Ismail Kadare’s The Siege tells of efforts by the Ottoman Empire to take a solitary fortress in Albania. Although the novel is grounded in history, the fortress is not identified. It is as much a symbolic obstacle against the progress of the Ottoman Turks as a factual one. All the same, the sustained, military effort represents a specific conflict: the opening move by the Ottomans in their efforts to occupy the region.
The opposing sides are represented by sketchy figures who remain in the background of the novel. On one side is the sultan, who has assigned an experienced commander, Ugurlu Tursun Pasha, to lead into Albania an immense army of some forty thousand soldiers. Opposite the Sultan is a nearly legendary figure whom the Ottomans call Skanderbeg, Albanian prince George Castrioti who has helped prepare the fortress against attack and provides indirect assistance once the attack begins. For the duration of the siege, however, the fortress’s relatively small body of defenders must rely upon their own resources and ingenuity.
The English translation of this novel is unusual in not being a translation from the Albanian, the language of its original publication in 1970. After he revised the novel in the 1990’s for its republication in France, Ismail Kadare considered the new, French version to be the definitive one. It is from this version that the English version has been translated.
Although the novel is penned by an Albanian writer, the character of greatest dramatic power is the Turkish Pasha. The narration reveals his thoughts during war councils, during private moments, and in the thick of battle. His future within the empire’s hierarchy depends upon his performance during this campaign.
The pasha oversees a body of men representing a variety of different fighting forces, incorporating infantry, cavalry, swordsmen, the elite janissaries, and the serden geçti, who are referred to as the “soldiers of death.” His army also includes units made up of Kurdish, Persian, Tartar, and Caucasian soldiers, among others. It benefits, moreover, from advanced technology, such as the mortars and cannons being cast by the engineer Saruxha.
The single most important weapon in the pasha’s arsenal is the giant cannon, being cast in a size unprecedented in military history. “An earthquake will sound like a lullaby next to their terrible thunder,” the engineer predicts while overseeing the casting operations, which have been set up on the battleground itself. The weight given to these engines of war by the various military commanders reemphasizes their importance.
In one of many moments that seem intended to disrupt the fifteenth century historical narrative and that give it resonance with historical developments in the twentieth century, Saruxha reveals that he learned his craft from a master engineer who refused to do what Saruxha is doing. “He refused to make cannon of larger calibre,” Saruxha states, when explaining his teacher’s fall from favor. He claimed it was impossible, but in fact, as he told me, he didn’t want to do it. If we make them even bigger, he would say, then the cannon will become a terrible scourge that will decimate the human race. The monster has come into the world, he said by way of explanation, and we can’t put it back where it came from.
As the casting nears completion, the pasha and his officers decide on an immediate attack. In so doing, they are acting on the advice of the army astrologer and against the expert advice of Saruxha, whose work is not quite finished. The Ottoman attack upon the fortress goes ahead, and it is concentrated and brutal. Not all goes according to plan, however, as the Christian Albanians mount a spirited defense, causing tremendous Ottoman casualties. The pasha is forced to pull back his forces by nightfall. The failure of this initial assault, which occurs in mid-June, extends the length of the siege for the duration of the summer.
Although the pasha, as one of...
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