Posts Tagged ‘Ismail Kadare’

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…

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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…

On translation (again!)

March 12, 2017

The Qur’an is only the Qur’an in the original Arabic; if it’s in another language, it’s only a ‘version’, not the authentic Qur’an. At least, that’s my understanding of its status, and it led me once again to thinking about the business of translation. Obviously in my learning of languages, I’ve had to do plenty of it; I first became aware of the complexity when studying French at university. Turning the French words into English ones was straightforward enough, but making the whole read and flow like something in real English was much more of an art, and in the other direction was far harder, for coming from outside French, as it were, how well could I judge whether my effort felt like proper French? Nuance and idiom were everything, both ways…

Speaking the language was different: the revelation, epiphany even, which had come much earlier, before O level, when I was visiting my French pen-pal, was that I could speak the language more than passably and was understood by real French people, and that what I was saying did not involve any translating from English to French. The thoughts were there in my head, I articulated and they came out in French, because I was in France, talking with French people.

So what is a translation? Etymologically, from the Latin trans = across and latum, supine of the verb ferre to carry, so ‘carried across’. What do translators do? Somehow they enable us to read and understand a text written in a language we are unable to use. This involves putting the meanings of all the words into our language, and so much more: the sense, the feel, the meaning of the text as a whole also must be conveyed; idiom ideally is retained so we get a sense of the style of the original, the nature of the diction, the impression that the original author was trying to convey to her/his readers in the first language. Once you think of all these aspects of the task, it becomes formidable. And how can I be sure that, as a non-Russian and a non-Russian speaker (for these are surely different things) I’m actually getting what Tolstoy or Dostoevsky was saying?

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I’ve enjoyed many of the novels of Ismail Kadare, some in English, more in French. And, to the best of my knowledge, most of the translations available in English until recently were done from the French, not the original Albanian. So how far am I from Kadare’s original meaning when I read Broken April, or The Pyramid, for example? Or, looking at an example in the other direction, consider Joseph Conrad, nowadays rather a neglected modernist writer. First language Polish, second language French, and yet he wrote brilliant novels in English, his third language, for heaven’s sake! Yes, you can detect French-isms in his English occasionally, but not that often…

I was struck many years ago when I read a comment by Umberto Eco about his translator into English, William Weaver. Eco actually said that he thought Weaver’s version of The Name of the Rose was better than his (Eco’s). Now (a) what does this mean, and (b) how could Eco actually know? My head spins. And for me, it is a brilliant novel – Weaver’s version, that is, for I don’t read or speak Italian. So what have I read?

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I’m currently reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from A Dead House, translated by the well-known pair of translators of Russian literature, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. From articles I’ve read, one either hates their translation style or loves it. I’ve read many of their translations, and I’m firmly in the latter camp: for me they bring the stories alive, and with a modern enough idiom to make them comfortable to read unlike some of the stilted and wooden older translations. I’m not qualified to comment on accuracy or anything like that as I don’t speak Russian, but what they do works for me. But the more I read and think about translation as an art, the more in awe of its practitioners I am.

Crazy literature for crazy times…

January 17, 2017

The craziness, rank insanity even, that seems to have gripped Britain and the US over the past months has shocked me deeply; it’s also recently set me scanning my bookshelves looking for the literature of strangeness, madness and insanity: and there’s plenty of it.

Let’s start with two novels whose narrators are both involuntarily interned in some kind of mental hospital, from which they tell their stories and communicate their opinions: Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum, obviously, and Siegfried LenzThe German Lesson. Grass particularly, in all his work, was keen for Germany to come to terms with its horrendous history; the European project, flawed though it is, has been part of ensuring peaceful co-existence in our continent for several generations.

Two novels that present us with a world where insanity has taken over: the second volume of Anatoly Rybakov’s stunning Arbat trilogy, Fear, shows us the lives of a group of Muscovite students during the time of Stalin’s purges and show-trials, a world in which nothing makes sense and there is no way to save yourself if you have been randomly marked out for doom. Similarly, Jonathan Littell’s award-winning The Kindly Ones takes us inside the mind of a German intellectual who is one of those engaged in planning and carrying out the extermination of the Jews: we see how his work ‘makes sense’ to him inside his own Nazi bubble, and it’s the stuff of nightmares. Because these are both based on actual events, somehow Kafka’s The Trial pales a little alongside them, even though the inescapability of K’s situation is what really terrifies. But again, the Albanian Ismail Kadare’s novel The Palace of Dreams with its similar trope, is again rooted in reality, and gains more power from this.

It’s not only twentieth century writers who confront us with madness: Lear’s Fool has the licence to say anything, and tells the truth to power, and in the end dies for it; in Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, there is business to be done and profit to be made from the selling of dead souls – non-existent serfs – in tsarist times. In Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol, a twentieth century writer who sets his tale back in mediaeval times, we are with the sect of the assassins, apparently so in the thrall of hashish that they are prepared to sacrifice their lives committing deeds ordered by their master, because the mythical heaven with its freely available virgins awaits them.51agnyropzl-_ac_us174_

Ben Marcus, an American writer, approaches strangeness from another angle, removing the usual and commonly accepted sense and meaning from words and imbuing them with different ones, torturing our minds and creating a semi-hallucinatory effect in his narratives: The Age of Wire and String is a truly weird read, which you cannot take too much of at once… when even the language does not behave in the ways you expect, then we really are lost.

Perhaps the most horrific novel I can mention is by the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago: Blindness. I believe it has been filmed and I’m not about to watch it. Gradually all the inhabitants of a city inexplicably go blind, and a world of chaos, violence, cruelty and insanity descends as people’s basest instincts are freed: it’s a kind of Lord of the Flies with grownups, on a grander scale. I persevered with it; it’s a very powerful read and one I’m not sure I will have the guts to go back to. In a final twist in the tale, it transpire the collective loss of sight is not permanent… 51a30yp20gl-_ac_us174_

Somehow, though, the most relevant text seems to me to be Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. Here is a novel in which truth has no meaning: it’s not Pontius Pilate’s bland question ‘What is truth?’ but the malleability of any fact, idea or notion to serve the needs of those in power: now where have we met that recently? Winston Smith sits in his cubicle at his speakwrite making the news say whatever he is ordered to make it say, and removing all evidence of changes. How do we, can we, check the veracity of what we are told? Winston’s personal madness is that he sees the contradictions, remembers what was and it does him no good, just as it did no good telling voters that a certain candidate was a serial abuser of women, a narcissist and an inveterate liar… in such a world, O’Brien is right, Winston is the insane one. I find myself hoping that truth is not stranger than fiction… 51og8uqrofl-_ac_us174_

These I have (also) loved…

October 30, 2015

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(continuing the theme of literatures from other lands)

 It does seem a little unfair to put so many writers and nations together under ‘other’ but you will understand what I mean when I say that there is not enough time to read everything I would like to, and that some countries and authors will just have to wait for my next existence…

I’m glad I read Don Quixote once. I’m not sure I’ll have time to come back to him, but I did understand why the Spanish love him, and I learned quite a lot about the development of the novel in its early days.

The Portuguese writer Jose Saramago has intrigued me and I’ve read several of his novels; Blindness, which I believe had been made into a film and which I’m definitely NOT planning to watch, is one of the scariest and most horrifying novels I’ve read. Almost everyone is struck blind over the course of a few days, and the anarchy and human vileness which is released makes the world of Lord of the Flies seem like the Teddy Bears’ Picnic. It’s stunning, and fearsomely convincing. However, it’s Antonio Tabucci‘s Pereira Maintains that I have liked best from that country’s literature. He conveys the spookiness of the long Salazar dicatatorship very effectively indeed.

I’ve read several Italian novelists. Umberto Eco I’ve written at great length about elsewhere in this blog if you care to look, so no more about him. Primo Levi I have found very moving. He was an Auschwitz survivor who eventually committed suicide, but not before writing a powerful memoir, If This is a Man, and an intriguing, semi-autobiographical novel inspired by his life (he was a research chemist) called The Periodic Table, which I think is a masterpiece, especially the final chapter. And I love the lighthearted feel of The Garden of the Finzi Continis, by Gregorio Bassani, with the hidden undertones of menace in the background… but if I had to pick the very best, then I’d undoubtedly go for Giovanni di Lampedusa‘s The Leopard, a stunningly beautiful and lyrical tale of the emergence of modern Italy and the disappearance of an era seen through the eyes of a man who knows it must happen, wants it to happen and knows it makes him redundant, inescapably part of a past that has gone forever.

I also have to mention the Albanian Ismail Kadare. Older friends of mine will be acquainted with my fascination with the country, largely due to listening to propaganda broadcasts from Radio Tirana in the evenings. So when I came across translations – mainly into French, but some into English, of this astonishing writer, I was hooked. Broken April is set in the tradition of the kanun, or blood-feud, a historically Albanian thing, with all sorts of rules about who you can and can’t kill, and when. The Pyramid is an allegory of sorts about his own country under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, while telling the story of the building of the pyramids in ancient Egypt, and The Palace of Dreams creates a bureaucracy to rival Kafka‘s. And then there are realistic novels set in the Albania of the fifties and sixties as she fell out with the Soviet Union (‘social imperialists’)and came to ally herself with the Chinese, The Concert, and The Great Winter. He is a masterly chronicler of his times and his country, and an entertaining novelist.

I’m glad to have been able to get to know (I’m sure merely skimming the surface) the literature of so many other lands; I do think it’s sad how many people I meet who, though they may venture far from our shores on holiday, never do so in the realms of reading. What they have missed…

On censorship and the freedom to write (concluded)

August 19, 2015

If we consider writers’ tactics faced with control and censorship – and Eastern Europe, the Soviet empire for half a century provides copious examples – then we can see them taking risks by writing, and having their books published in the West since they would not be published at home, or as samizdats (typed manuscripts circulated clandestinely), or writing allegorically and hoping perhaps to outwit the censors. Writers in totalitarian societies wrote, impelled by the same muses and motivations as writers in the ‘free’ world. Ismail Kadare produced a wonderful allegory about the Kafkaesque control within the social structures of Albania in a novel allegedly about ancient Egypt, The Pyramid.

What particularly interests me – and I’ll admit that this is personal opinion – is the way that writers without freedom seem to produce sharper and more interesting novels, more perceptive literature, which I find more powerful and more moving; somehow they are compelled, it appears, to address broader issues about their (imperfect) society and an imperfect world, to ask existential questions; for them the collective is still relevant, if not paramount. I come back to the example I cited earlier, Vassily Grossman‘s epic about the siege of Stalingrad and its consequences. I will admit that Joseph Heller‘s Catch-22 is another astonishingly powerful novel about the Second World War, but Grossman’s works on an altogether different level, packing power that I cannot think of a parallel to in Western literature. Anatoly Rybakov‘s Arbat trilogy is my second example: he follows the fortunes of a group of classmates through the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s to the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. It’s harrowing: the purges are insane and one finds it hard to believe that people could and did behave in such a warped way; Rybakov pulls no punches as far as this episode in Soviet history is concerned. And then, he sets the heroism and self-sacrifice of those young people who have endured the purges as they fight for the liberation of the Motherland: the tension between the cruel tyranny and the love of country is live, sharp, electric…

In freer, Western societies I feel writers have become more introspective, self-indulgent at times, self-interested and self-obsessed, part of an increasingly fragmented literary culture; there is too much navel-gazing. Yes, at one level that’s an almost farcical dismissal of half a century of writing during which voices have been given to, or been seized by many cultural and political subgroups. But this does also represent a fragmentation of any challenge to the dominant cultural and economic hegemony, which remains largely unseen but which dominates every aspect of the way we live.

I’m not advocating that novels and literature should always be political, but I do feel that good literature makes us think about the human condition, about our world and ourselves. I’ve read many good and challenging novels by Western writers who have the freedom to write and say what they like. And I have found that writers who have had to struggle to be heard have written more profound and moving stories. I don’t know where this leaves us, because I’m neither advocating repression of writers in order to stimulate better literature nor didactic literature. But it has made me think a lot…

Eastern European Literature

July 9, 2014

Following on from yesterday’s thoughts on Soviet literature, perhaps it’s opportune to look at the rest of the Soviet bloc, Eastern Europe or however one might now describe it. The countries concerned were under Soviet domination after the Second World War, although in different ways. For instance, Yugoslavia rejected Soviet tutelage and went its own way, Albania moved its allegiance from the Soviet to the Chinese camp before striking out on its own; certain countries such as Bulgaria and the DDR were seen as much more hardline in their discipline and allegiance to the USSR, and others such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary experimented with more liberal attitudes from time to time. Hungary and Czechoslovakia were invaded by Warsaw Pact troops…

Many of the issues which governed the lives of writers in all those countries were the same as those which obtained in the USSR. Prior censorship was the rule; there were non-subjects and non-persons. I think the most glaring example of this was the murder of thousands of Polish officers by the KGB at Stalin’s orders in 1940; the Nazis discovered the crime and Soviet guilt was rapidly and clearly established, but the Soviets blamed the Nazis and so that was the official line…  Similarly, the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis was a taboo subject for all sorts of reasons. And don’t even mention the ‘ethnic cleansing’ (the term hadn’t been invented yet) that went on all over Eastern Europe after the end of the war…

So, onto literature: the DDR was pretty repressive, as far as I remember; Stefan Heym and Christa Wolf pushed at the boundaries and wrote some interesting novels; I know nothing about what was written in Bulgaria during the period; a Romanian teaching colleague introduced me to the bizarre novels of Agota Kristov (available in French, but I’m not sure about English) and Ismail Kadare left Albania and went into exile in Paris and published many interesting novels, coded, allegorical, covering the weird political goings-on in his native land. Broken April, and The Pyramid are a couple I would recommend very highly. I haven’t really explored Hungarian or Polish literature from those times, largely because not an awful lot got translated (I rant about this in various other posts!).  Polish writers’ memoirs and essays have fared rather better; Gustaw Herling and Czeslaw Milosz both wrote openly from exile.

It’s the literature and writers of Czechoslovakia that I have particularly enjoyed. I have found them the most lively, varied and outspoken. I think Josef Skvorecky is probably my favourite. After the events of 1968 he went into exile in Canada, where he enjoyed a long and distinguished academic career as well as being able to write openly about the wartime and postwar events in his homeland, exploring minds and attitudes, how people made compromises with various regimes in order to survive or not. I’d strongly recommend The Engineer of Human Souls (this was Stalin’s description of his ideal writer) as well as his excellent series of detective stories involving his depressive detective, Lieutenant Boruvka. Milan Kundera also went into exile, to Paris, and has probably been the best-known of the Czech emigre writers.

I do find myself increasingly wondering how much of all this is going to be remembered at all; looking back at what I’ve written, I’m struck by the number of non-existent countries I’ve mentioned; the weirdness of the events and daily life in all those places is now history – it’s a quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent end of all those regimes. Because we are apparently ‘free’ to do and say what we will, it requires an enormous effort of the imagination to begin to understand those times, and most readers younger than me will now need notes and a glossary to be able fully to appreciate some of the writers I’ve mentioned. And they should try: it’s important those times are not forgotten…

Recommended Reading?

February 28, 2014

I’ve been thinking about where I get my ideas from, about what to read: who shapes/ has shaped my choices over the years? I’m particularly thinking about fiction, since it’s more straight-forward with non-fiction: when new interests develop, then wider reading ensues…

Obviously, studying English and French literature at university all those years ago gave me a lot of different starting points, and I was inevitably going to branch out along some of the tracks I’d studied.

In my earlier years, I used to browse bookshops a lot, especially independent and radical bookshops, of which there were far more then. I could not begin to count the number of books I bought after spending hours in the wonderful Atticus Bookshop in Liverpool, with its vast array of contemporary English and America fiction as well as an amazing selection of works in translation. Nowadays I find bookshops frustrating, and rarely come across anything new or exciting. But I do scour bookshops when I’m in France, because so many more interesting novels from all over the world are translated into French than into English. New discoveries still come to light – the novels of Amin Maalouf, for example, or the full range of Ismail Kadare.

When I come across a new writer whom I enjoy, there’s the temptation to seek out all they’ve written; this can be rewarding, as in the case of Josef Skvorecky, or it can be somewhat disappointing, if a writer has basically written only one decent novel, or the same one several times over.

Book reviews can be a great help. I trust reviews in newspapers such as The Guardian and The Observer; reviewers like Nicholas Lezard or the critic James Wood have often introduced me to a new writer. Good also are the London, and the New York Review of Books. (To this last, I’m very grateful for introducing me to the writings and analysis of Timothy Snyder on the incredibly complex history of eastern Europe’s borderlands.) For non-English fiction, the reviews in Le Monde Diplomatique have pointed me in interesting directions. It’s great to come across someone totally new and unexpected, such as Ben Marcus, author of the weirdest book ever, The Age of Wire and String.

Sometimes a brilliant TV adaptation makes me turn to the book. Some may remember the BBC black and white serialisation of Sartre‘s Roads to Freedom trilogy in the early 1970s (lost for ever, I fear) which led me to the novels, or the superb version of Anthony Powell‘s Dance to the Music of Time, which led me to read the twelve novels.

Personal recommendations are usually the best. I inevitably find myself staring at the bookshelves when I visit someone, and ask about anything that excites my curiosity. That’s how I came across Umberto Eco – and I can’t imagine a reading life without his books. A teaching colleague many years ago raved about Bulgakov‘s Master and Margarita, and now I do too; my daughter turned me on to Philip Pullman‘s Northern Lights trilogy when I was ill once; the school librarian introduced me to Philip Reeve‘s books (and ultimately to the author himself)… and  one of my students introduced me to the poetry of e e cummings, which I never expected to like, but really did.

But mostly, I guess, I’m self-taught: I follow my nose, usually successfully, and add another book to the groaning shelves, or the to read pile by the bed. There have been wrong choices, and books and authors I’ve totally failed with, but that’s the subject of another post…

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