whom power and prestige long ago took priority over ethnicity. Themes of ethnicity are present but dormant in the historical associations with the bridge, with Christianity, conversion, and assimilation into the Turkish Empire. The main symbol of Quprili power and identity is an epic poem in which the legendary deeds of the family have been preserved since the time of the Turkish occupation of the Balkans. Rhapsodists from Bosnia are invited each year to the home of the Vizier to recite passages from the ancient epic in the Bosniak language (that is, the Slav language of the Bosnian Muslims), accompanied on the single-stringed Serb gusla.9 This private annual celebration has been a source of contention between the Quprilis and the Sultan. It is said that the Sultan is jealous of their cultural eminence when he himself can command nothing more profound than the eulogies of court poets. Like the spelling of the name ‘Quprili’, (rather than the Turkish ‘Köprülüs’) the epic represents a provocation. It indicates the degree of Quprili power, prestige, and pedigree as a prominent Muslim family in the context of the interest groups and political factions around the Sultan.

At a family dinner Mark-Alem's uncle, the intellectual and playboy, Kurt, questions the role of the epic in the family's self-understanding. A heated discussion takes place, in which the Turkish occupation of Albania, the family's role in the Empire, and the ambivalence of the Albanians towards the Quprilis are raised. For the assimilated Ottoman members of the family, the Turks brought with them not slavery, but the freedom to share in the Empire:

I remember what a Jew said to me one day: ‘When the Turks rushed at you brandishing spears and sabres you Albanians thought they'd come to conquer you, but in fact they were bringing you a whole Empire as a present!’

(p. 60)

Hence the Albanians' attitude toward the family is seen to stem from their resentment of the Quprilis for having preferred Ottoman assimilation to ethnic identity. In their ethnic provincialism the Albanians fail to see what the Quprilis have achieved for Albania, namely the opening up of opportunities and spaces for Albanians, cramped in their tiny mountainous land: ‘The Turks […] gave us Albanians what we lacked: the wide open spaces.’ One of the others points out, however, that ‘like all madmen's gifts […] it brought with it violence and bloodshed’, and Kurt expands this argument: ‘It's bad enough when an individual life gets caught up in the mechanisms of power—when a whole nation is drawn in it's a million times worse! […] Sharing power means sharing crimes’ (pp. 60-61).

For these members of an Ottoman Albanian family the Empire is a means of advancement, self-fulfilment and widening of options and opportunities. At the same time, their proximity to the centre of power involves them in responsibility for the political acts of the Empire, such as the oppression of individuals and of peoples, including their own. Implicit in this discussion is the question of the balance in the family between Albanian ethnic and Ottoman political identity. This issue becomes explicit when one of the brothers makes a slip of the tongue:

‘Anyhow, it's the Turks who helped us to reach our true stature’, said the cousin. ‘And we just cursed them for it.’

‘Not us—them!’, said the governor.

‘Sorry—yes […] Them. The Albanians back home in Albania.’

A tense silence followed.

(p. 61, my emphasis)

The English translation of Jusuf Vrioni's French is unclear, as a result of the mistranslation of the French first person plural disjunctive pronoun:

—De toute façon, ce sont les Turcs qui nous ont donné des véritables dimensions, enchaïna le cousin. Et nous les en avons maudits.

—Non, pas nous. Eux! intervint le gouverneur.

—Oui, pardon: eux, les Albanais, de là-bas.

Il s'installa un silence tendu […]

(Kadaré, Le palais des rêves, p. 76, my emphasis)

This point revolves around self-identification. The other cousin unconsciously identifies as an Albanian with the Albanians in Albania. The governor, the most senior of the family (the Vizier is not present), is at pains to avoid any false or dangerous representations. He corrects his brother to distinguish the Quprilis as ‘we’, the cosmopolitan Ottoman Quprilis in the capital, from ‘we’, the Albanian dynasty, whose primary identification is with those ‘back home’. The distinction of the political from the ethnic is of the utmost importance here. For the Albanians in Albania, ethnic identity is not compatible with the role in the Empire to which they are subjected. For the Quprilis, Albanian identity can include an imperial dimension, which enables them to exist at the centre of political power. They all share this sense of ethnic identity and, until this point, have not questioned it. Their Albanian identity is not inimical to the Empire. They are, after all, a family of converts to Ottoman Islam who have benefited greatly from the Empire. Some identify more strongly with it than others. Any overt allegiance to Albania, understood as something more than a point of historical origin and now a group of remote provinces of the Empire, is, or was, unthinkable. Now, however, Kurt has used the family epic to raise the question of ethnic as opposed to imperial identity. Realizing the danger of this line of thinking, his brothers warn him that such thoughts must not be allowed outside the walls of the family home. The family must present themselves publicly as Ottoman Muslims for whom Albanianness represents a secondary and unimportant identity. The Bosnian epic around which this discussion revolves both symbolizes the family's Ottoman power and preserves the memory of its Albanian origins.

Mark-Alem's memories of the epic go back to his earliest childhood when he was frightened by its bloody images and lugubrious tones. Later he is puzzled by its contradictions. The family is celebrated as a dynasty of Albanian heroes, yet the epic originates from Bosnia, not Albania, and is sung in a Slav language, Bosniak, virtually identical with Serbian:

the Quprilis lived and lorded it in the imperial capital, while people recited an epic about them in a faraway province called Bosnia in the middle of the Balkans. Why in Bosnia and not in Albania, where the Quprilis originally came from? And above all why was it sung not in Albanian but in Serbian?

(p. 59)

This question leads to the heart of The Palace of Dreams, to the complex ethnic, religious, cultural and political implications of the Quprilis epic, for it transpires that there is actually an Albanian version of the epic. Moreover, Kurt has invited rhapsodists from Albania to recite this version at the family celebrations in spite of the dangers involved, and against the wishes of his more circumspect brothers. In response to their cries of surprise and anger, Kurt feigns curiosity but, in fact, reiterates Mark-Alem's questions as to the contradictions inherent in the family's traditional source of identification: ‘for days I've been pondering the question we've all asked so often: Why have the Slavs composed an epic in our honour, while our compatriots the Albanians don't mention us in their epic?’ (p. 59). This Albanian song, unlike that of the Bosnians, does not celebrate the heroic deeds of the Quprilis. Kurt's advice to his brothers to listen to the silence of the Albanian epic on the subject of their family is indicative of his changing attitudes. He interprets it as a critical silence. For all its Ottoman prestige, the family has lost its links with the spirit of the Albanian homeland. In this discussion Kurt reveals to the others how uneasily their ‘Albanianness’ sits with their Ottoman identity: on the one hand they are powerful members of an Empire which oppresses other national and ethnic groups, and on the other hand they themselves are members of one of these oppressed groups. The story of the origins of the family, of the three-arched bridge with its sacrificial victim from before the Turkish occupation, ‘when the Albanians were still Christians’, symbolizes this problematic double identity. Ironically, it is Mark-Alem, the pallid and characterless employee of the Palace of Dreams who will respond powerfully to the call of Albanian ethnicity in the music of the lahuta.10

The theme of the epic thus introduces material relating to the ethnic identities of Albanians, Bosnians, and Serbs in parts of Albania and the Former Yugoslavia, in particular Kosovo. The Albanians are predominantly Muslim, having converted to Islam from Christianity during the early Ottoman period. They speak a non-Slav language and trace their cultural roots back to Roman times. The Bosnians are Muslim Slavs whose language is extremely close to Serbian and whose religious identity also was forged during the period of the Ottoman occupation. The Serbs, Christian Slavs, key aspects of whose identity were born of the opposition to Ottoman rule in the Balkans and in particular in Kosovo, also play a role in the ethnic configuration of the novel. All three groups composed epic songs using similar themes over the period of the Ottoman occupation.11

Up until the point where the Albanian version of the epic is introduced, the discussion revolves around factions and political power in relation to the Ottoman Sultan, rather than around questions of ethnic identity. With the theme of the Albanian versus the Bosnian epic, however, the matter becomes more complex. In order to understand the significance of the Albanian epic, we must delve further into the history of the heroic songs of Albania and Bosnia.

Shortly after the original publication of The Palace of Dreams, Kadare wrote the foreword to a collection of Albanian ballads and short epic poems translated into French under the auspices of the Albanian Academy of the Sciences.12 Using the researches of the German Balkan specialist Maximilian Lambertz in particular, Kadare identifies the Illyrian origins of these folk (‘populaire’) works which were born under the ‘cold sun’ of the Albanian mountains, and were suppressed in ‘the long night of the Turko-Islamic occupation and by the fierce chauvinist passions of neighbouring lands’ (p. 7). Kadare bases his argument on the similarity of theme with earlier Greek legends, in particular those of Orestes, Circe, and Odysseus, and refers to an ‘Illyro-Albano-Greek’ tradition not shared by South Slav mythology (p. 9). He compares the importance of Albanian folk poems with that of the Nibelungenlied, the Chanson de Roland and Le Cid, and describes them in a passage that is re-employed, in part literally, in Kurt's description in The Palace of Dreams (Le palais des rêves, p. 78; The Palace of Dreams, pp. 62-63).

This description gives important clues, that allow us to explicate the crucial differences between the two epics as represented in the novel. The most important of these is the Orestes theme, which Kadare mentions in his preface to the Chansonnier épique albanais. Kurt translates parts of the Albanian epic for the son of the Austrian consul who notes the similarity with the story of Orestes:

‘This is the knight, Zuk, treacherously blinded by his mother and her lover, who wanders over snowy mountains on his blinded steed.’ ‘Blinded by his mother! My God!’, exclaimed the Austrian. ‘But it's like the Oresteia! Das ist die Orestiaden [sic]!’

(The Palace of Dreams, p. 153)

Lambertz considers the Orestes motif to be specific to the songs of northern Albania: ‘Zuk plays the most prominent role in this Lahuta-epic. […] He is a Turkish-Albanian Orestes who murders his mother on account of her affair with the Slav, Baloz, and because she put out his eyes and those of his horse’ (Lambertz, p. 248).13

Another motif that helps us to identify this material more closely is that of the figure of ‘Çuperli’, or ‘Çypri’ in the original epics. Lambertz links the figure of ‘Çuperli’, or ‘Çypri’, a vizier in the Ottoman government, to the historical Köprülü family, the model for Kadare's Quprilis. ‘Çuperli’ is treated as a figure of contempt in Albanian epic. He is the dupe to whom a rebellious daughter is married off, when she rejects the pashas or viziers chosen by her father, and has eyes only for her Albanian hero.14 Skendi also refers to the Köprülü family in his discussion of Milman Parry's (at that time unpublished) collection of Serbo-Croation oral poetry, where a minor character by the name of ‘Cuprili’ (or ‘Tschuprili’ in its Serb transliteration) appears (Skendi, pp. 60-61).15 While the Quprili family is not mentioned in this particular Albanian epic in the novel, the figure of Çuperli is a stock figure in this body of songs. When the Albanian rhapsodists arrive for the recitation, they do indeed appear to hold the Quprili family in contempt:

their bright eyes seemed to express not so much scorn as complete rejection of anything that might be offered them. The footmen had served them raki in the same kind of silver goblets as those they'd handed round to the other guests, but the Albanians merely touched them with their lips.

(The Palace of Dreams, p. 150)

For the Albanian bards the Quprilis are not the stuff of heroic legend, but, on the contrary, play minor comic roles as Ottoman sycophants and dupes.

The theme of live interment, or life-in-death, also occurs in the epic. The Albanians sing a version of the ‘Ballad of the Bridge with Three Arches’, also hitherto known only to the Quprilis in its Bosniak (that is, Slav) form, although it deals with the origins of their family fortune:

Mark-Alem seemed to hear the blows of the masons, building in the cold sunshine a bridge sullied with the blood of sacrifice. A bridge which would not only give the Quprili family its name, but would also mark them with its own doom.

(p. 151)

This theme is ubiquitous in the novel and is central to the Mujo and Halil cycle, where a buried man is taunted by his live enemy to come out to battle:

Thou hast found a grave, O thou, bound by the bessa!

‘It's extremely difficult to translate,’ Kurt was saying. ‘Almost impossible, in fact […] It's about a man trying to challenge his dead enemy to a duel on his grave,’ Kurt explained […] ‘The dead man can't get up, and he struggles and groans.’

(pp. 152-53)

On the basis of Kadare's own indications in the text, and using the researches of Parry and Lord (1954), Skendi (1954), and Lambertz (1954-1955), Norris (1993), and Megas (1976), on the epics and legends of Albania, Bosnia and the Balkans, we can thus identify this body of songs as those of northern Albania, in particular the ‘Mujo and Halil’ cycle, where the story of Zuk and other motifs such as the figure of Çuperli, and live interment are to be found.

It has not yet been determined whether the songs of this part of the Balkans have their origins in Albanian folk-epic from the pre-Christian and Christian eras, which was then overlaid with Islamic culture after the Ottoman Islamic conversions, as Lambertz and Kadare argue, or whether they are originally Christian Slav material that had penetrated the folk culture of the Albanians and had been subjected to Islamic influences, as has been suggested in more recent research.

Skendi demonstrates the complexity of the problem by comparing Bosnian Muslim, Albanian Muslim and other South Slav versions of material going back to the battles with the Turks in the fourteenth century and earlier. Through analysis of the terms used for the different ethnic, religious and cultural groups within and in the liminal areas of the Ottoman Empire, Skendi describes the Bosnian and Albanian self-identifications as differing in terms of the emphasis on religion versus ethnicity: ‘The difference between the struggles of the two peoples is that those of the Bosnians were totally religious, those of the Albanians were primarily ethnical’ (Oral Epic Poetry, p. 125). The term ‘shkja’ which figures in the Mujo-Halil cycle ‘means both Slav and Christian Slav, but primarily the former’ (p. 125). Regardless of the origins of this material, that is, Skendi demonstrates that religion has receded as the single primary identifier in the northern Albanian songs over the period since conversion of these tribes to Islam, in favour of a cultural identification in terms of both religion and ethnicity. In the Bosnian works religion remains paramount: ‘[the Albanian songs] do not have the strong Moslem colour of the Bosnian songs. The Bosnians were fanatical. In their songs they do not know of a higher aim than to fight for the din (Moslem faith) and the Sultan’ (Oral Epic Poetry, p. 125). Skendi relates this to the different interests underlying Bosnian and Albanian Islam. In Albania, he writes, Islam had been embraced primarily as a means to tax relief and the protection of the Turkish state, whereas in Bosnia it was a much more deeply religious conversion. As a result of this, the Turkish-Moslem element is attenuated in the northern Albanian songs: ‘True, the kaur-s (the infidel-Christians) in the Albanian songs are the enemies of the heroes of Jutbina. […] But we do not meet them very often, for the Shkje [the neighbouring Slavs-PM] take their place’ (Oral Epic Poetry, pp. 126-27).16

The Balkan epics do not of course, make use of categories of nationality, and they predate any modern national boundaries of Bosnia, Albania, Montenegro, or Serbia. They take place in parts of modern Albania, Kosovo, Krajina, and Bosnia, and feature the threshold territories between Christian and Muslim occupation. Social units are the clan, the tribe, and the people, and after the Ottoman invasions and conversions of numbers of Balkan peoples to Islam, religious differences override most others, so that the major categories are not, for example, Albanian (Shqip) or Serb, but Turk (meaning Ottoman Muslim, not Turk) and Kaurr, Gjaur, (Giaour, Christian) (Lambertz, p. 267). For the Christian Slav, according to Lambertz, the opposition Slav/Albanian corresponded simply to that of Christian/Turk. The use of the Turkish and Albanian languages identified the Muslim, whether ethnic Albanian or Ottoman Turk (p. 255). However, the identification of religion with nationality of the Balkan Muslims by the Christian Slavs was a simplification of more complex ethnic and cultural issues. Among the Muslims themselves differences existed between ‘Albanian’ and ‘Slav’—in this case ‘Bosnian’—and these differences were becoming exacerbated in the era of decline of the Ottoman Empire and growth of Balkan nationalisms. These epics are also linked to the Battle of Kosovo, the main foundation myth for the national and ethnic identities of the Albanians, Bosnians, and Serbs: Mark-Alem had ‘often heard his family speak of the tragic battle’ (The Palace of Dreams, p. 130), specifically the first battle of 1389 ‘against all the Balkans’ (p. 129). The Battle of Kosovo in which Prince Lazar died, was commemorated by the Serbs in particular as the end of the medieval Serbian kingdom, after which the Ottoman period of subjection began (Jelavich, History of the Balkans, 1, 31). However this battle was a ‘Balkan’ event in which a coalition of Serbs, Bosnians, Albanians and others opposed the invading Ottomans. The Bosnian, Albanian and other Slav versions of these events were to be coloured over time by differing religious, cultural and ethnic interests and by the extraordinary complications of Balkan history.17

It is now possible to answer Mark-Alem's question, ‘why in Bosnia and not in Albania […] why was it sung not in Albanian but in Serbian?’ (p. 59). Sung in Bosniak, a Slav language, and glorifying the deeds of the Albanian Muslim Quprili family, the Quprili epic is identified with those Albanians and Slavs (Bosnians) who converted to Islam in the wake of the Ottoman conquest of the western Balkans after the Battles of Savra (1385) and Kosovo Polje (1389), and some of whom became powerful dynasties within the Ottoman Empire. Hence the Bosnian Slav epic identifies the family primarily as Ottoman and Muslim, and only secondarily as Albanian in a cultural context where this latter ethnic identification has little importance, since the significant identifications are between Turk (that is, Muslim, including converts regardless of racial or ethnic identity) and Christian. In this version of the epic, the religion and culture of western Balkan converts to Islam is the point of convergence. For the Bosnian Serbs, Muslims like the Albanians, the epic is a celebration of the origins of their Ottoman identity. The socio-religious culture of Ottoman civilization overrides ethnicity as the primary identifying factor.

The Albanian epic, with its omission of the Quprilis, other than as minor figures of ridicule, and its celebration of both religion and ethnicity, with the latter moving strongly forward in the hierarchy of ‘core values’, has developed differently from the Bosnian version in line with the differences between Albanian and Bosnian Islam noted by Skendi above.18 Where the Bosnians were primarily Muslims, Albanian Islam was much less deeply rooted, and ethnic identifications had began to displace religious identifications, particularly in the northern Albanian cycles of Mujo and Halil on which Kadare bases his fiction. The Albanian epic, that is, in which the Quprilis do not appear, has a primarily ethnic (Albanian Muslim) focus, whereas the Bosnian Slav version, in which the family does figure, is primarily Ottoman Muslim in focus. The Bosnian song is about Muslims versus Christians, where the Albanian version is primarily about Albanians versus Turks and Slavs. The one is determined by religious difference where the other expresses ethnic identity in the process of consolidation.

The theme of the two epics thus raises complex ethnic and political questions. For Kadare, following Lambertz, the song of the Albanian rhapsodists belongs to a prior, authentic tradition, against which the Bosnian Slav version is an adoption and retelling by a different people who arrived later on the Balkan peninsula. (Chansonnier épique albanais, p. 9) Similarly Kurt, the Albanian nationalist, identifies the Albanian version of the epic as the authentic one. It is Islamic and Albanian, but recalls a pre-Islamic, pre-Christian tradition. The Bosnian version, on the other hand, has been overlaid by Slav language and customs as well as Ottoman Islamic elements.

There is thus a three-way conflict between Kurt, the Quprili family and the Sultan: Kurt represents an Albanian ethnic nationalism that is Islamic, but is also strongly aware of its pre-Islamic roots, his brothers and the Vizier represent the family's political compromise with the Ottoman Empire as Ottoman Muslims (‘Balkan’ rather than ‘Albanian’ converts to Ottoman culture and religion), and the Sultan represents the Empire, a long-standing force of occupation of the Balkans with a foreign religion and culture, an imperial capital far from the Albanian periphery, and an interest in maintaining religious and cultural order throughout the Balkans, not merely in Albania. The Quprilis with their Bosnian Slav epic appear to have betrayed Albania on several fronts: they have risen to prominence as heroes of the Ottoman occupation of the Balkans, fighting where necessary against Albanian secessionists as well as against Serbs and others, and they have adopted an epic in the Bosniak, as opposed to the Albanian, language at this time of national awakening.

The significance of the epics having been established, the argument can be taken a step further by linking this material to the fictional and historical context, namely the era of resurgence of the Balkan nations at the end of the nineteenth century. Towards the end of the novel we read that ‘the war against Russia was just over’, and that ‘Greece had left the Empire, and the rest of the Balkans was in turmoil’ (p. 188). The war against the Russians can only be the Russo-Turkish war of mid 1877, formally ending with the Treaty of San Stefano, signed in January 1878. As a result of the agreements of the Congress of Berlin in 1878, the Ottoman Empire retained power over Albania, Macedonia, and the eastern part of Thrace including the capital, Istanbul. Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro had been declared independent, and it was far from inconceivable that the Ottomans would lose control over the remaining Balkan possessions. Mark-Alem's first file of dreams for sorting is dated 19 October. On the day in which he reviews the fateful dream of the lahuta and the bridge (which signals to the Sultan subversive developments among the Quprili family), he reads another dream dated 18 December, presumably of the year 1877. The fictive period of the novel thus begins in the winter of 1877-1878 and ends in the spring of 1878.

By this time in history a powerful Albanian national movement had taken shape partly in response, ironically, to the Ottoman failure to protect the interests of this largely Muslim subject nation after the Treaty of San Stefano, in which Albanian-inhabited territory was assigned to Serbia, Montenegro, and the Bulgarian provinces.19 However, the uniqueness of the Albanian situation lay in the fact that a large part of the Albanian elite (as represented by the Quprili family in the novel) was integrated into Ottoman state and military structures. This was not the case among the Serbs or Bulgarians, and it hampered the attempts of Albanian nationalists to forge a state identity around which Albanian cultural identity could crystallize.

In summer 1878, a conference of Albanian nationalists was held and permanent headquarters established in Prizren. The Ottoman government was willing to support this organization as long as the representatives identified as Ottomans (that is, Muslims) rather than Albanians (that is, ethnic nationalists regardless of religion). The situation oscillated between hardline nationalists seeking Albanian unification, autonomy, and the use of Albanian language in education and government, and those willing to accept semi-autonomy from central Ottoman government. In early 1881 the Ottoman armies were brought in to defeat the nationalist resistance and restore centralized authority. Even after this national insurrection, however, the Ottomans continued to regard the Albanians as more closely linked to them on the basis of religion and tradition, than the Serbs, Croats, and other Balkan Christian national and ethnic groups. Nevertheless, the seeds of Albanian political nationalism had been sown.20

The Albanian uprising followed the pattern of Herderian nationalism, basing itself on language and folk-culture and led by intellectuals who collected, selected, and moulded this material in line with national aspirations. During this period, Albanian intellectuals such as Zef Jubani and Thimi Mitko published collections of Albanian heroic songs in order to propagate the idea that what bound the Albanians together was ‘common blood, language, customs, and common aspirations’, which led Albanians to love their country and countrymen, even if they belonged to other religions (Skendi, National Awakening, pp. 121-22). This latter point is important, since it indicates a shift towards a primary ethnic identification in terms of ‘Albanianness’ understood as a link with Albania through ‘blood’, language and culture, and away from primary allegiances in terms of religion and/or Ottoman identity. The glorification of Scanderbeg as the national hero of the Albanians epitomizes this shift from religion to ethnicity. The Moslem Albanians ignored the fact that Scanderbeg was a Christian fighting against the Ottomans. What mattered was that he was an ethnic Albanian who had fought for the liberation of the country: ‘he was made a symbol of unification and became a national hero’ (Skendi, National Awakening, p. 123).

For the Albanians experiencing a national awakening on the western perimeter of Kadare's crumbling Empire, this powerful family with its Bosnian epic is scarcely a subject for national glorification. Ethnic and quasi-national identity is, or has become, the central issue. For them the Quprilis are turncoats whose feats are likely to be seen as betrayal of the national cause, rather than as the embodiment of Albanian heroic values. The novel is set at the time of growth of Albanian nationalism in the wake of the other Balkan nationalist movements, a time when the new nations were seeking ancient pedigrees in language, myth and folk poetry. The imagery of live burial which appears at important points in the novel, in the foundation myth of the Quprili family and again in the Albanian ballad described at the climax of the political intrigue, suggests that the issue here is the revival of Albanian identity in the 1870s after a long period of suppression and repression by a powerful occupying force.

The friction between the Sultan and the Quprili family over the Bosnian epic revolves around questions of factional power and politics in the capital. Kurt's brothers warn that any sign of interest in the Albanian epic could be interpreted by the Sultan as a political manoeuvre in the context of the unrest in Albania and with the Austrians sitting in the western wings of the Empire. They are concerned that the family's Albanian origins might be used against it in this period of imperial instability. The Albanian epic in fact, however, introduces a deeper level of threat and danger to the family. It signals a turn within towards ethnic rather than political identifications, with their ethnic homeland rather than with their political masters. And it introduces a new factor into the power-politics of the Empire, one of which the brothers are only dimly aware, namely the issue of ethnic nationalism, ultimately of separatism. The Bosnian epic, representing the converted peoples of the Balkans who had identified primarily with their Ottoman masters, is displaced in favour of the Albanian epic, in which ‘blood’ and the ethnic homeland are given primary over dynastic identity.

Moreover, the Austrians have an interest in Kurt's new-found ethnicity. Kurt's alliance with the Austrian ambassador is seen by the Sultan to indicate a destabilizing and subversive activity on the western periphery of the Empire, against which he, the Sultan, moves eastwards towards rapprochement with Russia in order to secure his regions against Habsburg intervention. This reflects the alliances and strategic positionings that were occurring in the east and west of the Ottoman Empire in the last decades of the nineteenth century. In this period of political tension the Quprili family's interest in the Albanian version of the epic signals a shift in balance. This non-Slav version is politically loaded towards the Habsburgs on the western border of the Empire, who support the non-Slav peoples of the UOS, whereas the Russians support the Slav peoples and favour the Bosnian (that is, Slav) version of the epic:

This is not just a matter of poetry and song, […] in fact it's an exceedingly complex business, to do with settlements and transfers of population in the Balkans, and the relations between Slav peoples and non-Slav peoples, like the Albanians. In short, it directly concerns the whole map of the Balkans. […] Austria supports the non-Slav peoples, whereas the Slavs' ‘little father’, the Tsar, is always on at our Sultan about the way the people of his race are treated. […] this epic deals precisely with the relations between the peoples of the Balkans.

(The Palace of Dreams, p. 167)

It is indicative of the political state of the Empire that the Sultan is moved to seek Russian support against the threat of the Habsburgs at a time when Panslavism was becoming a powerful force (See Jelavich, History of the Balkans, 1, 353). For the Ottomans religion remained paramount above ethnicity and language. Among the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans, religion remained a strong linking factor, especially in opposition to the Ottomans. For the Albanians who were predominantly Muslim by the end of the eighteenth century, as for the other ethnic groups of the Balkans, ethnicity, ‘blood’ and native language were moving to the fore in determining group identity by the late nineteenth century. However for the Albanian (and Bosnian) Muslims, religion remained a strong link to the Ottomans which was absent in the Christian ethnic and national movements. The Quprilis are caught among these changing political, national and ethnic signifiers in the late Ottoman Empire. In the context of dismemberment of the Empire and creation of ethnic nation states, the Quprili family would be acceptable in neither camp: neither that of the Turkish majority, nor that of the newly liberated Albanians.21

It is striking that Kadare raised the ethnic question at the beginning of the 1980s, when Albania was at its isolationist peak, and socialism was still firmly in place throughout Eastern Europe (See Kadare, Albanian Spring, pp. 122-23). During the early post-war period in Eastern Europe, regardless of the brand of communism, expressions of national and ethnic identity were prohibited or at least strictly controlled. In Marxist-Leninist theory, ethnic identity could be remembered, perhaps, as a relic of the bourgeois or fascist past, and nation-states were retained as a necessity in the transitional phase of ‘real-existing socialism’. Neither was relevant to the future of communism. Yet by the mid-1980s it was becoming clear that ethnicity had not simply disappeared. Feelings of ethno-national identity had not been supplanted by the unity of workers of the world, or even the brotherhood of nations. Some communist leaders manipulated elements of nationalism in order to strengthen their regime's legitimacy and popularity. More importantly, ethnicity as a liberationist category, implying a deeper and less tangible sense of belonging than merely participating in a communist nation-state, was making a come-back.22

Kadare's novel clearly functions at one level as a political allegory about the relationships between ethnic identity and centralized political power in socialist Eastern Europe. However it would be a mistake to read this novel simply as an attack on Soviet socialism, where the centre of the Empire is read as Moscow and the Quprilis as caught between the supra-national state with its uniting faith and the renascent politics of ethnicity. In his memoir, Albanian Spring, Kadare refers to The Palace of Dreams as ‘the novel which launched the most ferocious attack on the dictatorship’ (p. 8). Enver Hoxha in Albania combined isolationist nationalism with hard-line communism after his breaks with Belgrade (1948), Moscow (1961), and Peking (1978). Hoxha's opposition to Khrushchev's revisionism and break with the Soviet Union in particular introduced a period of political and cultural isolationism in the 1960s. This isolationism expressed itself both in Hoxha's state-sponsored patriotism and in a broadening of the literary horizon among writers and intellectuals. However Hoxha did not tolerate this liberalism for long. His was not a liberationist politics of ethnic identity, that is, a politics of popular democratic self-identification as Albanian.23 Only those aspects of Albanian culture that suited his political vision were granted legitimacy.24 Albania was a nation-state, but one in which core components of Albanian culture, those of religion, historical consciousness, and ethnic customs, were rigidly controlled and, where necessary, suppressed.25 Kadare's novel, with its awareness of ethnicity and culture as deeply embedded aspects of Albanian identity, is as much an attack on Hoxha's Albania as on Soviet power. Moscow and Tirana are both seats of totalitarian power in conflict with the ethnic self-determination of peoples in the post-war era.

More recently, in the post-communist environment of 1990, Kadare has voiced his fears of Serb expansionism: ‘I wanted to remind Balkan, and in particular Serbian, writers that no people can have a peaceful conscience when it oppresses another people.’26 As we have seen in his foreword to the Chansonnier épique albanais, Kadare considers Albanian traditions to be deeply rooted in the ‘Illyrian-Balkan’ culture that predated Slav influence. Albania is an original minor culture whose destiny has been marked by its geographical position ‘at the crossroads of history between the West and the East, but it has assimilated and included the influences of the three great cultures which have passed through it’:27

The Albanians are, along with the Greeks, the oldest Balkan nation. One has to understand, that this nation, which has survived the tyranny of three empires—the Roman, the Byzantine and the Ottoman—rejects the chauvinism of the Serbs. This Serbian chauvinism is the chauvinism of new-comers. It is full of inferiority complexes and morbid jealousies. It attempts the impossible: to force the Albanians to forget their culture, their history and their freedom.

(Quoted in Haroche, p. 711, my translation)

In the context of the early 1980s, Kadare's political allegory has a particular resonance.28 In 1981 ethnic Albanians staged mass protests to demand independent republic status for Kosovo on the basis of its predominantly Albanian population, and even unification with Albania (Malcolm, Kosovo, p. 334). The dilemma of the Quprilis, caught between nascent Albanian nationalism and their traditional role as functionaries of the Empire, has clear relevance to those ethnic Albanians from Kosovo who had also identified in terms of the ideology of Yugoslav communism with its centre in Belgrade. For the Albanian rhapsodists, the Quprili family have sold out not only to the Ottomans but also to the Slavs in identifying through a Balkan Slav culture and language (the Bosnian epic). They have thus betrayed the primacy and authenticity of Albanian language and culture. Kadare is signalling his awareness of the developments whereby ethnic Albanians in Yugoslavia would be obliged to choose between ethnicity and political ideology.

Cognizant of the threat of Serb expansionism in the post-communist environment, Kadare does not himself revert to chauvinistic nationalism. His plea for Albanian identity is for self-determination in ethnic and cultural terms against what is perceived to be a stronger and potentially imperialistic power. Speaking in 1990, in the wake of the events in Kosovo in 1988, his fears and warnings cannot be considered unfounded, especially given the subsequent history of the break-up of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia during the 1990s, and of the events in Kosovo at the end of the decade.

In 1945 Ivo Andrić pessimistically acknowledged the substratum of ethnic hatreds in the Balkans:

that dark background of consciousness where live and ferment the basic feelings and indestructible beliefs of individual races, faiths and castes, which, to all appearances dead and buried, are preparing for later, far-off times unsuspected changes and catastrophes without which, it seems, peoples cannot exist and above all the peoples of this land.

(Andrić, Bridge over the Drina, pp. 173-4)

Ismail Kadare is not blind to the dangers of ethnic primordialism. However in this novel, written in a period when socialist structures seemed permanently fixed, he represents ethnicity as a force of individual and group identity, a part of the individual and social imaginary capable of subverting immense power-structures. The key to Kadare's political vision lies in the histories and cultures encoded in the Bosnian and Albanian epics in his novel. The Albanian epic is located at the symbolic centre, foregrounding the theme of Albanian over Ottoman, and ethnic over imperial, identity in a period of political change. The Palace of Dreams thus integrates the ethnic question into the political novel of socialist Eastern Europe. Where Orwell and other earlier critics of totalitarianism focused on aspects of individual desire as inimical to dictatorial control, Kadare showed prescience in identifying ethnic identity as a destabilizing force in communist dictatorships and as a resurgent political force at the end of the post-war era.29


  1. He has been attacked by Arshi Pipa in particular on account of his relationship with the regime of Enver Hoxha. See Arshi Pipa, ‘Subversion vs Conformism: The Kadare Phenomenon’, Telos, 73 (1987), pp. 47-77; Arshi Pipa, Albanian Stalinism: Ideo-Political Aspects (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990); Petar Hadji-Ristic, ‘Shaking Albania's Torpor: Young People Feel Betrayed by Leading Writer's Departure’, Index on Censorship, 20 (1991), pp. 10-11; Arshi Pipa, ‘The Adventure of Albania's Young Turks’, Telos, 92 (1992), pp. 99-106; Arshi Pipa, ‘Conformisme et subversion: Le double jeu de Kadare’, Autre Europe, 24-25 (1992), pp. 138-51; Noel Malcolm, ‘In the Palace of Nightmares’, (review of Kadare's The Three-Arched Bridge), New York Review of Books, 44 (November 6, 1997), pp. 21-24; Stephen Schwartz, ‘In the Palace of Nightmares’, (letter to the editor), New York Review of Books, 45 (9 April, 1998), p. 80; Ismail Kadare, and Noel Malcolm, ‘“In the Palace of Nightmares”: An Exchange’, New York Review of Books, 45 (15 January, 1998), pp. 59-60.

  2. Miranda Vickers and James Pettifer, Albania: From Anarchy to a Balkan Identity (London: Hurst, 1997), p. 1.

  3. Ismail Kadare, Albanian Spring: The Anatomy of Tyranny, translated from the French by Emile Capouya (London: Saqi Books, 1995), p. 8.

  4. Kadare is better known in the French-speaking than in the English-speaking world. See, for example, Ismail Kadaré, Le palais des rêves, translated from the Albanian by Jusuf Vrioni (Paris: Fayard, 1990); Ismail Kadare, The Palace of Dreams, translated from the French of Jusuf Vrioni by Barbara Bray (London: Harvill, 1993). Quotations given in the text are from this English edition unless otherwise noted.

  5. Kadare is presumably referring to the ‘Tanzimat’ or ‘reorganization’ period of the Ottoman Empire (1839-1870) dominated by the westernizing and modernizing Turkish Ottoman grand vizier Ali Pasha (Mehmed Emin). However the description of the ‘UOS’ in the novel implies a much more profound level of political reorganization than actually occurred during this period.

  6. Ivo Andrić, The Bridge over the Drina, trans. by Lovett F. Edwards (London: Harvill, 1995), p. 94.

  7. Kadare draws on the history of the Köprülüs, a prominent family of Albanian functionaries, whose name, as indicated in the novel, appears in the Larousse encyclopaedia. The entry cited by Kadare identifies Mehmed (Meth) Pasha Köprülü (1575-1661), Grand Vizier under Sultan Mehmed I, who came from a village in Albania to found a dynasty of Ottoman grand viziers, prime ministers, admirals and generals, ministers and high ranking officials. This Albanian family was notable for its activity in the expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and elsewhere. Kadare's Quprili family, we are told, has played a central role as ‘one of the pillars of the Empire, the first to have launched the idea of its reconstruction in the form of the UOS’ (The Palace of Dreams, p. 52). See Larousse du XXe Siecle en 6 Volumes (Paris: Librairie Larousse, 1931), iv, 257. Later editions of the Larousse include shortened versions of the article. See also Barbara Jelavich, History of the Balkans, 2 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 1: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, p. 81; Maximilian Lambertz, ‘Die Volksepik der Albaner’, Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Karl Marx Universität, Leipzig, 4 (1954-55), pp. 243-89 and 439-70 (p. 270); Stavro Skendi, The Albanian National Awakening, 1878-1912 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967), p. 21 (hereafter, Skendi, National Awakening).

  8. Most obviously in Andrić's Bridge over the Drina, but also throughout Balkan literature. Compare Georgios A. Megas, Die Ballade von der Arta-Brücke: Eine vergleichende Untersuchung (Thessaloniki: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1976).

  9. The identification of languages in the novel is potentially confusing. Kadare's characters use the term ‘Serb’ rather than ‘Bosniak’, for the language of the epic from Bosnia. This Slav language is virtually identical to Serbian and is referred to variously as ‘Croatian’, ‘Serb’, and ‘Bosniak’. Since the article revolves around the question of language and identity particularly in relation to the two epics, I have used the term ‘Bosniak’, with clarification where necessary, where Kadare, writing in the early 1980s about events loosely situated in the late nineteenth century, uses the term ‘Serb’ for the language of the epic.

  10. On the psychology of ethnic identification in the figures of Kurt and Mark-Alem, and on the instrumentalization and subversion of Mark-Alem's ethnic longings, see my ‘Ancient Names … Marked by Fate: Ethnicity and the “Man without Qualities” in Ismail Kadare's Palace of Dreams’, The European Legacy, 7 (2002), pp. 45-60.

  11. Compare H. T. Norris, Islam in the Balkans: Religion and Society between Europe and the Arab World (London: Hurst, 1993), pp. 138-60; Serbocroatian Heroic Songs, collected by Milman Parry, ed. and trans. by Albert Bates Lord (Belgrade and Cambridge, MA: Serbian Academy of Sciences and Harvard University Press, 1954); Stavro Skendi, Albanian and South Slav Oral Epic Poetry, Memoirs of the American Folklore Society, 44 (Philadelphia: American Folklore Society, 1954; New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1969) (hereafter Skendi, Oral Epic Poetry).

  12. Chansonnier Épique albanais, ed. by Qemal Haxhihasani and others, version française, ed. by Luka Kolë, foreword by Ismail Kadaré (pp. 7-10), (Tirana: Academie des Sciences de la RPS D'Albanie, Institut de Culture Populaire, 1983). My translations used throughout.

  13. Lambertz, ‘Die Volksepik der Albaner’, p. 248. In his preface to the collection of Albanian epics, Kadare emphasizes the significance of the Orestes theme for Balkan history, implying that the Balkans are a place of ongoing blood feuds, vendettas, and traditional hatreds that neither war nor peace have been able to erase (Chansonnier Épique albanais, pp. 7-10). This motif is also to be found in the most important of modern Balkan texts, Andrić's The Bridge over the Drina, pp. 173-4.

  14. This Çuperli, also Çupri, is an actual historical figure. He is a member of the Köprülü family. […] They saved and revived the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century. Mohammed Köprülü created internal order and left to his son a ready army […] In Serbian songs he is called ‘Cuprili’ […] after the “Köprü” (bridge) of his town of birth.’ (Lambertz, ‘Die Volksepik der Albaner’ (p. 270), my translation.)

  15. Compare also Parry, Serbocroatian Heroic Songs, p. 206.

  16. See also Norris, Islam in the Balkans, p. 157, on the relationships between Albanian and Bosnian epic traditions.

  17. Compare Stefanaq Pollo and Arben Puto, with the collaboration of Kristo Frasheri and Skënder Anamali, The History of Albania from Its Origins to the Present Day (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 57, and Lambertz, p. 270.

  18. For the terminology of ‘core values’ in ethnicity studies, see Jerzy Smolicz, ‘Core Values and Cultural Identity’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 4 (1981), pp. 75-90.

  19. Compare Barbara Jelavich, The Ottoman Empire, the Great Powers, and the Straits Question 1870-1887 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973), pp. 111-16; Jelavich, History of the Balkans, 1, 361, 363, and Skendi, National Awakening, pp. 31-110.

  20. See Jelavich, History of the Balkans, 1, 365, and 11: Twentieth Century, pp. 84-89, and Skendi, National Awakening, pp. 31-110.

  21. This is, of course, what happened to the Ottoman Empire over the first decades of the twentieth century. With his modernized United Ottoman States in which the Quprilis have played an important role, Kadare implies differences between his fiction and history, which strengthens the allegorical reference to the post-war USSR.

  22. On the role of ethnic politics in the disintegration of the Soviet Union, see The Nationalities Question in the Soviet Union, ed. by Graham Smith (London: Longman, 1990); Victor Zaslavsky, ‘Nationalism and Democratic Transition in Postcommunist Societies’, Daedalus, 121 (1992), pp. 97-122; Nadia Diuk, and Adrian Karatnycky, New Nations Rising: The Fall of the Soviets and the Challenge of Independence (New York: Wiley, 1993); Ronald Grigor Suny, The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993); Ben Fowkes, The Disintegration of the Soviet Union: A Study in the Rise and Triumph of Nationalism (New York: St Martin's Press, 1997); George Schöpflin, ‘Nationalism and Ethnicity in Europe, East and West’, in Nationalism and Nationalities in the New Europe, ed. by Charles A. Kupchan (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), pp. 52-65.

  23. Compare Robert Elsie, ‘Evolution and Revolution in Modern Albanian Literature’, World Literature Today, 65 (1991), 256-63 (p. 258).

  24. ‘For Hoxha everything pertaining to the life of the Albanian people had to be “home-grown”; it could not be imported from abroad. “Genuine culture”, he maintained, “cannot be truly so if it is not part of the blood and flesh of the people who create it and use it, if it is not conceived in their history, life, struggle and interests”’, Vickers and Pettifer, pp. 118-19.

  25. Compare Robert Elsie, p. 259, Kadare, Albanian Spring, p. 122, and Pipa, ‘The Adventure of Albania's Young Turks’, p. 99.

  26. Quoted in Charles Haroche, ‘Gespräch mit Ismail Kadare’, Sinn und Form 42 (1990), 706-14 (p. 713), my translation.

  27. Quoted in Pipa, ‘Subversion vs Conformism: The Kadare Phenomenon’, p. 72.

  28. The most comprehensive discussion of this question is to be found in Noel Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History (London: Macmillan, 1998), pp. 314-56.

  29. I should like to thank the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the University of Western Australia for funding the research on ethnicity and national identity used in this article. My thanks also go to colleagues who have read and commented on the essay, in particular Professor Leslie Bodi and Ms Kati Tonkin

Matthew L. McAlpin (review date spring 2003)

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SOURCE: McAlpin, Matthew L. Review of Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, by Ismail Kadare. Review of Contemporary Fiction 23, no. 1 (spring 2003): 156.

[In the following review, McAlpin notes Kadare's portrayal of post-communist Albania in Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, calling the novel “bizarrely touching.”]

In Ismail Kadare's latest novel [Spring Flowers, Spring Frost], Albania awakes from the isolation and terror it experienced under communist dictatorship. But this awakening is bittersweet. With all of the benefits of joining the modern European order come unforeseen problems: taxes, bank robberies, and the rebirth of the kanun, an ancient system of blood-debt and revenge that perpetuates an endless cycle of violence. Within this Albania we follow Mark Gurabardhi, a painter and minor governmental functionary, as he ponders the mysteries in his own life: his missing friend Zeb, the murder of his boss, the visit of his girlfriend's mysterious uncle and her subsequent disappearance, and the location of a secret archive of files used as blackmail during the communist era. Between the chapters that tell this story are a series of “counter-chapters” in which the writing breaks free from the restraints of naturalism and where Kadare shows his virtuosity as novelist and poet. The counter-chapters take diverse forms—folk tale, Greek myth, dream, and prose poem—but each is handled with masterful skill. Kadare's retelling of the Tantalus myth has Bulgakov's fantastic absurdity; it portrays the Ministry of Death as a vast bureaucracy with its endless forms and hierarchies. Zeus is a totalitarian dictator, employing spies and interrogating Tantalus behind closed doors in the “Great Prison,” burying his crime under state-sponsored propaganda. In another scene of interrogation, the iceberg that sank the Titanic confesses, offering as a defense a meditation upon the divide between those born of heat and those born of ice, a boundary never to be crossed. This bizarrely touching meditation encapsules the eerie tone of the novel; it is as odd as it is elegiac, yet resists descending into bathos.


Ismail Kadare World Literature Analysis