Book Review: Albanian freestyle

After three of his novels were banned by the Albanian dictatorship, Ismail Kadare began to express himself through mythology and history.

Ismail Kadare (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ismail Kadare
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This year’s recipient of the Israel Prize, to be awarded at the Jerusalem International Book Fair, is 79-year-old Albanian novelist and poet Ismail Kadare.
Throughout his long career to date, Kadare has championed the cause of the common man, and the basic tenet of freedom.
As such, he is a natural choice for the Jerusalem Prize – which, as the fair website puts it, is given “to a writer whose work best expresses and promotes the idea of the ‘freedom of the individual in society.’” That, of course, is far easier said than done in such a dictatorial regime as that in which Kadare grew up. The author says the strictures with which he lived in his youth dawned on him over time.
“I was nine when the Communist dictatorship started in Albania,” the writer recalls.
“Apart from vague hints whispered in my family, I didn’t realize I was living in an authoritarian regime. The realization came gradually – first in high school, later at the university. There, you had to be really stupid to understand nothing.”
Communist regime constraints or no, Kadare clearly had a natural propensity for matters of a literary nature – and began putting creative pen to paper at a very young age. “I started writing very early,” he says. “I published for the first time when I was only 12 years old, in a ‘Pioneer’ [young Communist] newspaper for children.
When my first book was published I was still a student at high school, but these were writings without real value. The first very naïve and intimate novel I wrote in 1957-1958, when I was a student.”
At the time Kadare was a student at the University of Tirana, and he furthered his higher education at the Gorky Institute for World Literature in Moscow, a training school for writers and critics. Kadare returned to Albania in 1960, started working as a journalist and published his first poems.
His initial breakthrough as an author came in 1963, when he published The General of the Dead Army. Over the years Kadare developed a capacity for addressing issues that were important to him, but in an indirect manner, so as to minimize the risk of censure by the Communist authorities.
In The General of the Dead Army, he takes a swipe at warmongering without specifically referencing the violence inherent in totalitarian societies.
The novel tells the story of an Italian general who, around 20 years after the end of World War II, is sent to Albania together with an Italian Army priest, to locate the remains of fallen Italian soldiers and return them to their homeland for burial. As they get down to the business of disinterment, they wonder at the scale of the job at hand. The general talks to the priest about the futility of war and the meaninglessness of the enterprise, and as they progress through the country, they come across a German general entrusted with a similar onerous task – who questions the value of such gestures of national pride. Kadare reveals that he first considered himself a professional writer when this work came out.
HIS MINEFIELD-HOPPING skills notwithstanding, Kadare did not always manage to slip under the Communist radar, and fell foul of the powers that be around the same time. Starting out as a poet, one of Kadare’s early books was duly deemed to be inappropriate. “In 1963, I experienced a ban for the first time. It was on the novel Coffee House Days – it was a ban after publication in a literary review,” recounts Kadare.
There was more to follow. “The second ban was of a short novel called The Monster.
It was the same kind of novel, and happened after its publication in a literary magazine; it was a review of the Writers Association.”
The next censure, says Kadare, was a particularly painful episode for him.
“The third ban was of my epic novel Concert at the End of Winter. This one was the hardest to take, because it was before publication. This is a novel that addresses the whole picture of life in a Communist world within a general context; the book is about crimes, executions and ghosts that appear during official ceremonies.
According to Albanian and foreign critiques, these ceremonies resemble a Shakespearean Macbeth-style dinner.
“The ban of the book was in keeping with the logic of the dictator; to my mind, the ban defied all logic.”
Kadare’s oeuvre typically delves deep into Albanian mythology and history, as a means of keeping the authorities off his back. “I followed mythology in order to avoid describing what is called ‘Socialist current affairs or reality,’” he explains.
“That means [addressing] the life of the workers and farmers. This constraint, with the ubiquitous presence of ‘the positive hero,’ was one of the canons of Socialist realism. Those two were the most effective means of destroying literature deeply and definitively.
“However, mythology gives you freedom of subjects, interpretations and styles, which completely escaped the party’s instructions.”
Happily, The General of the Dead Army managed to keep the regime leaders guessing, and established Kadare’s reputation on the global literary scene. “There was a cold response to this work, but not menacing – especially after the warm welcome it received in France and in other Western countries, when it appeared [in translation] in 1970.
“This work completely changed my status as a writer,” notes Kadare. “I was the best-known writer in the most Stalinist country, but also appreciated in the West.
It was almost like being a well-known writer in North Korea who is praised in the West, but is still living in North Korea.”
Naturally, Kadare is a firm believer in literature as a powerful tool for expressing ideas and, although it has it limits, he says it helps to further the ideals of civil rights and personal liberty. “Literature is independent,” he states. “As such, it can help the emancipation of humanity in its own way and its own medium.
Literature cannot assume impossible roles. As far as the advancement of civil rights ideals is concerned, that is part of its own nature.”
The Albanian also emphasizes that writing has always endeavored to seek out places that other artistic disciplines have not always accessed. “It is well-known that, since its beginnings, literature has been forced into the darkest recesses of the human mind, in order to discover there the essence of crime, in order to condemn it.”
Kadare says he was one of the luckier members of his profession in Albania.
“The persecution of writers was such a common thing that you could say that it became an everyday banality. Persecution began with something that looked simple: banning books. The ban itself took on different forms – banning before or following publication, banning following public condemnation, or with expulsion from the Writers Association.”
Some were subjected to far heavier penalties.
“After all that gradually came more serious persecution, such as banning with imprisonment, and finally execution by shooting. Almost half of the Albanian writers were affected by one of these.”
Thankfully, Kadare got off relatively lightly. “I was only affected by the first two of these – a publication ban, then banning with public condemnation. The other writers received other punishment, including execution.”
Kadare says he is delighted to be honored in Jerusalem, and the award is fully compatible with the spirit of life and what he has attempted to achieve through his writing. “This prize, as a tribute to the author, also has great significance,” he notes. “For writers who lived and worked in sad times of lack of freedom, such a prize – whose main theme is freedom – constitutes major recognition.
“The fact that it is happening here, in Jerusalem, makes the significance even greater.”