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by : Ray
Published 13 March 2009

Some Ismail Kadare books

Chronicle in Stone (1970) [1]

A homely and almost nostalgic evocation of life in a sleepy provincial Albanian town in the 1940s before, during, and after its occupation by Italian, German and partisan forces (in that sequence) during the Second World War. The politics are almost surprisingly non-committal, a characteristic of all Kadare’s oeuvre, and not at all as engaged as one might have expected in a text about the wartime published in 1970 in that rigorous people’s democracy. The part I liked best was in any case the superb long introductory chapter describing the town before war and politics got under way in a big way, masterfully presenting us with the steep winding streets and the sloping roofs and the intricate system of gravity-driven water drainage and the general relaxed and timeless atmosphere of this picturesque mountain town, based certainly on Kadaré’s own home town of Girocaster in southern Albania.

The Siege (1970) [2]

A historical novel of exceptional force recounting the siege of a strategic mountain citadel in Albania by the forces of the expanding Turkish empire in the mid-15th Century, as seen through the eyes of a Turkish chronicler accompanying the invasion force, interspersed with short extracts from the journal of an Albanian defender of the besieged fortress. Little known outside of that small but distinctive corner of Europe, this struggle of Homeric proportions lasted for twenty-five years as the Albanian defenders under the leadership of their national hero Skanderberg resisted year after year the all-out assaults by the most powerful empire in the world, fresh from its historic triumph in Constantinople, until the arrival of the fall rains each year, announced by the military drums referred to in the French title (Les Tambours de la Pluie) signalled the forced retreat of the invasion forces for the winter season and the disgrace and probable execution of the failed Turkish commander.

Appointed by the Sultan to record truthfully for posterity the coming victory, the chronicler is a cultivated and erudite member of the Turkish elite whose open mind, free-ranging conversations and alert observations give us a an objective and dispassionate but extraordinarily vivid and impressive picture of this awesome struggle. With this view from the inside we fraternize, in a natural and almost relaxed way that immerses the reader in what just must be the authentic atmosphere of a vast military force on campaign, with the leaders and officers and rank-and-file soldiers of the many specialized corps - cavalry, archers, artillery units, assault troops, janissaries and others, notably the fearsome final-assault shock troops for whom the punishment for retreat was death - to penetrate their soldiery façade and apprehend their individuality and their humanity while they are struggling to overwhelm the enemy citadel and impose the law of the Sultan and of Islam on this last bastion of resistance to Turkish expansion in the Balkans, even though our sympathies cannot help but lie with those on the ramparts who are offering such determined and unexpected and long-lasting resistance.

Written with finesse and intensity and a subtle sense of the infinite complexity of the forces that drive men to be what they are and to do what they do, this gripping account of a very real drama is perhaps the most flawless of Kadare’s considerable and admirable oeuvre.

The Sunset of the Gods of the Steppe (1978) [3]

The life of an Albanian student in Moscow in the sixties among the community of foreign students from all over the "socialist" world, before the breaking-off of relations between the Soviet Union and Albania and the recall of the Albanian students. One of the numerous highlights of this early Kadare novel (what a superb title - always a good sign!), finally published in 1978, is the account of the Orwellian campaign against Boris Pasternak throughout the Soviet Union and especially in the university milieu that broke out on his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Dr. Jivago. A very interesting and attractively written book that has well withstood the test of time.

The Three-Arched Bridge (1978) [4]

A monk in 14th-century medieval Albania recounts his version of the building of a historic bridge whose saga has since entered the folk mythology of the land of the eagles. Kadare’s fluid storytelling style effortlessly recreates the atmosphere of those far-off times, and, as usual when he turns his attention to past events in his strange and complex native land, he transmits an aura of almost cosmic significance to the events described, in this case taking place shortly before the five-century-long Ottoman occupation. A most impressive work indeed, one of my favourites of one of my favourite authors.

Broken April (1980) [5]

A cosmopolitan writer and his newly-wed wife drive through the mountains of northern Albania in a timeless period which could be the twenties or thirties on their honeymoon, where they cross the pass of a young man who has just revenged the murder of a member of his family and who is on a trek to the place where tribute must be paid according to the age-old feudal rites of the Kankun, the time-honoured custom that has governed the practise of honour killings in that region of Albania throughout the centuries. The story balances between the two sets of actors in the drama, the city couple on the one hand and the youth and his pursuers on the other hand, who are honour bound to revenge in turn the killing, already the 70th in a long dispute whose precise origin no one can remember any more. This stark, powerful story mounts with a constant sense of foreboding towards the inevitably tragic denouement in a driving, forceful way that left me shaken and moved by the darker side of this life on earth.

After Kadare’s artful account of the implacable rigour of this age-old mechanism for solving the overpopulation problem in this strange, mysterious, sombre land - a custom that has survived determined efforts to suppress it by successive regimes for centuries right up to our own time - one can better understand the persistence of vendetta practices elsewhere, even though nothing, absolutely anywhere, can compare with what has been going on in those Albanian mountains, believe me.

Another example of the talent, indeed I would say the genius, of this admirable author who has such a gift for making whatever aspect of the life and history of his beloved homeland that he turns his attention to acquire a universal significance and import.

Doruntine (1980) [6]

This fable in the form of a short novel/longish short story about a daughter’s long-awaited but finally mysterious homecoming, set in an indeterminate past (or present?) in the land of the eagles, is based on an ancient Albanian legend, as is often the case with Kadare, who has a way of making his small out-of-the-way mountainous homeland seem to be one of the most interesting and significant countries on earth.

The Flight of the Migrant and other stories (1981) [7]

Three longish short stories or "micro-novels" (to use the author’s term) set in contemporary Albania by a master who has the gift of being able to find universal significance in almost all aspects of past and present life in that small peripheral Balkan land. Here the pace grows in crescendo from a first calm account of that country’s changing contemporary political destiny, The Knight With the Flower, as reflected in the changing destinies of an elegant hunting lodge used by the dignitaries of each succeeding regime. The pace and the tension build up with the second story, History of the Writer’s Union, where the stultified but precarious and ever-exposed existence of the "intellectual workers" in a totalitarian regime is just so well described and brought to life. And the third, title story, The Flight of the Migrator, is a sheer masterpiece, recounting the epic confrontation of the country’s hallowed Leader with an aged bard as seen through the (extremely funny) interior monologue of a politically prudent narrator.

This is classy writing of the very highest order by one of those writers who can apparently do just about anything better than just about anyone else.

Invitation to an Official Concert and other stories (1985) [8]

Another remarkable set of stories delving ever deeper into the amazingly rich culture, past and present, of that faraway corner of Europe, Albania, by one of my very favourite contemporary authors. Why? Because:
a) all of his novels and stories somehow manage to have remarkable depth and scope, to attain a certain undefinable but very real atmosphere of significance;
b) his writing, which seems to come across particularly well in French (and there does seem to be a kind of empathy between the two languages, if one can judge by the attachment so many Albanians seem to have for the land of Voltaire) is so fluid and rich and pleasurable to read, with the possible exception of his very latest works;
c) Albania does come across as a particularly interesting place, when portrayed by such a masterful pen!

Clair de lune (1985) [9]

A short but incisive novel about the devastating effect on a young woman’s previously tranquil life of an organized calumny about her morals which menaces to cost her her job and her career in the rigidly closed Stalinist world of Albania in the mid-1980s. The injustice of the cabal mounted against the heroine Marianne, a laboratory assistant dedicated to her profession, by a scheming older woman jealous of her youth and beauty, using the leverage of the party and the trade-union hierarchy to politicize the vicious slander campaign against her, subtly but unequivocally highlights the power of a totalitarian regime to impose conformity and subservience at all levels of society, a fact that did not escape the attention of the regime at the time, which initiated a purge process against the author just after its publication - fortunately ended by the death of the dictator Enver Hodja on the opening day of the kangaroo trial mounted against Kadare by Hodja’s wife and the official Albanian Writer’s Congress.

The Concert (1988) [10]

A long and somewhat rambling account of what it was like to live in "socialist" Albania during the seventies when Albania was the only ally in Europe of the communist regime in China, towards the wild and crazy end of the Cultural Revolution and of the rule of Mao, when the future of both countries and even the whole world was being decided by a tiny handful of men - and a women, Mao’s sinister wife, even nuttier and bloodthirstier than the dictator himself.

The Pyramid (1992) [11]

One of my favourite writers, but this is not one of my favourite books of his. This is one of Kadare’s rare escapades into literature not centered on the history past or present of his mysterious native land, Albania, an experience he has not renewed since unless I am mistaken. Kadare sees ancient Egypt as a sort of prototype of the ultra-centralized (which it was) modern totalitarian state, where a soulless bureaucracy manipulated helpless masses of slave labour. I would recommend any of his many other fine novels such as his powerful historical dramas The Three-Arched Bridge and The Siege, or the poetical The Palace of Dreams, or the powerful vendetta drama Broken April, or the wartime Chronicle of the Village of Stone and The General of the Dead Army, for starters, in preference to this one.

A second reading confirmed my initial disappointed reaction to this book, which, it may be noted in passing, was the first (and, I do believe, the only) novel that Kadare wrote directly in French.

The Successor (2003) [12]

A quite fascinating fictionalized investigation into the sudden death by firearm (officially suicide) of the designated successor to the Albanian supreme dictator Enver Hodja, who ruled that tiny but ever-so-significant (under Kadare’s masterful pen) communist country for ages after the Second World War. Kadare’s precise, elegant prose carries us along effortlessly as we plunge ever deeper into the Orwellian atmosphere of a political drama in a totally totalitarian state where people hardly dare even mention the name of the supreme and seemingly omnipresent dictator.

Notes

[1Chroniques de la ville de pierre, Folio, 316 p.

[2Les tambours de la pluie, Folio, 332 p.

[3Le crépuscule des dieux de la steppe, Le Livre de Poche Biblio, 189 p.

[4Le Pont aux trois arches, GF Flammarion, 158 p.

[5Avril brisé, le Livre de Poche Biblio, 216 p.

[6Qui a rameuté Doruntine ?, Livre de poche biblio, 153 p.

[7L’Envol du migrateur, Le Livre de Poche Biblio, 155p.

[8Invitation à un concert officiel et autres récits, Fayard, 293 p.

[9Livre de Poche biblio, 125 p.

[10Le Livre de Poche, 628 p.

[11La Pyramide, Livre de Poche, 185 p.

[12Le Livre de Poche biblio, 217 p.