Dissident or not, Ismail Kadare is one of the greats

Ismail Kadare is, in many ways, among the most problematic of major writers in contemporary Western letters.

But that shouldn’t prevent readers from savoring “The Siege” for what it is, a significant work by an important, fascinating author. Though he works completely within the context of the West’s mainstream 20th century literature, Kadare’s perspective is that of a writer preoccupied with the themes and history of his native land, Albania.

“The Siege” recounts the story of a 15th century Catholic citadel in the Albanian highlands assaulted by Ottoman Turkish armies that soon will overrun the entire country. In this case, however, the defenders prevail and the Turks are, after a long and bitter siege, thrown back with tragic consequences for the unsuccessful warriors and their hangers-on. Still, Kadare chooses to tell the battle’s story from the Ottoman perspective, and the richness of this novel comes from details -- such as personality, tactics, even the harem -- that evoke the Ottoman invaders.

“The Siege” is a compelling, exotic account that also alters the reader’s angle of vision. (It’s the first of three stunningly rewarding novels in which Kadare explores Albanian and Balkan history from the perspective of the Turks and those with whom they collaborated.) Though “The Siege” is set at the high point of Albanian resistance to Ottoman ambitions, a majority of the country’s people soon would come to accept not only Turkish rule but also Islam and, particularly, the Sufic order that prevailed among the sultan’s elite Janissary troops. An estimated 30 Albanian Muslims would go on to serve the Ottoman sultans as grand viziers.

“The Siege” -- titled “Keshtjella” (“Castle”) when it was first published in Albanian 39 years ago -- is central to a career that spans at least 50 books of fiction and poetry and that has made Kadare the leading author in his tiny, rather opaque country. The writer, now 73, and his family moved to Paris in 1990 shortly after communism’s collapse in his native land. Since then, the ongoing publication of a dual-language French/Albanian edition of his complete works has made him a European literary celebrity whose name pops up each year on the shortlist of potential Nobel laureates. In 2005, he won the Man Booker International Prize -- not to be confused with the “real” Man Booker, which probably is the most potent sales tool in contemporary English-language fiction. (The international version is awarded biennially rather than annually and is open to American and translated novels. The regular Booker competition involves only writers from Britain, Ireland and former Commonwealth countries.)

Under communism

Four years ago, when Kadare won the international Booker, some troubling questions were raised about the precise nature of his relationship to the old Albanian regime. Had he been, as his Western partisans now characterize him, an inordinately artful literary dissident or a time-serving collaborator? It’s a vexing question that has been asked about many notable 20th century artists whose native lands fell under the totalitarian shadow, particularly those communist regimes that, drawing on the Soviet model, tended to hold their artists, writers, poets and musicians close. In Kadare’s case, the answer seems to be that he was, at various times, both dissident and collaborator. He’s hardly alone in that duality; the example of the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich springs most quickly to mind, though there are countless others.

Still, questions linger about Kadare because, even by Red standards, Albania under its longtime strongman Enver Hoxha was hardly a normal regime. In fact, it was the most completely oppressive of all the European Iron Curtain states, including the Soviet Union itself. Hoxha even broke with his onetime Russian patrons after Nikita Khrushchev’s secret denunciation of Stalin and Stalinism and aligned Albania with China. When Beijing discarded Maoism, he cut off his Eastern ties and sank into a Balkan version of North Korea’s hermit kingdom existence.

What precisely was Kadare’s relationship with Hoxha, the murderous tyrant? Uneven, though it appears to have had more ups than downs. The author is a lifelong Marxist and was educated not only in Tirana but also at Moscow’s Gorky Institute, at that time the Vatican of orthodox socialist realism. Early in his career, he published verses that groveled at the feet of Hoxha and his glorious revolutionary regime while other writers were subjected to savage persecution. (Actually, there were no mild persecutions under Hoxha.) Kadare served in Albania’s puppet People’s Assembly and was an influential member of the writers union senior hierarchy, a major plum in communist regimes. Most important, he was allowed to travel and publish abroad, a privilege almost unimaginable in the isolated, xenophobic Hoxha clique.

Dissident daggers?

As critic and literary journalist Adam Kirsch wrote at the time of the Booker award, “the tacit suggestion that Kadare was a dissident, like Vaclav Havel or Alexander Solzhenitsyn, is very misleading. Kadare could never have survived and published under the Hoxha regime without some degree of cooperation, the complete details of which are not yet entirely clear. Kadare himself only claims that his writing was ipso facto an act of defiance. ‘Every time I wrote a book,’ he has said, ‘I had the impression that I was thrusting a dagger into the dictatorship.’ ”

Well, most of the time, since at least one novel, “The Great Winter” (1977), was written in frank tribute to Hoxha after Kadare had endured a three-year publishing ban for writing a satiric poem. On the other hand, his 1981 masterpiece, “The Palace of Dreams” -- frankly based on Kafka’s “The Castle” -- is a full-throated allegorical assault on totalitarianism. It provoked a denunciation by the head of the League of Albanian Writers, who accused the author of avoiding the social and political for the allegorical and historical -- major sins in one of the few remaining Wonderlands where socialist realism still held sway. By 1985, Hoxha was dead. In the years since, Kadare’s work has continued in a similar vein, though he also defends his Marxism and early support of Hoxha as a response to Albania’s profound underdevelopment.

In translation

Another of the unusual issues “The Siege” raises has to do with David Bellos’ elegantly fluid English translation. It was not made from the Albanian, which Bellos does not speak, but from the French editions of Kadare’s books (“The Siege” was translated into French by Jusuf Vrioni). Moreover, those versions have themselves been extensively reworked. The author has removed passages inserted as a matter of political exigency and reinserted situations and dialogue removed by the Communist Party censors. Kadare also has exerted the writer’s prerogative to tighten and revise still other passages. It would be imprecise, therefore, to call this translation a version of the novel the author intended in 1970. It is that, plus the second thoughts that have occurred in the years since.

As Bellos writes in an afterword to this fine English-language edition: “In a magical way that perhaps only great writers can achieve, Kadare’s Turks are at one and the same time the epitome of what we are not, and a faithful representation of what we have become. ‘The Siege’ is therefore not a simple transposition or blending of medieval and modern history, but a complex symbol of a divided and suffering nation besieged by itself. The miracle is that this exotic tale, translated twice over from an obscure Balkan tongue and dealing with a far-off and largely forgotten past, echoes on every page with the clashes and issues that burden us today.”

It is precisely that relevance, despite every ambiguity, exoticism or internal contradiction, that marks great literature, which “The Siege” undoubtedly is.