Posts Tagged ‘Enver Hoxha’

Ismail Kadare: Spiritus

October 11, 2017

51DMKNYZ3RL._AC_US218_Well, this makes Kafka read like Winnie-the-Pooh!

I’ve long been a fan of the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, who I think should have received the Nobel Prize in Literature years ago; I’ve read a good number of his novels, and though they do vary in quality, they never fail to grip, or to disturb. I’ve had a fascination with Albania for years, too, and hope to go there one day.

Kadare’s novels are inevitably heavily overshadowed by the rather insane world of the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, the intrigues by which he retained power, and the political disagreements during which he fell out with Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and eventually the Chinese, totally isolating his small Balkan nation from the rest of the world.

The premise of this novel is extremely far-fetched, and yet Kadare subtly makes it credible: the Secret Police, having introduced a new range of ultra-sensitive listening devices, believe they have captured information from a spirit, specifically the ghost of a dead man, buried three years previously, with a concealed microphone still on his body; it concerns, of course, an imperialist plot against Albania and the Guide.

Careful framing of the story in three nested sections helps create plausibility, and the lengthy central section involves seances and political intrigues, and among other things we learn that a prisoner who died in prison could have his sentence extended in the cemetery before his relatives were finally allowed to collect the corpse… An expert on Albania would be able to tell how much of Kadare’s narrative is pure satire and how much reflects the reality of that paranoid nation; what comes across very effectively is the craziness of how far the tentacles of the state extend and how far those in power are prepared to go in order to to remain there. And I don’t think for a moment that it’s only old-style communist states that operate in that manner.

The vagueness of the opening – a mysterious commission, after the fall of communism, is attempting to clarify what went on at the time of the plot, then shifts to the main story, and the loose ends are definitely not cleared up in the final section, so that the reader’s knowledge and understanding of events is constantly shifting and uncertain, and at times we are sucked into the utter paranoia of the secret state and its victims: just as you think nothing can possibly become any weirder, it does. Hallucinatory would be a good word to describe this novel.

It wasn’t an easy read; I did at one point wonder if I’d bother to see it through, but then – I don’t quite know how or when – I was utterly gripped: how insane can this become, I wondered?

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Ismail Kadare: Le Grand Hiver (The Great Winter)

May 3, 2017

51xrmj+pVjL._AC_US218_Ismail Kadare has been a prolific writer of fiction, although a good deal of it is still not available in English translation, and for a long while novels that did appear in English were actually translated from the French rather than the original Albanian. Some of the novels deal with late twentieth century Albanian politics – like the one I’m writing about here – whereas others are more allegorical, or deal with Albanian history and mythology.

The Great Winter (Le Grand Hiver) deals with the break between Albania and the rest of the socialist camp in the early 1960s, pitting Enver Hoxha against Nikita Khrushchev, the Stalinist against the de-bunker of Stalin. It’s a very long and detailed novel which in many places is much more like a drama-documentary than actual fiction: think recent televised reconstructions of historical events and you have the idea. The times, the people and the attitudes may feel like ancient history now, but the hopes and fears of the characters were very real at the time – the first split in the socialist camp, the isolation of one of its members, and the possibility of war.

In some ways, I suppose, it’s meant to be socialist realism: along with the main (fictional) character Besnik, a young translator and journalist who is deeply involved with the crucial meeting at which the rift finally comes into the open, and who is plagued by guilt that he may have mis-translated at a crucial point, thus precipitating events, there is a myriad of minor characters presented in thumbnail and more detailed sketches as a cross-section of Albanian society of the time. One gets quite a clear impression of the limitations and restrictions on life in a strictly-controlled state, with impressions of secret police lurking in the background; equally there is still a great deal of youthful enthusiasm for the construction of a socialist state, and national pride in being able to stand alone.

I kept being reminded of some of the epic Russian novels I have read, and certainly a list of all the characters and their part in the story to be able to refer to, would have been a help while reading; the careful and detailed end-notes clarifying the manoeuvres of politics at the time were useful.

In the end I found it a very depressing novel. Firstly, the hero gives up – initially through neglect and then later almost through deliberate choice – his fiancee and upcoming marriage because of the momentous importance of the events in which he has become involved: there is no time for the personal. He finds himself anew through political commitment at a time of crisis, in an existential manner. Secondly, it’s depressing because, of course, everything in terms of politics, socialism, enthusiasm for building a new world, has now completely vanished, almost as if it had never been – all that will and power and energy wasted. And this does not mean that I approve of all the evils of those times and hanker after Stalinism: I just wish that some of the bright hope and enthusiasm of those days had survived.

I have found myself wondering about Kadare’s attitude to Albania and its rulers at that time; into some of his more allegorical works – The Pyramid, for instance, or The Palace of Dreams – criticism of various aspects of totalitarianism and personality cults may be read, but this novel, and another similar one which I shall probably re-read soon, The Concert, appears quite fair and balanced in its approach. I wonder what a reader in a century’s time will make of such a novel and such a writer. And yet both are needed, to preserve the memory of what once was and how people once were…

With pickaxe and rifle

May 2, 2017

Regular readers may have noticed I’ve been quiet lately; I’ve been away, and also re-reading a door-stopper of a novel by the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, which I’ll be writing about in my next post. But I thought an explanation of my fascination with Albania and things Albanian might be in order first.

If you are old enough to have listened to radio on medium wave, and remember the atmospheric interference that happens in the evenings especially, then you may recall having heard a repeated short  burst of music, which would have been a call sign or interval signal, leading up to a broadcast. The one I particularly remember turned out to have been from Radio Tirana, which in the days of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania had one of the most powerful transmitters in Europe, so powerful that the BBC was forced to change the wavelength on which it used to transmit Radio 3. (Sadly, wordpress won’t let me link directly to it, but if you’re interested enough, visit this website, and look under Albania and you will find it.)

As a student, I began listening to their propaganda broadcasts in English: half an hour of stilted speech, in a broadcast which invariably offered ‘the news’, a ‘commentary’ from the party newspaper, and a ‘feature’, about some safe aspect of the country’s culture or history. And their broadcasts were unique among those from the eastern bloc, in that they reviled the Russians as much as, if not more than, the Americans: they were ‘Soviet social imperialists’ as opposed to the mere US variety of ordinary imperialist. And there were dry as dust production figures from the economy, which were often laughable; a 100% increase in rail locomotives actually meant that they had bought another steam engine…

When I lived in London, I discovered that there was a tiny Albanian shop in a cellar in a back street in Covent Garden. It sold postcards, books of Comrade Enver Hoxha’s speeches and back copies of the party newspaper Zeri I Popullit, four pages of incredibly badly printed (and incomprehensible) propaganda, and various ethnic nick-nacks. And then, one of Kadare’s novels appeared in English, in the late 1980s – Broken April, I think it was, and I started to learn more about the country, and it fascinated me. I was well and truly hooked.

I’d have liked to visit it as a tourist, even at the cost of shaving off my beard, which was one of the conditions under which decadent westerners were allowed in for their decadent but useful currency. Alas, this never happened. But a visit is still on my wish-list, which I’m working my way through. Meantime, I have the novels of their only novelist who has been translated, and who, according to some stories I have read, is potentially in line for the Nobel Prize.

To be continued…

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