I’ve got the habit of randomly pairing up art forms with countries – and looking up the combination on Wikipedia. It could be anything – painting in Chile, cinema in Madagascar. Once I did “literature in Albania” and the most memorable name I encountered was that of Ismail Kadare.
Kadare was born in 1936 in Gjirokastër in southern Albania and attended the University of Tirana as well as the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow. He is regarded as one of the most important European intellectuals of the twentieth century, having mainly spent his literary career interrogating and attacking totalitarianism and its mechanisms.
Kadare’s most critically acclaimed book is The General of the Dead Army (1963). Over the years, he has won several big international awards – the Man Booker International Prize (2005), the Prince of Asturias Award (2009), the Jerusalem Prize (2015), the Légion d’honneur (2016), etc. – and has been translated into more than forty languages. He “exiled himself” to Paris in 1990, a few months before the collapse of the Communist dictatorship in Albania. He continues to visit his home country regularly.
The website for the Prince of Asturias Award (Spain) explains the work of the writer in the following words:
A great scholar of Albanian traditions and the idiosyncrasies of this Balkan state, his works take place around various incidents in his history, such as the break between Albania and the USSR, The Great Winter (1977); Catholic and Orthodox rivalries, Doruntine (1980); and the split between Tirana and Beijing, The Concert (1988). One of the most typical features of his work is that it is permanently open: Kadaré will rework his writings, poems become stories, stories grow and become novels and these, occasionally, will be reduced to stories. Another characteristic is how he recaptures Humanity’s great concerns and debates, taking them from oral tradition and classic literature, from Aeschylus, Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Chekhov, and placing them within a contemporary context.
Harvill Secker recently published Ismail Kadare’s The Traitor’s Niche, which appeared in Albanian back in 1978 (the English translation has been longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize). The Traitor’s Niche manages to simultaneously be an historical novel rooted in a specific context and a political fable with a universal resonance.
The book is set in the early 1800s across the Ottoman Empire. In the main square of the capital city of Constantinople there is a niche carved into an ancient stone. Here, the sultan shows off the severed heads of his enemies. The niche is like a perpetually hungry mouth. Tourists flock to the square to watch the horrifying display – the unblinking eyes, the neck preserved in honey – and they gossip without end, standing around, sitting in coffee-houses.
In this story, the province of Albania has tried to assert its independence and must be suppressed. The rebellious octogenarian governor, Ali Pasha Tepelena or Black Ali (1740-1822) is killed off and his head is handed over to the imperial courier Tundj Hata to be transported to the niche. Hata, as he makes his way in a carriage through dark and desolate territories, begins to make money off side-shows. For villagers, the cold spectacle of death is “literature, theatre, art, philosophy” and even “love”.
Woven into the narrative are the sexual troubles of Abdulla, a guard of the niche and conversations between Black Ali and his young wife Vasiliqia (with references being made to Scanderbeg, the Albanian nobleman who rebelled against the Ottomans in the fifteenth century).
As the story draws to an end, we realise that the empire is absolute and the distinction between “hero” and “villain” thin and obscure. The one who decapitates can be decapitated in turn. Just that the event of the severed head itself must go on. Heads are the threads drawing people together. Heads are markers, dividing lines, calendars. Incidents are remembered in relation to them – their sightings are heavenly signs, eclipses, comets…
Kadare, through The Traitor’s Niche, raises a whole host of questions regarding power and control. A theme I take away is the economics of torture. He shows how the human appetite for violence is whetted by the facility for punishment and channels of communication. The mere fact of the niche leads to heads leads to onlookers leads to more heads leads to more onlookers. People know the niche, they can see it before them. And they are, in a way, desensitised to human agony. A market has been established for bad news, one that is fueled by obsession and madness. A vicious circle is created. The state of affairs can improve only if the beast of an empire has a change of heart.
This novel is strangely meaningful in our era of social media. Something of a cautionary tale, we can say.
An excerpt that examines the influence of imperial legacies on new, independent states:
Then she understood: he wanted to found an Albanian state. Creating a state was to her mind a terrible, unimaginable thing, like giving birth to an entire world. Just as they say that new heavenly bodies are fashioned from old cosmic dust, so the new world of Albania was to be formed from the dust of the old Ottoman universe, from that constellation of terrors and crimes, post-prandial poisonings, night-time assassinations, monks holding lanterns in the rain, dervishes with knives and messages hidden in their hair, from that profusion of rebellious pashas, bureaux of thousands of files, informers, outlawed viziers and ‘black’ pashas with a price on their heads who swarmed like ghosts before or after death – all the rotting debris of empire.
Another interesting one on memory and manipulation:
The partial or full erasure of the national identity of peoples, which was the main task of the Central Archive, was carried out according to the old secret doctrine of Caw-caw and passed through five principal stages: first, the physical crushing of rebellion; second, the extirpation of any idea of rebellion; third, the destruction of culture, art and tradition; fourth, the eradication or impoverishment of the language; and fifth, the extinction or enfeeblement of the national memory.
The briefest of all these stages was the physical crushing of rebellion, which merely meant war, but the longest phase was the reduction of the language into Nonspeak, as it was called for short.
Learn more about Ismail Kadare in this essay from World Literature Today by Macedonian scholar Nina Sabolik.
Featured: Coffee-house by the Ortaköy Mosque in Constantinople by Ivan Aivazovsky, Wikimedia Commons