Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

Ismail Kadare, giant of Albanian literature, dies aged 88
Culture World News

Ismail Kadare, giant of Albanian literature, dies aged 88

Ismail Kadare, the Albanian writer who explored Balkan history and culture in poetry and fiction spanning more than 60 years, has died aged 88, his publisher has said.

Bujar Hudhri, Kadare’s editor at Tirana-based publishing house Onufri, said Kadare died on Monday after being rushed to hospital, with Reuters reporting the writer had suffered cardiac arrest.

Writing under the shadow of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, Kadare examined contemporary society through the lens of allegory and myth in novels including The General of the Dead Army, The Siege and The Palace of Dreams. After fleeing to Paris just months before Albania’s communist government collapsed in 1990, his reputation continued to grow as he kept returning to the region in his fiction. Translated into more than 40 languages, he won a series of awards including the Man Booker International prize.

Born in 1936 in Gjirokastër, an Ottoman fortress city not far from the Greek border, Kadare grew up on the street where Hoxha had lived a generation before. He published his first collection of poetry aged 17. After studying at Tirana University, he won a government scholarship to study literature at the Gorky Institute in Moscow. He returned to Tirana in 1960 with a novel about two students reinventing a lost Albanian text. When he published an extract in a magazine, it was promptly banned.

“It was a good thing this happened,” he told the Guardian in 2005. “In the early 60s, life in Albania was pleasant and well-organised. A writer would not have known he should not write about the falsification of history.”

Three years later he made it past the censors with The General of the Dead Army, a novel about an Italian general who travels across Albania in the 1960s to recover the remains of Italian soldiers who died during the second world war. The unnamed general trudges through dismal villages and muddy fields, questioning the point of his gloomy mission: “When all is said and done, can a pile of bones still have a name?”

Albanian critics attacked a novel that was a world away from the socialist realism required by Hoxha’s regime, but when it was published in France in 1970 it caused a sensation. Le Monde hailed it as “astonishing and full of charm”.

While his international profile offered some protection, Kadare spent the next 20 years charting a course between artistic expression and survival. After his political poem The Red Pashas was banned in 1975, he painted a flattering portrait of Hoxha in his 1977 novel The Great Winter. In 1981 he published The Palace of Dreams, an allegorical attack on totalitarianism in which a young man discovers the dangerous secrets of a government office that studies dreams. It was banned within hours. Despite these reverses, Kadare became an important figure in the Albanian writers’ union and served as a delegate in the People’s Assembly. He was also able to publish and travel abroad.

When Hoxha died in 1986, the new president, Ramiz Alia, began to take tentative steps towards reform. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Kadare met with the president to argue for change. But by October 1990, he had come to the conclusion that there was “no possibility of legal opposition in Albania” and that “more than any action I could take in Albania, my defection would help the democratisation of my country”.

Citing a list of 100 intellectuals targeted for arrest by the Albanian secret police, the Sigurimi, Kadare fled to Paris and claimed political asylum in France.

“The final thrust,” he told the New York Times, “was the direct or indirect threats from the Sigurimi, which wanted to settle old scores. The Sigurimi would have used the first signs of unrest to settle those scores.”

Safely settled in Paris, Kadare began to publish work tackling totalitarianism more directly. The novella The Blinding Order explores an Ottoman sultan who decrees that subjects who carry “the evil eye” must be made blind, while The Pyramid paints the construction of the Pyramid of Giza as a megalomaniac pharaoh’s tool of control and suppression.

As his reputation grew, he received the Légion d’Honneur as well as the inaugural Man Booker International prize, then a lifetime achievement award, in 2005. But this garland provoked a host of uncomfortable questions, with the Romanian writer Renata Dumitrascu saying that his career was “built on a dubious premise”, declaring “Kadare is no Solzhenitsyn and never has been”.

“Like most of his homologues in other communist countries,” Dumitrascu wrote, “Kadare was an astute chameleon, adroitly playing the rebel here and there to excite the naive westerners who were scouting for voices of dissent from the east. But there is absolutely no question about what kind of animal he was and what pack he ran with; in fact, his résumé screams careerism and conformity.”

Kadare rejected the accusation that he had traded on false credentials, suggesting that his detractors should focus on his work instead.

“I have never claimed to be a ‘dissident’ in the proper meaning of the term,” he told the Jerusalem Post. “Open opposition to Hoxha’s regime, like open opposition to Stalin during Stalin’s reign in Russia, was simply impossible. Dissidence was a position no one could occupy, even for a few days, without facing the firing squad. On the other hand, my books themselves constitute a very obvious form of resistance to the regime.”

As Kadare continued publishing his subtle fiction, the controversy began to fade. When his novel of an Albanian fortress resisting the Ottoman Turkish army in the 15th century appeared in English in 2008, the LA Times suggested the author was “among the most problematic of major writers in contemporary western letters. But that shouldn’t prevent readers from savouring The Siege for what it is, a significant work by an important, fascinating author.” A year later, Kadare insisted that he was “not a political writer, and, moreover, that as far as true literature is concerned, there actually are no political writers. I think that my writing is no more political than ancient Greek theatre. I would have become the writer I am in any political regime.”

Returning to Tirana to mark the opening of a museum on the site of his former apartment in 2019, Kadare told France 24 that his work “obeyed only the laws of literature, it obeyed no other law”.

“The people who lived through this period were unhappy,” he said, “but art is above all that. Art is neither unhappy nor happy under a regime.”

Source: theguardian.com