Ismail Kadare: The novelist who took on the world of empire

Al Majalla pays tribute to the Albanian novelist after his recent passing. Although he never nabbed the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kadare was considered to be one of the world’s greatest writers.

Albanian writer Ismail Kadare
Albanian writer Ismail Kadare

Ismail Kadare: The novelist who took on the world of empire

Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, who died on 1 July 2024 at the age of 88, never saw a world free from empires set on expansion, conquest, dictatorship, and the theft of dreams, privacy, and histories. From the onset of his literary career in the 1950s, his writings confronted the imperial structures that emerged after World War II and evolved ever since. He was a son of the dictatorial era and one of its most high-profile victims.

Kadare’s published portfolio of more than 80 books translated into 45 languages meticulously examines the conditions of fragmentation that beset the world. Imbued with an Albanian sensibility, his work narrates the struggle of the marginalised to gain recognition in the relentless battle for identity and acknowledgement.

Dictatorship and awards

A renowned author whose works were translated into many languages worldwide, Kadare’s prominence stemmed from his ability to coexist with the dictatorial regime of Enver Hoxha, who ruled Albania from 1944-85. The greatest irony lay in his ability to compel a dictatorial regime to promote literature that profoundly condemned and opposed its very essence. Yet he was no isolated case: coexistence with a dictator extended to many dedicated and significant writers.

Year after year, Kadare was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He never won, but he did receive the British Booker Prize in 2005 and the Jerusalem Prize in 2015, awarded biennially by the Israeli government to a literary or intellectual figure under the title Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society. After receiving the award, he sparked controversy and anger by saying that “Israel and Albania are struggling to survive in a foul environment”.

In 1990, to escape the communist regime and its Sigurimi secret police, Kadare fled to Paris, where he continued his literary pursuits. The Sigurimi mission was, in part, to suppress opposition to the existing political framework. He benefited from the appeasement of the communist regime, arriving in France with an aura, bolstered by numerous translations. He portrayed himself as a dissident and freedom fighter, but his ultimate goal was the Nobel Prize.

French President Emmanuel Macron and the famous Albanian writer Ismail Kadare during a ceremony awarding the writer the Grand Croix de la Legion d'honneur medal.

However, Albania's obscure position in southern Europe and its history of appeasing communist regimes may have proven to be obstacles. Kadare's personal quest for international literary recognition mirrors a broader Albanian desire for the country to be acknowledged as a genuine part of Europe.

Framed by its Ottoman history, Albania's identity has long been subject to debate. In numerous interviews after leaving Albania, Kadare emphasised Albania's European affiliation. Europe could encompass Albanian components with their Ottoman Islamic and Orthodox Christian cultural backgrounds.

Oblique existence

Kadare's works often drew on parable, myth, and folklore, saying things through insinuation or with double meanings, all serving as literary fire exits should the censors and secret police come knocking, which they often did.

His writing often treated the world as hostile and obscure. In The Fall of the Stone City, he describes "a tilted city, perhaps the most tilted in the world, defying all laws of architecture and city planning". In this world, he writes, "the top of one house touched the foundations of another, making it the only place where one could stoop down the side of a street and find themselves on a rooftop".

From the onset of his literary career in the 1950s, his writings confronted the imperial structures that emerged after World War II.

Its inhabitants lose common sense, with no fixed centres of meaning or action. Everything is connected to its opposite, causing bodies, emotions, and thoughts to falter. Life becomes a constant collision with stone, which Kadare portrays not just as a substance but as a condition and concept, the spirit of the place that attracts everything, becoming petrified, hardened, and immovable. This tilted and fossilised state spreads and expands, permeating the city. Magic and sorcery begin to explain conditions and determine destinies: ritual and primitive violence envelop life in a shroud of mystical, brutal practices.

Catching dreams

In most of Kadare's works, the concept of the oblique is present as a logic that governs conditions or describes their nature and course. In the novel The Palace of Dreams, Mark Alem works for an institution that collects human dreams and analyses them to determine threats to the empire. Despite this immense power, he finds no sense of security. Rather, he becomes certain that he has descended into a hell from which there is no escape.

The quest for access to secrets has always been the Holy Grail of totalitarian regimes, but here, the authority can anticipate its demise, monitoring signs in dreams and then increasing attempts to impose control. Kadare's places are often ephemeral and his characters adrift in rituals, scattered hopes, and impossible identities.

Realistic surrealism

Critics have tried to categorise Kadare's works ideologically, contrasting them with the logic of socialist realism, which typically features a hero embodying socialist values. Although Kadare's novels can seem to conform to this school, he subtly subverts its principles, employing stratagems that undermine totalitarianism, often sarcastically.

His surrealism remains grounded in reality and history. It is often through symbolism that he reveals his true intentions. Sometimes he merges myth with reality, such as in The Beast, where a Trojan horse roams a contemporary city.

In General of the Dead Army, adapted into film, an Italian officer's quest to find the bodies of Italian soldiers in Albania 20 years after the war's end. Yet this yields instead traces, stories, and memories. Haunted by the dead, he sees in every living person as a shadow of an invisible corpse and ends up fleeing, consumed by shame. Surrealism, as it appears in Kadare's work, plays with the idea of the impossible through tasks that seem feasible. Exhuming bodies, for example, requires unearthing the crimes of invaders and occupiers. What is exhumed, then, is not soldiers but shame.

Kadare is frequently seen as a classic writer who maintains a coherent narrative structure, yet his novels do not neatly fit this description. Instead, they transport the reader to a different realm, where the direct, regular story serves as a backdrop for elements that include surrealism, realism, sarcasm, and drama, all moving simultaneously as a cohesive whole. This creates a unique type of narrative that defies easy definition.

In most of Kadare's works, the concept of the oblique is present as a logic that governs conditions or describes their nature and course. 

Albania and poetry

Ismail Kadare's work leverages symbols and historical references to convey Albania's plight, which relates to imperial power, identity, and recognition. Within this, he aims to illustrate the profound impact of empire-building on Albania, doing so by blending diverse styles while maintaining a contemporary approach. His last book, A Dictator Calls, shortlisted for the 2024 Booker Prize, he continues to explore the same themes he has addressed for over half a century.

Kadare began his career as a poet. Although interest in translating his poetry into Arabic has been limited compared to his novels, the few available translations reveal a significant harmony between his poetic and novelistic works. In The Cataracts, from the collection My Step on the Pavement, published in 1961 and translated into English by Albert Ilze and into Arabic by Yasser Shaaban, Kadare writes:

The cataracts cascade downwards

Like spirited white horses,

Their manes full of foam and a rainbow of hues.

But suddenly, at the edge of the gorge,

They fall on their forelegs,

They break, oh, their white legs,

And die at the foot of the rocks.

Now in their lifeless eyes

The frozen sky reflects.

The world reflected in the eyes of the dead horses is the world of empire, which freezes everything it touches, preventing movement and interaction. Kadare describes this world vividly in one of his masterpieces.

"While it painstakingly preserved human life in its organs and under its stone shield, it was no less keen to inflict this life with many pains, scratches, and wounds, and this was natural because it was a city of stone. A harsh and cold touch, and it was not easy to be a boy in this city."

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