death had undone so many
“That corpse you
planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
“Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
“You! hypocrite lecteur! - mon semblable, - mon frere!”
- T. S. Eliot The Waste Land
It does not pay to disturb the dead. Because the dead are not simply a
collection of loose bones that can be thrust into a body bag. The dead
are memory. They are tiny worlds of feeling that have been lulled very
gently to sleep and must not be woken again. When you open a grave, when
you violate a tomb, you disturb the spirit - not the spirit of ectoplasmic
beings that keep watch over us, but the spirit that lurks in the hearts
of men. And therein lies a great risk.
This is the central idea of Ismail Kadare’s The General of the Dead Army.
The plot of the novel is simple - 20 years after the end of the Second
World War, an Italian general is despatched to Albania to recover the
bodies of the Italian soldiers who lie buried there. On the surface, this
is a petty, administrative task, but it is one charged with great emotional
significance, and the difficulties attendant upon it, both physical and
psychological prove to be different from and more taxing than the General
had first expected.
To begin with, simply retrieving the bodies themselves is no easy matter.
The mountain terrain is inhospitable, the bodies have been buried for
years and are often hard to locate, there is the risk of infection, and
the people of the country are naturally hostile and suspicious. The Italians
are the enemy, after all, twenty years of peace have not dulled the local
population’s memory of that, and the General himself is acutely aware
of being in a foreign land, among a different people. Fortunately, the
General and his party come well-equipped with lists and maps, so that
their task goes on apace, though it still proves less tractable than they
The larger difficulty is emotional. From the day he is first given the
task of bringing these bodies back, the General finds himself drawn into
the world of the dead. Relatives and friends of those who lie buried in
Albania show up at the General’s doorstep, punctual as ghosts. He is made
witness to their loss, forced to share in their memories of that bygone
time. As his work in Albania progresses, moreover, the General uncovers
not only the corpses of the dead, but also their stories. The story of
the whores brought into a small Albanian town to service the soldiers
(as told by a local), the story of a young deserter set down in his diary,
the story of a group of soldiers guarding a bridge. Spending night after
night under canvas with only a gloomy priest for company, the General
ends up dwelling almost exclusively on the dead, until he finds himself
using their very words in the letters he writes home to his wife. As he
relates more and more to the men whose bodies he is recovering, the illusion
slowly grows in him that he is in fact the General of an army of dead
men, that these corpses in their body bags are his ghost troops. The General’s
mission becomes, for him, a way of reliving history. He makes grandoise
plans for how he would have won the battles that other generals lost,
he finds himself sharing the shame of his army’s defeat all those decades
ago, feels the loss of his country’s youth, of all those young men so
needlessly wasted, is exposed again to the enmity of the people, to their
bitterness, their accusations. All the weight of the terrible history
of War lights upon his back.
There is a scene in the novel where the General is holding the remains
of a dead soldier in a bag and thinks: “There is nothing in the world
as light as you are now. Six or seven pounds at the most. And yet you
are breaking my back!”. It is this other, more spiritual weight that weighs
heavy upon the General.
Ultimately, The General of the Dead Army is a novel about guilt. The guilt
of having sent so many young men to war and not having been able to protect
them. The guilt of coming by now, so many years later, to disturb their
silence, to take them from the land where they lie sleeping and cart them
back to their homelands whether they like it or not. The guilt of all
the atrocities committed against the civilian population in the name of
the war effort, and of knowing that to those who suffered all those in
uniform are the same. The guilt of not having been part of the war effort
yourself, not having run the same risks that you exposed others to.
All this guilt, all this emotion, accumulating over two years of work,
becomes too much for the General. He ends up a broken man, oppressed by
memories and shadows, feeling himself constantly accused, constantly found
wanting. He grows supersititous, incoherent; and Kadare, with exquisite
skill, follows him into his increasingly disjointed and hallucinatory
world, so that the clean narrative of the early part of the novel slowly
gives way to a more frantic, more fractured style, where impressions dominate
ideas and shadows become living ghosts. The final chapters of the novel
are a spectacular read, because they recreate so perfectly the dissonant,
panicked state of mind that the General finds himself in.
But if The General of the Dead Army is a fascinating psychological exploration,
it is also a deeply metaphoric novel, a lovely meditation on the nature
of history and of war. As the General relives the experiences of soldiers
and civilians from twenty years ago, Kadare explores the ways in which
we come to terms with the past, the wounds it leaves us with. The General’s
guilt, his shame, his fear, his anger - these are all emotions we all
have towards our own past, except where we are content to leave them buried,
the General is forcing himself to dig them up.
The General of the Dead Army is also, of course, a book about the Albanian
people, albeit one told from an outsider’s perspective. Again and again,
Kadare emphasizes the resilience of the Albanian people, the way that
the harshness of both their geography and their history has forged a national
character of hardihood, of simple yet stubborn pride.
Comparisons with Gogol, given the book’s plot, are of course, inescapable.
But the writer I was often reminded of was Hemingway. That may have a
lot to do with the fact that the Albania that Kadare describes feels like
a close country cousin of Hemingway’s Spain, but there are other similarities
in style and tone - a matter of fact brutality, the lack of overt sentiment,
a combination of an appreciation of the great pity of war with a taste
for the violent and the macabre. Towards the latter half of the book Kadare’s
style changes, becomes more experimental than anything Hemingway ever
wrote, more like Kundera without the philosophical digressions, but early
on in the book there were entire sections where I found myself remembering
For Whom the Bell Tolls.
At any rate, The General of the Dead Army is a fine book - one that leaves
you with a deep sense of disquiet and a sadness in your heart that is
like music. After I was done with the book I sat and listened to the second
movement of Beethoven’s Eroica. It seemed the right thing to do.
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