The (London), Jun 24, 2005 by DAVID BELLOS
Next Monday, Ismail Kadare will accept the first Man Booker International
Prize, in Edinburgh. He has for long been the best- known Albanian writer
of his generation, perhaps of all time, and is one of the most remarkable
European novelists of the 20th century. His work is as immense as Balzac's,
as unrelenting in its critique of dictatorship as Orwell's, and as disturbingly
fantastical as Kafka's. It is an invention as well as a reflection of
what it means to be Albanian, and an exploration of both the ugliness
and the dignity of a small, ancient, oppressed nation. Kadare is perhaps
the last 'national writer' of European history.
The son of a minor non-communist official and a mother from a wealthier
background, Kadare was born in 1936. He grew up in the walled city of
Gjirokaster, not far from the Greek border, and also the home town of
Enver Hoxha " the 'Red Sultan' of Albania from 1945 to 1985. The
city and its atmosphere are recreated in Chronicle in Stone (1970; Serpent's
Kadare was a brilliant student at Tirana University, and published poems
in his teens. Albania was a Soviet satellite, and in 1960 he was sent
to Moscow to pursue his education. After Hoxha broke off relations with
the Soviet Union, he was obliged to return to Tirana. Albania remained
an isolated nation and a closed society until Hoxha launched the strangest
alliance of modern times, with Mao's China.
Written around the time of his return from Moscow, Kadare's first published
novel deals with the bizarre duties of an Italian general sent to Albania
to gather the remains of soldiers who had fallen during the war against
Greece. The General of the Dead Army (1963; Harvill) established his reputation;
it was translated and turned into a film starring Marcelo Mastroianni.
Its ostensible subject covers deeper themes, inherited from Greek myths,
Shakespeare and the German romantics.
Kadare probably owes his own survival in a backward country ruled by paranoia
and repression to The Great Winter (1973), which recounts Albania's split
with the Soviet Union and includes a picture of Hoxha himself. Kadare
described the novel as the price he had to pay for his freedom. Hoxha
was reluctant to ban the book, since that would involve eradicating a
not unflattering portrait of himself, and refrained from persecuting its
author. All the same, Kadare often sailed perilously close to the wind
and many other texts were banned.
Some he smuggled out of the country as pages stuffed inside wine bottles.
From 1965 to 1998, all his 'permitted' novels were translated into French
by an Albanian, Jusuf Vrioni. The status Kadare acquired inside Albania
and, especially, internationally made him one of the very few Albanians
allowed to travel abroad. A visit to Turkey in the 1970s brought him into
contact with the great scholar of Balkan oral epics, Albert Lord: the
result was a novel about the struggle for national identity, The File
on H (1981; Harvill).
But Kadare's writing is always set in Albania " even if that sad
land sometimes appears disguised as Egypt (The Pyramid, 1992; Harvill)
or the Ottoman Empire (Palace of Dreams, 1981; Harvill). Broken April
(1978; Vintage), perhaps the most widely-read of his novels in English,
is a harrowing narrative of the ancient customs of blood feud. Indirectly,
though, it is an oblique assertion of the permanence of Albanian civilisation.
The film version, made by Walter Salles in 2001 as Behind the Sun, transposes
the story to Brazil and abandons the political subtext.
Kadare's mere survival in an environment as hostile as Hoxha's Albania
led many in the West to suspect him of compromise, or worse. His appointment
as a member of parliament misled many into thinking him sympathetic to
the regime. It has now been shown that these suspicions were unfounded,
and that Kadare's remarkable story is one of courage, persistence, wiliness
" and luck.
In 1985, Hoxha was succeeded by Ramiz Alia, who maintained a Stalinist
regime. Kadare fled to Paris in 1990; he was granted political asylum,
and awarded French nationality. Since the collapse of the Alia regime
in 1991, he has divided his life between Paris and Tirana. As a 'privileged
resident' of the Latin Quarter, he has used his influence to promote other
Albanian poets and novelists. His own rate of production remains intense.
Even while revising his opus for a bilingual series for Fayard, he has
brought out new work at high speed. Long-suppressed novels, new ones portraying
post-Communist Albania through the lenses of myth and dream (Spring Flowers,
Spring Frost, 2000; Vintage), and retrospectives of the mental tortures
of life under tyranny (The Successor, 2003) continue to flow.
With each new work connected to all the others, the Kadarean universe
goes on acquiring ever greater self-sufficiency. It adds up to a portrait
of an imaginary land " Kadaria, some have called it " with a
single, central topic: how to remain human in a world ruled by fear and
suspicion. It is a singular, magnificent achievement, and has long been
thought worthy of the highest honour.
David Bellos has translated Kadare's 'The File
on H', 'The Pyramid' (Harvill) and 'Spring Flowers, Spring Frost' (Vintage).
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