An Appreciation of Ismail Kadare

As summer begins to wind down, you might still be looking for something to read during those relaxing days at the beach or those late evenings when daylight still lingers longer than usual.  Rather than rot your brain on the latest pulp paperback thriller, I recommend the great literary masterpieces of the award-winning Albanian writer Ismail Kadare

Over the years, he has written political fables loaded with scathing metaphors about the human condition stemming from his life as an academic under an oppressive Communist regime.  His allegorical stories managed to critique the social forces that he saw around him and also communicate the rich cultural heritage of the Albanian people through the incredible characters that stemmed from his imagination.

Kadare now lives in France where his books have been popularized and brought to an international audience.  My only regret is that most of the English edition versions of his novels have been translated from the French versions rather than from the original Albanian. Hopefully someday more direct translations of all his books will be available.

In his early days, Kadare also wrote some beautiful poems, my favorite being "What Are These Mountains Musing On?"  But his prose fiction has been the primary achievement of his career.  Full of surprises, his stories are great entertainment on the surface, and loaded with symbolism and subtext.  Here are some recommended titles:

The General of the Dead Army (1963) - Kadare delves into the meaninglessness of war as he follows an Italian general and a military priest who arrive in Albania to find the bones of thousands of countrymen from World War II, and a German team doing the same.  The general is bombarded with nightmares as he tries to complete his mission.

The Siege a.k.a. The Castle (1970) - An excellent depiction of an Ottoman occupation of a Christian citadel in 15th century Albania, this is an example of how Kadare uses allegorical, ancient settings to talk about the present day world.

Chronicle in Stone (1971) - This is one of the finest coming of age stories, about a boy growing up after World War II.  As always, Kadare's tale, even though it is set during an earlier time period, still reflects the realities surrounding him when he wrote it, and still rings true today, connecting with modern readers across the globe.

Broken April (1978) - Honeymooners in the mountains of Albania come across a young man in the grips of a blood feud.  I consider this Kadare's greatest work.

The Three-Arched Bridge (1978) - Written from the point of view of an Albanian monk in 1377, the story relates the construction of a bridge over the Ujana e Keqe ("Wicked River") and the impact it has on the people who live around it.  Again, Kadare uses a narrative about ancient times to criticize social and political situations that he witnessed.

Doruntine a.k.a. The Ghost Rider (1980) - Kadare retells a medieval legend as a local official investigates the report that a woman has seen the ghost of her dead brother. 

Palace of Dreams (1981) - Kadare delves into speculative fiction with this story of a totalitarian state in which the powers-that-be monitor and try to control the population, even the content of their dreams.

The Concert (1988) - Set in the 1970s, Kadare shows the impact of the crumbling alliance between China and Albania on the lives of government employee Silva Dibra and her family.

The File on H. (1990) - In this witty novel, scholars from Harvard in the 1930s visit Albania, which is then under the rule of King Zog, to report on oral epic singers, a dying art in the tradition of the epic poems of Homer.  But are they really spies?  Kadare examines bureaucracy and government paranoia in a madcap adventure.

The Pyramid (1992) - One of my favorites, set in ancient Egypt, this reimagining of Pharaoh Cheops' order to build a great pyramid is a brilliant analogy to Communist totalitarianism. The Egyptian leader serves as a chilling metaphor for Stalin and other dictators of the modern age.

Three Elegies for Kosovo (1998) - Kadare examines the Battle of Kosovo in 1938, telling three different narratives from different perspectives, giving greater depth to the legendary battle than that heard in nationalistic retellings by such people as Slobodan Milosovic. Kadare's three part story shows the battle as a coalition of forces that included Albanians, Serbs, Bosnians, Romanians, and other Balkan people. Kadare even includes the point of view of the ghost of the Turkish Sultan Murad I.

Spring Flowers, Spring Frost (2000) - The dark times after the collapse of the Communist dictatorship in Albania are given focus through the eyes of a portrait artist whose dreams and nightmares of secret police and chaos also include visits by Greek mythological characters and historical figures.

The Successor (2003) - Full of dark comedy, Kadare weaves an interesting plot surrounding the death by gunshot of a successor to a tyrannical ruler (Enver Hoxha).  Is it suicide or is it murder?  In the course of the story, we see the people that the dead man's life touched, from his family to political insiders.

Agamemnon's Daughter (2003) - A triptych of political allegories set in different places and different times work together to convey Kadare's familiar themes. In the title novella, a journalist, bitter over his lover Suzana's decision to leave him because of political reasons, attends a May Day Parade.  The other two short stories include "The Blinding Order" set in the 19th century Ottoman Empire and "The Great Wall" set in dictatorial China.

There are others too, but I am not as familiar with them all: The Monster (1965), The Wedding (1968), The Great Winter (1977), On the Lay of the Knights (1979), The Autobiography of the People in Verses (1980), Albanian Spring (1991), and his most recent, The Accident (2010).  If any of you have read any of these, or the ones listed above, I would be curious to hear your reaction to them.

Nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, a winner of numerous accolades, including the Man Booker International Prize and others, Kadare is not just a great "Albanian novelist," a label that is too limiting. Rather, he is one of the finest literary artists the world has ever known.