Ismail Kadare, who charted the legacy of Hoxha's Albanian dictatorship, reminds us that the Balkans is a storehouse of European literatureby Julian Evans / July 23, 2005 / Leave a comment
If literature is the swirl of history that seeks to deflect us from its own fatal maelstroms, then Ismail Kadare is a worthy laureate of the first Man Booker international prize, announced on 2nd June. The prize, to be given biennially and to complement Man Booker’s annual prize for new fiction, recognises writers’ “achievement in literature and their significant influence on writers and readers worldwide.” The Albanian Kadare’s fulfilment of the second part of that encomium could be seen as more latent than actual; this most unknown of European novelists (there are so few translators of Albanian into English that the English versions of his novels come to us translated from French) is, in international commercial terms, a minority interest. Yet there could hardly be a more important witness to one of Europe’s darkest chronotopoi: Albania during and after the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.
Kadare was a participant in Hoxha’s madness, itself a symbol of the insane tension between east and west during the cold war. He was also a critic of Albanian politics post-Hoxha, as the country slid towards anarchy in the mid-1990s, and of the west’s appeasement of Milosevic; as early as 1993, on the first occasion I met him, he averred that Kosovo was the Serbian leader’s final destination. However, and rightly, he says that he is not a political writer: “Being critical of a regime is a normal state of affairs for a writer. The only act of resistance possible in a classic Stalinist regime was to write—or you could go to a meeting and say something very courageous, and then be shot.” We are back to the first definition: to the swirl of history, the writer’s version of the truth, that salvages us and sweeps us towards freedom.
Born in 1936 in Gjirokastër, a magnificent fortress-city a dozen miles from the Greek border, Kadare was three when King Zog finished giving Albania away piece by piece to the Italians. His childhood was an immersion course in the tidal movements of history. Under the purple mountains of Epirus he watched three armies march and counter-march: first the Italians, going south emblazoned with flags (and retinue of nuns, plus field brothel); then the Greeks, repulsing flags, guns, nuns and bordello; and finally Hitler’s Wehrmacht. These reversals taught him the temporary nature of things. His uncles were rich communists who owned books. He copied out Macbeth at the…