Ismail Kadare’s The Successor is based on an actual historical incidentthe mysterious death, in 1981, of Mehmet Shehu, the designated successor to Albania’s longtime communist dictator Enver Hoxha. Informed by the author’s conversations with Shehu’s only surviving son, this incident is the basis for Kadare’s enigmatic blend of surrealism, fabulation, and historical investigation. Structured as a classic “locked room” murder mystery, a number of characters in the novel are suspected of murdering the man known as the Successor and expected to follow in the footsteps of the nation’s leader.
Before turning to the various possible characters who have reason to murder the Successor, however, Kadare re-creates the sense of maddening and indissoluble mystery that pervaded Albania in the 1980’s, by means of the plaints of foreign intelligence agents who cannot understand the first thing about a country that had deliberately made itself inaccessible under the rule of its intransigent totalitarian leader. This theme of uncertainty is continued in subsequent chapters, as one considers various characters suspected of the crime. Under consideration first are the Successor’s son and daughter, whose lives have been affected not only by the Successor’s death but also by the choices their father had made while still alive. The Successor’s daughter, Suzana, was forced to break off two romantic relationships because her father felt her liaisons undermined the security of his political position. She and her brother agree that blood ties were not nearly as strong her father’s political ambitions and ideology. The interpretation of the Successor’s motives, however, are so fluid and so subject to the winds of opinion that by the end of the novel the daughter is stunned to find that there is a wholly false consensus that, rather than forcing her to break off her latest relationship, her father actually encouraged the match in order to serve his own political agenda. In either scenario, however, it is the Successor’s political agenda that is paramount.
After the Successor’s death, Suzana hallucinates a vision of her father as a returning spirit, a mystical turn given greater play in the response of the Successor’s son to his father’s death. As with Suzana, the son’s resentment of his father’s greater loyalty to the Communist Party than to his own family supplies him with a motive for murder. After his father’s death, the son becomes less a suspect than a kind of mystic, drawing close to a mysterious aunt, who may be a ghostly spirit visiting the bereaved family amid talk of a family curse. It is clear that the son’s ideas run counter to the modernity of communist Albania, which has militantly placed itself in the vanguard of the Enlightenment project’s rejection of the lore of magic, ghosts, and curses associated with Albania’s past. The mystical motif introduced by the son is carried forward as well by his prognostications of various psychics, particularly an Icelandic visionary, and, eventually, an uncanny visitation by the murdered Successor himself.
The first section of the novel establishes two motifs: the way in which communist political interests dominate even the family’s personal life and relationships, and the possibility of supernatural influences that exist in direct opposition to communist ideology. While avoiding, significantly, the interior life of the Successor’s wife, Kadare proceeds to explore the inner lives of characters who, in one way or another, have appeared actually to confess to the murder of the Successor. The first suspect is Adrien Hasobeu, the minister of the interior and the Successor’s most likely replacement. While armed with a revolver, and having admitted to snooping around the Successor’s sealed residence at the request of the Guide, it is possible that Hasobeu’s inability to actually assassinate the Successor leads to his being placed in handcuffs and accused of masterminding a conspiracy against the Guide, an accusation that, in the end, even he half-believes.
Of greater certainty, however, is that Hasobeu has been the subject of a typical purge directed against those who are perceived as becoming too powerful or too independent, or who have simply become casualties of an irrational change in the political winds. To add to the arbitrariness of the situation, Hasobeu’s sudden reversal of fortune is accompanied by a possible posthumous rehabilitation of the Successor, who in an Alice-in-Wonderland way, is on the brink of being declared a martyr of the revolution, murdered by reactionary insurgents.
How, or if, the...
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