Book review: A Girl in Exile by Ismail Kadare

March 24, 2016
Harvill Secker, £16.99

Tipped to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Ismail Kadare, the Albanian novelist, shares with past winners a background of life in a repressive regime—in his case the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, under which Kadare’s fiction tended by necessity towards allegory. Although he defected in 1990, just before the collapse of Communist rule five years after Hoxha’s death, riddling indirection remains his favoured mode.

His latest novel to appear in English is dedicated to “the young Albanian women who... spent their youth in internal exile.” It follows a writer in Tirana summoned for questioning late in the Hoxha era. He’s unsure if it’s because of his new play or because the young student he’s been sleeping with has vanished—he doesn’t expect to learn that the student was acting as a surrogate lover for a schoolfriend, Linda, forced to live under curfew in the provinces on account of her link to Albania’s ousted royal family.

The intricate mystery that ensues has a mythical dimension: Kadare doesn’t gloss the setting or period and he makes you work hard to figure out what’s actually happening, let alone what it might mean. By virtue of being a writer, the protagonist (who’s often dreaming) has more power than he realises, implicated in Linda’s fate without ever having met her. While the contortions of totalitarianism are vivid—at one point Linda hopes to have cancer, because treatment would let her visit Tirana—it’s the surreal psychosexual element that unsettles you most.