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“Daybreak came feebly, ash-grey…”: Ismail Kadare, ‘The Fall of the City of Stone’

1943. With Italy signing the Act of Capitulation to Germany, and pulling out of occupied Albania, the tanks of the Third Reich roll into the stone city of Gjirokaster. On the way, the Nazi commander is shot at in an ambush. Hostages are taken, and retribution is expected to be swift and ruthless. But by the time the next morning dawns, the commander has met Doctor Gurameto,  his dearest college friend, dined at his house, ordered all the hostages to be released, and left the city with his troops. And the reverberations from that fateful day and night will haunt the city for years to come.

This is the eighth Kadare novel that I’ve read, and certainly the most curious one. By now, there is something I’ve come to expect from him: the setting is either part-historical, part-mythical (The Palace of Dreams, The Three-Arched Bridge, The Pyramid, The Siege), or a very thinly fictionalised Albania (The File on H, Broken April); the story is, in some way, a meditation on the interconnections between poetry, myth, and the construction of national memory; and the writing is vividly imagistic, almost dream-like at times.

The Fall of the Stone City confounded all these expectations, not least because as I progressed through the book, I felt as if I was reading two or three different writers. In the opening scene, just as the German tanks are preparing to destroy Gjirokaster, someone waves the white flag of surrender from a window. The man (or woman) is never found, but the very idea of surrender is such an anathema to the city, that it invents a convenient myth to shield itself from its own, unsparing gaze:

“The explanation was very simple: no search would ever discover the person or ghost who had raised the flag of surrender. The September wind had pulled a white curtain out of a window left open when the occupants of the house sought shelter in the cellar, and blown it back and forth in front of the eyes of the Germans. The inhabitants of the city could finally be reassured that neither cowardice nor, worse, attempted treason had set this flag fluttering. Destiny itself in the form of the wind had done the necessary job.”

This reminded me strongly of the opening scene in Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, where Kundera recounts the anecdote of the photograph. In 1948, there is a photograph taken of the Czech Prime Minister, Klement Gottwald, standing on a balcony alongside foreign minister Vladimir Clementis, who has just taken off his hat and placed it on the Prime Minister’s head, to protect him from the cold wind. When Clementis is purged and executed in 1952, the State propaganda also “erases” from the photograph – all that remains of him is his hat on Gottwald’s head. Kundera uses this story as an illustration of forgetting, the central theme of his book.

The story of the white flag is also a story of forgetting, or – what comes to the same thing – the story of overwriting and erasure, and the creation of a new, perfect narrative that helps us forget the old, flawed one. And in both cases, the overwriting can never be complete. Just as the hat remains on Gottwald’s head, the white flag remains in Gijorkaster’s narrative of its surrender. Whatever stories we tell ourselves, something will always escape through the cracks.

Thinking of Kundera in a novel that was set in World War II seemed a little dissonant at first – until, reading on, I realised that the second half of the book is a savage, satirical critique of post-WW II Eastern European communism, placing it firmly in the Kundera tradition. Before that, however, is the description of the fateful dinner at Doctor Guremato’s house. Here, there were strong echoes of Sandor Marai’s Embers: two old friends dine together unexpectedly after many years, in an atmosphere tinged with nostalgia, melancholy and bitterness, with unanswered questions and no possibility of closure; with a dim grasping towards something already lost, whether it is personal loss, or national loss. In Kadare, of course, the stakes are much higher – one man is trying to convince the other not to kill a hundred human beings:

“Your country fired on me.”

“I answer for my own house, not the state.”

“It comes to the same.”

“It doesn’t come to the same. I’m not Albania, just as you’re not Germany, Fritz. We’re something else.” 

In another curious reminder of Kundera, this time of The Joke, these lines come back to haunt Doctor Guremato many years later, under the communists. I’m not Albania. We’re something else. This denial of community and nation is used to put Doctor Guremato on trial for crimes against the regime, as evidence of his participation in a vast Jewish conspiracy designed to topple communism. Under communism, of course, the merging of individual and community reaches its apotheosis; again, in lines strikingly reminiscent of Kundera, in particular, the eviscerating humour of Life is Elsewhere, Kadare’s narrator remarks at one point:

“… a senior cultural official complained that people were still singing songs of what might be called a private nature…” 

Before this comes to pass, however, we’re treated to a rather astonishing digression that might be right out of Swift or Rabelais: a few chapters on the “persecution of the city’s ladies.” There is a sudden transition from what, until now, has been a believable historical story, to that of a Quixotic allegorical world. The narrative breaks down, the tone changes, there is sudden disorientation. I must confess, this part of the novel passed me by entirely.

Just as abruptly as it begins, the playful surreality ends, and we’re back to reality – the new reality of postwar communist-ruled Albania. But this is no longer the world through Kundera’s eyes. It has become the much darker, grimmer world of Arthur Koestler and Danilo Kis: the world of interrogators and torture chambers, show trials and the savage twisting of narratives upon the torturer’s wheel. Doctor Guremato finds himself under the scanner because of his role on the day the Germans came to Gijorkaster; and as in Koestler and Kis, the goal of the interrogation is not to discover the “truth” (every last vestige of fact has already been extracted through torture and surveillance of others), but to force a confession and a repentance that strengthens the regime.

There is an inevitability about the ending. But what sets apart The Fall of the Stone City from the uncompromising bleakness of Darkness at Noon and A Tomb for Boris Davidovich is that even here, Kadare is unable (or unwilling) to entirely drop his lyrical style, a style most unsuited to the events that he is describing:

“But then another morning would dawn, ashen and exhausted, to confirm the view that time is the last thing in this world that is capable of renewal.”


“At first it was hard to find anything to accuse them of but soon it became easy enough. Just as the world was swept with wind and rain, so it was burdened with guilt. A share could be allotted to the doctors with plenty left over for others.”

When I first came upon these sentences, I paused, halted, and then read them over, twice, thrice, even four times. And perversely, it is the beauty of the prose that grips you in a way that forces your mind off the darkness of its subject matter.

As I said in the beginning, this is a curious book. I put it down with a sense of incompleteness; there seemed to be a smorgasbord of styles, themes and ideas jostling for space, not always harmoniously. Perhaps this makes this a modernist novel par excellence. But for me, apart from the patches of vintage Kadare, passages that exude a rare, elusive beauty, the novel qua novel disappointed. For the first time.


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“They all joined in the lament of the stars”: Dreams, narrative and epic poetry in Ismail Kadare’s Palace of Dreams

    “For in that nocturnal realm of sleep are to be found both the light and darkness of humanity; its honey and its poison, its greatness and its vulnerability. 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. Every passion or wicked thought, every affliction or crime, every rebellion or catastrophe necessarily casts its shadow before it long before it manifests itself in real life. It was for that reason that the Padishah decreed that no dream, not even one dreamed in the remotest part of the Empire on the most ordinary day by the most godforsaken creature, must fail to be examined by the Tabir Sarrail. And there’s another imperial or playder that is still more fundamental: the table drawn up after the dreams of every day, week and month have been collected, classified and studied must always be absolutely accurate….”

Fantasy and reality intertwine in strange – almost dreamlike ways – in Ismail Kadare’s Palace of Dreams. The setting is the heart of the Ottoman Empire – presumable sometime in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, based upon the stray reference to the Greek War of Independence. The historical Battle of Kosovo plays an important role, as do the very real political tensions between Albania (yet a province) and the Empire. And in the middle of all this, there is Tabir Sarrail, the Palace of Dreams, a mysterious, impenetrable and vitally important organ of the State, housed in a labyrinthine, inaccessible building, that is responsible for collecting, categorising and interpreting every dream that is dreamt by the inhabitants of the Empire.

    1984 meets The Castle, you might say. And true enough, there are traces of a totalitarian state operating through dream-control; and the dense, maze-like character of a building that comes to symbolise the stifling, entrapping coils of the State is certainly a trope from The Castle. But it would be reductive to simply classify Kadare as an elegant amalgam of Orwell and Kafka: The Palace of Dreams, like the rest of Kadare’s oeuvre, is a deeply subtle and thought-provoking work. To start with Kadare isn’t entirely interested in State totalitarianism. For instance, dreams are recorded at the behest of citizens – there is no extractor-machine that does the job. At the most basic level, therefore, dream collection is voluntary. And then again, for all of Tabir Sarrail’s twisting corridors, Mark-Alem (the story’s protagonist) always ends up finding his way around, either by asking helpful insiders (a category conspicuous by its absence from The Castle), or by blind luck.

Magical realism, you might say again. And there are traces of that too; yet Kadare is no Marquez or Rushdie or Ben Okri – it’s simply impossible to pin him down into a genre or a style; like The File on H, like Broken April, like The Siege – The Palace of Dreams merges reality and fantasy in a distinctly unique way; Kadare’s voice is his own.

Nonetheless, politics is deeply entwined with the story. As the excerpt above shows, the Empire has understood that the roots of all ideas that might one day become important enough to shake its very foundations, lie in dreams. Hence, the vast apparatus of collection, selection and interpretation; hence also, as Mark-Alem understands, the torture-chambers in the bowels of the Tabil Sarrail:

     “The copyist had said that it was obvious the prisoner couldn’t remember anything about his dream. 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… the more he thought about it the more it seemed this was the only explanation. 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 neutralize it.”

While one plot-line follows Mark-Alem in the Palace of Dreams, a parallel plot-line traces the travails of his family, the Quprilis, a powerful, once-Albanian clan whose fortunes have risen and fallen spectacularly during the course of its dealings with the Empire. Here, Kadare explores his favourite themes – the place of epic poetry in constructing a nation’s idea and vision of itself, and how such ideas and visions – and therefore, the telling of epic itself – come to be the site of deep political contestation (recollect The Siege and The File on H). There exists an Albanian epic about the Quprili clan, and at an important dinner party, one of them calls rhapsodists from Albania to sing the epic in Albanian (a rare and untoward occurrence, since the epic is normally sung in Slav). The description of the performance is poetry in prose, Kadare at his lyrical best:

    It was a voice in which the throat of man and the throat of mountains seemed, over ages, to have attuned themselves to one another, and merged. And so, with other voices, even more distant, until they all joined in the lament of the stars… then another rhapsodist started to sing the Ballad of the Bridge, and through the hush that surrounded it… Mark-Alem seemed to hear the blows of masons, building in the cold sunshine a bridge sullied with the blood of sacrifice. A bridge that would not only give the Quprili family its name, but would also mark them with its own doom. 

The dream-world of Tabir Sarrail and the epic-world of the Quprilis come clashing together in brutal fashion when the State decides to attack the clan for – presumably – its powerful Albanian connections, and uses the interpretation of a dream as justification: in the dream – dreamt by a nondescript individual – there is a bridge, a violin and an angry bull; the bridge is interpreted to be the Quprili clan (because in Albanian, the word means “bridge”), the violin their epic, and the angry bull an attack upon the State. The basic purpose is, of course, a deeply political struggle:

    “It’s an exceedingly complex business, to do with the settlements and transfers of populations in the Balkans… in short, it directly concerns the whole map of the Balkans. For this epic, as I said, is sung in two languages, Albanian and Slav, and is connected with the question of ethnic frontiers inside the Empire…”

The whole episode becomes a brilliant exploration of how narrative and discourse (in this case, the interpretation of a dream) is regularly pressed into service to disguise and legitimise nakedly political ends. Kadare is too subtle to draw blunt analogies – there is nothing strictly comparable to the using dream-interpretation in a power struggle; but dreams here could – and I think, are meant to – stand for techniques as diverse as religion on the one hand, and ideologies of racism on the other, and every other form of ideology in between. Because, as Mark-Alem recalls being told:

    So people said some Master-Dreams were forgeries; that they were fabricated in the Tabir Sarrail by the employees themselves, in accordance with the interests of powerful rival political groups or with the mood of the sovereign; that if not entirely, they were at least partly doctored. 

An old and basic point about how much of social reality is constructed, and then presented as being as immutable and unchangeable as the stars. In Kadare’s deft and skillful hands, it becomes the basis for a wonderful and moving story. Categorisations and constructions occur often, and eerily, but subtly:

    These dreams are those of the dark people, and the dreams opposite are those of the bright people. 


    “Dreams of the first period of captivity…” said the archivist, indicating the relevant shelves, “or as they’re also called, dreams of early captivity, to distinguish them from the later ones, the dreams of deep imprisonment. The two kinds are very different. In the same way as first loves are different from later ones.” 

The great thing about Kadare, as ever, is that all these numerous themes – dreams, ideology, politics, empire, epic poetry, nationhood – are kept together in a tense balance, entwined with each other and yet retaining their separate characters. And this tension is reflected, towards the end, in Mark-Alem’s own sense of confused displacement, of being in a world in which the centre can no longer hold, in words that perhaps ring even truer today than they did when Kadare wrote them:

    “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.

     It must have been snowing… there…”

A great book. On par with Broken April, The File on H and The Siege. Unequivocally recommended.


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Filed under Albania, Albanian Fiction, European Writing, Ismail Kadare, Ismail Kadare, Miscellaneous

“Beyond the glass was anguish and night”: Myth, tradition, causation and responsibility in Ismail Kadare’s, ‘Broken April’

In my last post, I wrote about how Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk deals principally with the effect of tradition and ideology upon the minds, the psyches and the actions of people subject to it. Ismail Kadare’s Broken April is a subtle and disturbing exploration of the same theme. Set in the heart of the Albanian mountains, Broken April is the story of Gjorg, a young man who is required by the traditional law of the community, the kanun, to kill the man who, in turn, had killed his brother, as part of a seventy-year old blood feud between two families. The blood feud itself had its origin in the killing of a guest of Gjorg’s family by a member of the other clan, at the borders of their village: according to the kanun, if the victim falls with his face towards the village, the duty of revenge lies upon his host, while if he falls away from the village, it is upon his family. The victim had fallen with his face to the village and so, over the last seventy years, the young men of both families have killed one another in sequence, revenge killing following revenge killing, in accordance with the rules of the kanun.

And once Gjorg does so as well, the same law of the blood feud mandates that he is then to be hunted down and killed in the same way – after a thirty-day truce period. Gjorg kills his man on the seventeenth day of March. The thirty days after which his life will be forfeit, the thirty days remaining to him of a normal human life, end on the seventeenth of April. Hence, the name of the book, Broken April: “half a March and half an April, like two broken branches glittering with frost.”

Much like Palace Walk, we are introduced to a society whose mores seem harsh, alien and utterly absurd. And once again, we are introduced to a cast of characters for whom even questioning, let alone challenging them, is utterly beyond the scope of their mental horizon. Kadare’s touch is deft: the influence of the kanun is felt in myriad different ways, percolating insidiously, almost unconsciously, into the very thinking of the characters. As Gjorg reflects on the origin of the blood feud, the killing of a guest of his family by a member of the enemy clan at the very borders of their village, a succession of thoughts passes through his mind:

“Oh, if only he had stopped a little further on… but he had stopped exactly where he had, and no-one could change that anymore, no more than anyone could change the direction in which the victim had fallen, no more than anyone could change the rules of the ancient kanun…”

In Gjorg’s mind, the rules of the kanun, which are human creations, if anything is, are assimilated, in their invariance, to a question of pure chance (a guest picking one particular random door to knock on) and the laws of physics (the direction in which a bullet-victim falls). And just as one cannot question, object to or challenge chance of physics, just as one can do nothing but accept them as they are, and plan to live one’s life in accordance with their dictates, so is the influence of the kanun upon the community. The point is hammered home by the fact that what Gjorg holds responsible as the ultimate cause of the blood feud, the cause of his own suspended sentence of death, is not the (human-made) prescriptions of the kanunbut the knocking of the guest upon their door, seventy years ago. It is akin to holding Julius Caesar’s great-grandparents responsible for the destruction of the Roman Republic; we recognise the absurdity of the claim because while, in one sense, Caesar’s great-grandparents  are a cause of the destruction of the Roman Republic, we do not hold them responsible for it – the responsibility lies with Caesar’s actions. Conflating the two would indicate a serious lapse in our moral framework – just as Gjorg’s own analysis of his situation, in conflicting causal and responsible factors appears, to the sensibilities with which we approach the novel, a serious moral error.

This, then, is the kanun – inevitable as chance, immutable as nature. But there is something more to it. Because Gjorg has spent his entire conscious life in the shadow of the kanun‘s blood-feud rules, he cannot even conceptualize an alternative life:

“Beyond the blood-law. He almost let out a sigh. What must life be like in a such families. How did they get up in the mornings and how did they go to bed at night? It all seemed almost incredible, as remote perhaps, as the life of birds.”

Like all cast-iron traditions, the kanun exists and maintains its hold by giving life a meaning, a meaning that would be lost if the kanun were to disappear, reducing life to an unbearable husk drifting aimlessly across an ocean of nothingness. Through his suspended sentence of death, because of his suspended sentence of death, Gjorg feels life throbbing in his veins, a life that is denied to those who live prosaically outside the blood-feud bind:

“He felt that his heart leaped from his chest, and, opened up in that way he was vulnerable, sensitive to everything, so that he might rejoice in anything, be cast down by anything, small or large – butterfly, a leaf, boundless snow…”

With heightened senses, everything appears sharper, and with dazzling clarity, a clarity of the fragile and passing nature of everything, the very nature that imbues life with meaning:

“The world shone like glass, and with a kind of crystal madness, it seemed that it might begin to slip at any moment and shatter into thousands of tiny fragments.”

But into this bleak and frightening world enter two strangers: Bessian, a writer, who has written panegyrics to the mountains and the mountaineers, and his newly-wedded wife, Diana. At a roadside inn, Bessian and Diana catch a glimpse of Gjorg, who must travel to the castle of the “Prince”, in order to pay the blood-feud tax. As Bessian explains the rules of the kanun, with its “towers of silence” – dark towers where killers can retreat to live forever, exempt from being hunted down, fed by family members who place bowls of food on the threshold – and its “safe roads”, where alone, in all the mountains, there is permanent truce – Diana’s imagination is captured by the inevitable, approaching death of Gjorg, combined with her horror of the kanun and its rules. And before Diana’s understandable shock, Bessian’s attempts to romanticise the custom seem pale and contrived:

“It is at once terrible, absurd, fatal, like all the really important things…” 

But it doesn’t feel important. It feels absurd and unnecessary, a tragic waste of human life. The feeling is driven home later, when Bessian and Diana are guests of the Prince and his kinsman. At dinner, Diana’s skepticism has a disconcerting effect upon the kinsman:

“Some of the opinions offered – quite discreetly, by his master, the prince, which had always seemed to him to have the force of law, to be beyond discussion, quietly fell apart annihilated, as soon as they came before that young woman’s eyes…”

Because what we accept as natural, as fixed by unchallengeable decree, can be ripped off its foundations in the face of the incredulity and incomprehension of another, someone who doesn’t, after all, accept it as given. That is one way. The other way is to historicise tradition, to examine its construction and the motivations of those who maintain it. Later, Bessian gets into a violent argument with the medical assistant of a community judge, a man who measures the depth and extent of wounds in order that the appropriate permissible revenge, in accordance with the kanun, may be calculated by the judge. A city man himself, rationalist and skeptical, the doctor meets Bessian’s lyricisation of the kanun with all the withering force of Marxist materialism. The blood feud, he explains to Bessian, has long transformed itself into an inhuman machine, a capitalist enterprise aimed at and run with the objective of making profit, especially during a time of economic problems: the blood tax is the focal point of the economy of the blood-feud, and it is in the personal interest of the Prince and those who depend upon it to have it continue unabated, at the cost of sustained and continuous killing. Bessian is furious; but as we see the Prince’s kinsman lodging the numbers of those killed in a daily ledger-book, lamenting the steady decline over the course of the years, and almost weeping with relief when Gjorg’s arrival ensures that the 17th of March did not become the first day in three centuries without a single blood-feud death, the tradition loses whatever glory Gjorg’s own reflections, and Bessian’s paeans, almost convinced us of. We feel more inclined to agree with Diana, as she berates her husband:

“Your books, your art, they all smell of murder.”

As the book hurtles towards a climax, with Diana seeking the man who had captured her imagination, who she feels is her “mountain Hamlet”, and Gjorg himself frantically seeking her, the woman he had glimpsed for a moment in a carriage, before his broken April runs out – these parallel themes of myth, tradition and the clash of moral frameworks become inextricably intertwined with one another, so that at the end of it all, there are no conclusions: it is with a haunting sense of ambiguity that one closes the book, a sense that remains long afterwards.

And in addition to that, the book, like all great books, – while in no sense aiming to be didactic, in any shape or form – invites us to think; to think deeply about whether the assumptions that we hold for ourselves as given, as immutable, as simply natural cannot themselves, when viewed from a different vantage point, appear irrational, contrived and absurd. We are in a position where we can despair at the savagery of the kanun, and lament Gjorg’s servile submission to it – what then is our own equivalent of the kanun?

Lastly, a note on language: I’ve mentioned before how Kadare is a beautiful writer; his use of imagery and metaphor to establish mood is brilliant, and his prose leaps off the page – singing, dancing with abandon. A few of the more outstanding examples:

“He had the feeling that bits of his brain had frozen, like those patches of snow along the sides of the road.”

“Little by little the stories came out from under their cloaks, like blackbeetles, wandered out quietly, passed one another.”

“Stone casts a heavy shadow.” 

“… silent but not completely desolate as a field strewn with stars might be desolate.”

I cannot recommend this book – and Kadare in general – highly enough.


Filed under Albania, Ismail Kadare

“This world is an orphanage for fallen stars”: narrative, war and orientalism in Ismail Kadare’s “The Siege”

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.


Filed under Albania, Edward Said, European Writing, Ismail Kadare, Postcolonial Theory

A Kind of Poetical Galaxy: Ismail Kadare’s The File on H

“The droplets of condensation on the window pane reminded her of tears on a tragic-comic mask…”

Oral poetry fascinates me. In particular, I’ve always found the story of Milman Parry and Albert Lord’s pathbreaking investigations into the origins of the Homeric epic – that I wrote about here – spellbinding. So when, in Aeneid lectures this week, the professor informed us that Ismail Kadare’s (a name I was hearing for the first time) The File on H was an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the oral epic, I promptly issued it from the Balliol library.

A quick google reveals that Kadare is considered to be the foremost Albanian writer and poet of the 20th century (whatever that might mean or signify), and that he won the inaugural Man Booker International Award in 2005. Here is the blurb:

Society in rural Albania had evolved little since the Middle Ages. What better place in which two Irish-American scholars might study the tradition of oral poetry, in the hope of understanding how Homeric epics came to be composed and handed down, to elucidate the strange commerce between memory and forgetting. The small country town through which they pass, and the remote inn that serves as their base, are not left unaffected, however, by their presence: the society ladies, and not least the restless and ambitious wife of the Governor, insist on having their due; the Governor himself is under instructions from the Minister for the Interior to spy on the scholars’ activities, which are assumed to be an insidious form of espionage; and the notion of trapping the speech of the traveling rhapsodes in their new-fangled tape-recorder excites fear and outrage in a country where even a person’s shadow, let alone his voice, is considered capable of capture and annihilation. The two simple, dedicated scholars realise only too late that they have stumbled over an ant’s nest…

This is a brilliant book. In it, the bleakness of Kafka meets the laughter of Wodehouse; the unsparing psychological portraits of Maupassant mingle with the surrealism of Garcia Marquez; and the whole work is shot through with a wistful yearning for days past, a brooding reflection on memory and loss, and a dirge for the breaking of things.

As the blurb suggests, the story is a fictional re-telling of the Parry-Lord journey to central Europe to solve the Homeric question by examining a living oral epic tradition. Of course, while Parry and Lord went to Bosnia, Max and Bill, their (fictional) equivalents, journey to Albania. But, just like Parry and Lord, they too carry with them the recently-invented tape-recording technology, desperate to salvage something of a dying tradition, in the last place where it yet survives, before it is gone forever.

Kadare begins with a series of acute portrayals of life in a provincial Albanian town, with all its dreariness, weariness and ennui, a world seen most starkly through the eyes of the deeply frustrated wife of the governor.

“She picked up the telephone under her customary cloud of melancholy, condensed from dozens of disappointments when, on hearing the same bell ring, she had rushed to it in the hope of hearing some really uplifting news that would relieve the monotony of her life, only to hear through the perforated Bakelite her husband’s trivial interrogations…”

And when the news of the foreigners first arrives:

“…and the day, wound up like a string by that bell, had been transformed from a slack stretch of time into its opposite – into a day full of surprise and mystery…”

Setting off a rapid chain of fantasising:

“… and she imagined herself in the arms of the one, then in the arms of the other, dancing the tango to the tune called “Jealousy…”


She ran back to the phone but as she picked up the receiver she froze. Before passing on such radiant news to the postmaster’s wife she felt the need to savour it all alone for a little longer…”


“Chaotically, without seeking to make her mind keep to any logical sequence, she saw herself first entangled with the hairy redhead, Max Ross, not because she was really attracted to him, but by force of circumstance, or rather by the desire to encounter the whole range of initial emotions, exhaustively and sophisticatedly (rivalry, exacerbated jealous etc.) before plunging fully into an affair with the other, Bill.”

And for the governor himself:

Good God, how do you manage to keep the same smile on your face for hours at a stretch, for dozens of people?


with his early-evening smile upon his face…

The characterisation is sparse, spare, almost like – to use a pet analogy of mine – an impressionist painting, leaving the reader to complete the vision with his mind’s eye. And, like the best of impressionist paintings, it is utterly compelling.

Things begin to get complicated when spies are deputed to watch the movements of the Irishmen, suspected as they are (as all foreigners are) of unknown and unknowably nefarious purposes. Here is where we begin to get drawn into a Kafka-esque world of the infinite State with its labyrinthine machines and machinations, but unlike Kafka, Kadare is relentlessly humorous; his spies and his provincial officials are so puffed up, so taken in by their own sense of self-importance, so utterly mock-Machiavellian, that it is impossible to be bogged down by the crushing inevitability of individual destruction that accompanies The Castle or The Trial. Of course, the shadow of secret police, show trials, purges and darkness at noon is ever-present in the background, and a distinct sense of unease pervades the novel, but it never grows to define it. So, consider:

“He tried to get “notwithstanding” into his report three times over, but however hard he tried, he could not manage to get it in the right place; it stuck out from the other words like a foreign body, like an unacceptable and even comical intrusion, and he crossed it out three times over with a stroke of the pen that was more like the lash of a whip. “oh, oh,” he groaned aloud. A vulgar little spy who can write better than I can! Well, anyway, he added by way of self-consolation, flowers also grow better on dunghills. “

And then, with these two themes playing in the background, as Max and Bill arrive in the old inn at the crossroads of the rhapsodes’ ways, we begin to slip into the theme of epic. We are informed, early on, about how their project is not simply a work of detached, academic investigation into the Homeric question. Rather:

“For more than a thousand years, Albanians and Slavs had been in ceaseless conflict in this area. They had quarreled over everything – over land, over boundaries, over pastures and watering holes, and it would have been entirely unsurprising had they also disputed the ownership of local rainbows. And as if that were not enough, they were also squabbling over the ancient epics which existed, just to make things completely intractable, in both languages, Albanian and Serbo-Croatian. Each of the two people asserted that it had created the epic, leaving the other nation the choice of being considered either a thief or a mere imitator.”

And, as Bill reminds Max, their work on Homer plunges them right into the conflict, working on a question, as they are, that will decide the controversy of historical precedence in the occupation of the Balkan peninsula. If, as they suspect, they find evidence linking the Albanian epic to the Greek, then it is proof that Albanian were present in the Balkans during classical times, and certainly before the Serbo-Croats. Epic poetry will become a formidable weapon in political conflict.

As the Irishmen’s work goes on, we are taken deeper into the nuances of oral epic poetry. We are introduced to the core of the oral tradition, the formulaic epithet, that tool both of memory and of metre:

What shifts and what stays fixed in epic poetry? Is there an unchanging core of material that ensures the integrity of the art-form over the centuries?… up to now we believed that the anchoring role was played by the figures of speech, the models or fixed forms of the language, or, to put it another way, the basic moulds into which epic material was poured… so we were convinced that the ancient laboratory’s linguistic equipment, which was itself unchanging, guaranteed the homogeneity of its poetic production. 

That is the standard Parry-Lord thesis. But, as Bill and Max find out, even the formulae are subject to change, albeit slowly and incrementally. And it is linked, in the end, to the art of forgetting – what prevents the epic from attrition – or dissolution – is the individual rhapsode’s ability to both remember and forget – to add as well as subtract from the corpus available to him.

“How are we going to know why and by what mysterious means a line that has been forgotten and shrouded in darkness for years may emerge into the light once again? And that’s leaving aside the fact that the phenomenon occurs not just within the repertoire of an individual rhapsode, but, as if carried along by a subterranean stream, an omitted line can be restored by some other rhapsode in a different time and place. Epic fragments seem able to climb out of the gave where the bard’s body has been rotting away for years, claw their way through the earth, and come alive in another’s song, as if death had not changed them at all.”

I think what’s important about the passage is its re-emphasis on an idea that cannot be stressed enough: assumptions of individuality and authorship, assumptions that we bring unthinkingly to our reading of written texts, simply don’t apply to the oral tradition which is, in a very Eliotic sense, a “tradition“. The image of a stream, a stream of epic that flows through time and space, borne along by the currents of its own logic, independent of individual efforts to dam or direct it, is a very striking one. As the scholars recognise, at another point, while they muse upon the history of epic poetry:

They thought that if Homer’s version of the Iliad had not been written down and subsequently published, then it too could easily have been fragmented and then been reassembled later on into a quite different shape. The cycles of condensation and dissolution of this kind of epic poetry must have some resemblance to the cycles of creation, fragmentation and re-creation of possible worlds from cosmic dust… more and more, epic poetry seemed to the like a kind of poetical galaxay under the sway of mysterious forces.

So much for that. As the reader approaches the book – especially a reader aware of the work of Parry and Lord, he is undoubtedly very sympathetic to the project. Saving – rescuing – salvaging – preserving for posterity – these are the things that come to mind when one contemplates what Bill and Max are trying to do. They are trying to keep a dying tradition alive by recording the songs of the last of the oral rhapsodes.

And yet, is it truly that simple? At the end of the first recording, when the Irishmen – and we – are flushed with a sense of triumph, of having participated in a great and memorable moment, of having set out on the road to making a fundamental contribution to the world’s heritage, we are given the first, faint sense of something being wrong. Because, when they play back the recorder, and the rhapsode’s now-artificial voice fills the room, Bill and Max feel that:

There was something quite horrifying about this disconnection, this removal of a man from the attributes which give him his distinct and independent existence. 

But what, precisely, is so horrifying about this? I don’t think that this is a point about imitation in general, but is uniquely characteristic of oral poetry. That is because, as I discussed earlier, when writing on Parry-Lord, the “distinct and independent existence” of the performer is one of the cornerstones of oral poetry. There is no original, no standard, no text; on the contrary, each performance is an act of creation, and each performer an author many times over. And this, of course, changes fundamentally with the advent of a device like the tape-recorder. As Kadare writes:

The rhapsodist is the main wheel in the machinery of the epic. He is publisher, bookseller and librarian all at once, and also rather more than that: he is a posthumous co-author and, in this capacity, has the right to amend the text. It’s perfectly legal, no-one disputes his right, and no one criticizes him for doing so, except perhaps his own conscience.  

Of course, I have serious reservations about using the word “text” and “amend” at all (I wonder if something’s been lost in translation), because we know from Parry and Lord that in oral poetry, there is no such thing as a “text”, and consequently, no such thing as an “amendation” (since you need a standard to amend). But that minor quibble apart, what changes with the advent of the tape-recorder is precisely what changes with the advent of the written word – the creation of a model, a standard. And as Parry and Lord tell us, the written word destroyed the oral. Ex hypothesi, does not a recording device serve exactly the same function as the written word?

At some points, the thought occurs to Bill and Max themselves:

On other occasions they told themselves that oral epic could only ever exist in the scattered form in which they found it, and they there were betraying and altering their material by trying to put its pieces together. In that way of thinking, oral recitation was less like a poetic entity than a medieval order… 

And certainly, to the locals. This, from a conversation:

“This machine walls up the ancient songs, imprisons them within itself, and you know as well as I do what happens to a song when you wall up is voice. It’s like when you wall up a man’s shadow. He wilts and dies. That’s what happens to him. It doesn’t matter to me, I’m only a foreigner myself, my land and my Serbian songs are far away in a safe place, but I deplore what’s going on for your sake. With this machine these Irishmen will cut limbs from your body. They’ll mow down all those old songs that are the joy of life, and without them it will be like being deaf. You’ll wake up one fine morning and find yourselves in a desert and you’ll hold your heads in your hands; but meanwhile, those devils will have fled far away. They’ll have robbed you of everything, and you’ll be condemned to deafness for the rest of your lives.”

Normally, we would be inclined to give this short shrift, since the conversation occurs in a deeply political context, and the monologue is clearly motivated by nationalist fervour. Nonetheless, Kadare has destabilised our conceptions enough, by now, to make us wonder: could there actually be a kernel of truth in this? Can the nature of oral poetry ever remain the same once it has been recorded? Even if, like Parry and Lord, like Bill and Max, your purpose is to preserve as much as you can, as many versions of the same story (does that even make grammatical sense in the context of oral poetry) – because what you’ll have at the end of that is multiple standards/models, but standards and models nonetheless.

Is the very idea of “preservation” antithetical to the essence of oral poetry? 

And does that mean that if oral poetry is dying, we are faced with the grim choice of either letting it die or, by preserving it, change its fundamental character – so that oral poetry is dead anyway? And what ought we to do.

Kadare is profoundly ambivalent on this point, an ambivalence that is summed up towards the end, as Bill and Max reflect on their work:

Whereas they had previously despaired at the dispersion of the Albanian epic tradition, they now felt reassured that the entire corpus was in good order. What to begin with had seemed like shards scattered through space and time, as ungraspable as the mane of rainbows, as wind and burnt dust, and quite impossible to collect, was now locked in numbered metal reel cases. Sometimes it seemed hard to credit that they had managed to tame all that hatred and all that passion. 

As the underlined phrases suggest – and as the images of “locking” and “taming”, as opposed to “ungraspable” signify – the soul of oral poetry lies in its resistance to being caught, labeled, classified, pinned down, defined. Once you do accomplish that, you lose something precious.

What conclusions, then, are we meant to draw about the project? At times it seems absurd to even begin to doubt, to doubt the value of Parry-Lord’s work, and the worth of their discoveries, their contribution to our knowledge about a great field of human endeavour. But Kadare makes us wonder. And the ending – which I won’t spoil here – only serves to make the ambivalence deeper and more profound.

As is the case with the best of books, you can’t quite sleep at night after having turned the last page.

Kadare’s Wiki entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ismail_Kadare

The File on H: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_File_on_H

The opening page: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/k/kadare-file.html

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/95916.The_File_on_H


Filed under Albania, Epic, European Writing, Homer, Ismail Kadare, Milman Parry & Albert Lord