A few months ago I read – and was utterly bewitched by – Ismail Kadare’s beautiful and complex explorations into oral epic and national culture in the wonderful The File on H (reviewed here). The Siege continues with some similar themes, dealing with the intertwined relationships between myth, war, history and the construction of a national narrative. Brilliant as Kadare is at this, The Siege also has, I believe, some serious problem: both in terms of its formal characteristics as a work of literature and, insofar as the two can be separated, its politics – problems that undermine its value as a work of art. So let me try to explain.
The Siege is a novel about an Ottoman Army’s attempts to besiege and capture an unnamed borderland Albanian fortress, at an unnamed time. Somewhere towards the end of the book, the army’s architect is called away to the capital to prepare for the assault on Constantinople; since Constantinople fell in 1453, we can fix the approximate date of events as 1450, which would put it right in the middle of the Ottoman Empire-Albania wars, about twenty years before the ultimate defeat of the Albanian kingdom. What is particularly interesting about The Siege is that the story, written by an Albanian writer, writing at the time of a fever pitch of nationalism (the 1960s, during the height of Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist regime), is nonetheless told from the point of view of the Turks, the invading army – in particular, from the perspective of the Turkish chronicler, Mevla Celebi, and detailing – apart from the events of the siege – the interactions and conversations between a few of his close friends in the army. The perspectives of the Christian soldiers in the fortress are, on the other hand, told through the account of one unnamed warrior, occurring as brief, one-page interludes between chapters. Ostensibly, then, this is about the war as seen by the separate, individual participants of one side – the side that the reader is not expected to sympathise with, either in the abstract, or in the concrete context of the writing of this novel. That, in itself, makes it unique.
The first, striking thing that one must mention about Kadare, I suppose, is his use of language. His use of adjectives and verbs to establish image and atmosphere is brilliant. In particular, it is the economy and precision of his language – and the corresponding swiftness and accuracy of the vision that it imposes upon the reader’s mind – that is particularly worthy of comment. “A faint glow,” he tells us, was “leaking out of the tents.” Banners “swim like flotsam over the turbid ocean of soldiers.” There are people who are “craftsmen in the rotting and corroding of nations.” And this, one of the best descriptions of a battle-scene that I have read, astoundingly effective in its very sparseness and brevity:
A thick pall of yellowish dust obscured parts of the tableau from time to time, just as it revealed others more horrible as it slowly moved away on the wind.
Demystification seems to be a common theme with Eastern European writers, living as they did under brutal Stalinist regimes that depended, for their survival, on maintaining false consciousness through myth, allegory and narrative. Many passages in The Siege are strongly reminiscent of Milan Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere. While Kundera wants to demystify love and revolution, Kadare’s theme is war. As Mevla watches war preparations at the beginning of the siege, he thinks to himself that “… no chronicle ever mentioned the tying and untying of soldiers’ backpacks. As for flea-hunting, that was never spoken of either… pay was also never mentioned in that kind of narrative.” This theme is repeated throughout the novel. Beautiful images of the army are turned into the language of flotsam and jestam. And right at the very end, when an attempt to take the fortress by introducing the plague into it through infected animals has failed, the doctor tells Mevla, with some degree of bitterness: “I’m sure you’ll manage not to write about rats in your chronicle” – accepting, as it is, the fact that chronicles and accounts portray an aestheticised, romanticised vision of war that is fundamentally at odds with the grimy, dirty business that it actually is. Kadare is unsparing even in death: as the commander goes to his, “he would have liked to have thought a sublime thought, but he could not.” War is ignominious – and so is death.
Much like in The File on H, Kadare is at his best when dealing with how myth and narrative intertwine with politics and the construction of a national identity. As the siege wears on, the Turks wonder why the Albanians – led by their charismatic and mysterious leader, Skanderberg – are bent upon a resistance that is so evidently futile. Not so the Quartermaster-general of the Turkish army, who understands Skanderberg’s motivations only too well:
“He’s in the process of achieving an uncommon exploit… an extraordinary exploit… just now I was telling you about the heavens where people put their relics for safekeeping… well, as from now, that man is aiming for the heavens… I don’t know if you get my meaning. He’s trying to create a second Albania, outside anyone’s reach, a kind of immaterial Albania. So that when one day this Albania, the terrestrial one, falls to the Empire, that other, ghostly Albania, its shadow-self, will go on wandering among the clouds… do you see what I mean? He’s devoted himself to a task which almost nobody has ever thought of before… how to reuse a defeat. Or, to put it another way, the eternal recycling of defeat in battle… you see Mevla, he’s trying to oblige us to fight his shadow. To vanquish a ghost, so to speak, the image of his own defeat. But how can you overcome a defeat, a rout? It’s like trying to hollow out a ravine. It already is hollow! You could make no different to it, whereas you could yourself fall into it…”
The idea, of course, is that resistance – even futile, doomed resistance – engenders a narrative that exists parallel to physical conquest, and is bound to outlast it. Almost perversely, it is the inevitability of conquest and the futility of physical resistance that ensures that the narrative itself is more tightly-knit, stronger and built to endure for longer. And it is that narrative that creates something that did not exist before it, before its own creation out of an unequal battle – an Albania that goes beyond physical borders, rocks, trees, stones, rivers, an agglomeration of human beings – but rather, an Albania that exists in legends, stories and songs, a collection of narratives bound together by the common theme of resisting an invincible enemy, a theme that coheres and unites them, and constructs a unified Albania – an Albania that, because it only exists in the collective mind of the people (a collectivity that in itself has come into being because of the way that the narrative has been shaped out of communal resistance) is, by its very nature, indestructible. The Quartermaster-General understands precisely what is at stake, therefore, when he speaks of their plans after completing the physical conquest:
“We will leave the people their faith. As for their language, for the time being we will only prohibit it from being written down.”
Because language, of course (not religion, but language) – and, in particular, written language is what ensures the continuity and coherence of the narrative, and thus, in turn, the continued indestructibility of Albania, dormant but not dead, only suppressed until the time comes when the physical conditions are right once more. As the Quartermaster-General points out, that is the only way in which Skanderberg can win – with a timeframe that spans generations:
“For the moment he is dragging Albania into the abyss, believing that he is making his nation unattainable, in his own image, by making it also pass out of its own time, into another dimension. He may well be right. It would be pointless for us to try to separate Skanderberg from Albania. Even if we wanted to we would not be able to do it… what he’s working towards is to give Albania a cloud of invulnerability, to give it a form which casts it up and beyond the vicissitudes of the present – a metaform, it I may say, which makes it able to resucitate… he is trying to crucify Albania, as their God was crucified, so that like Christ, Albania will be resurrected. He doesn’t care whether it is on the third day, the third century, or the third millennium after his death… what matters is his vision of the future.”
So, just as the very crucifixion of Christ ensured his immortality by ensuring the construction of a myth around his person, so too does the (physical) crucifixion of Albania in battle ensure its own survival until the time of resurrection.
One last point about the positive qualities of this book ought, I believe, to be mentioned: the details of the siege are meticulously – even painstakingly – researched, and presented with a fine attention to detail. As a piece of military history, it makes for fine reading.
Now, on to the problems. The most glaring, in my opinion, is the characterisation (or lack thereof). At no point, it seems to me, thus Kadare attempt to make us care about his primary characters. We are not told their back-stories. We are told very little about their thoughts and perceptions outside of their observations of the siege, and themes associated with that. They are, of course, individuals – make no mistake about that – but individuals with whom it is very difficult to sympathise, whose tragedies it is difficult to be moved by, whose joys it is nearly impossible to share in, because we simply do not know them well enough to feel for them. Perhaps that is the idea – again, considering the context – but it makes for bad novelistic practice, especially because the event itself (a military siege) is fairly commonplace (unless you’re a historically -inclined Albanian with a nationalistic streak).
But now, onto a more serious problem. Kadare’s work betrays, at many points, a near-shockingly uncritical application of some of the most common Orientalist tropes. The work of Edward Said, in particular, Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, provides a particularly acute critical vision. To the most serious charge that Said lays against the Orientalists, Kadare is not guilty – he does not reduce his orientals to a nameless, faceless mass – his story does have individuals (not very well-drawn individuals, as I suggested above, but individuals nonetheless). But that is where the good news ends. Viciousness, cruelty, tyranny, irrationalism, unpredictably and mysticism – all qualities attributed to the “East”, as Said demonstrates, in order to contrast it to the more Occidental – and perceivedly superior – qualities such as rationality, self-discipline, enlightened free thought – are in full play. The pre-War battle dance of the dervishes is described with all the fascinated horror of a Richard Burton in Mecca; show-trials and random executions, expressly for the purpose of maintaining army morale, become more and more frequent as time goes on, with the express involvement of some of the most sympathetic and intelligent Turk characters, such as the Quartermaster-General (compare this, for instance, with how two of the Christian soldiers are only sent to jail for raising their weapons against each other right in the middle of the siege). The strict hierarchical nature and instances of personal tyranny abound; it is no surprise, therefore, that there comes a time when the mask falls, and we find this statement:
“What we saw spread out beneath us was Asia in all its mysticism and barbarity, a dark grave ready to swallow us all.”
This could be right out of a Said book, the part where he demonstrates through examples. Of course, one may argue that this is actually said by one of the Chritisn soldiers, and Kadare in no need subscribe to this view – but much like the similar response made to claims of Joseph Conrad’s racism, the critical point is that Kadare makes absolutely no effort to dissociate the writer’s voice – his own voice – from the expression of such opinions, and such absence must be taken to mean at least implied, tacit support. And such a crude usage of the most unsubtle of orientalist tropes makes for, I think, a serious weakness in the book as a whole.
Nonetheless, and despite such misgivings – the book is most certainly worth a read – especially after The File on H.