He's been nominated for the Nobel Prize 15 times, was awarded the Legion d'honneur last year and his output is colossal. So why isn't the Albanian novelist and poet Ismail Kadare better known?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
AT THE END of May 1990, Albania's greatest living writer, Ismail Kadare, 15 times shortlisted for the Nobel Prize, received a letter that froze his blood. It was from the communist President Ramiz Alia, who, up to that point, Kadare had believed was sympathetic to his call for democracy and an end to Sigurimi police brutality. Ramiz Alia's long, angry and obnoxious letter contained the word "Party" no less than 23 times. It was so out of character with Alia's private conversations, that Kadare believes it was actually written by some reactionary party loyalist who possessed something with which to blackmail Alia.

"In the street, half an hour later, we spoke about leaving, very much subdued, as if we were in the presence of death." So Kadare writes in Albanian Spring, his moving, tense account of his departure to Paris with his wife Elena. It is accompanied by a brilliantly original essay on the Machiavellian nature of modern totalitarianism. This remarkable little book is in the same league as Orwell's finest journalism when it comes to lucid exposition of a 20th-century nightmare. The moral integrity that glows in Kadare's prose is also akin to Orwell's. The difference is that Orwell wrote mainly from the safety of his study (Catalonia excepted), while Kadare spent half a century in a Stalinist tyranny which blandly ignored the fact that Stalin himself despised Albania and the Albanians.

I talked to Kadare a few days before Christmas on the evening before his presentation with the Legion d'honneur. I was also present at the ceremony itself, which was held in the splendidly chandeliered Presidential Senate. The awards are given three times a year to French citizens and once a year to foreigners.

Rene Monory, the Senate President, delivered his 10-minute speech with a nervous inaudibility. Kadare, also shy, nevertheless gave a passionate response in vigorous Balkan French. He emphasised the timeliness of the protection he had got from France and how the values of the French Republic were so antithetic to the values of Enver Hoxha, the man who froze his country in poverty, isolation and terror for almost 40 years.

The award, established by Bonaparte in 1802, means a good deal to Kadare, a refugee. He is definitely the first Albanian writer to win it, he says, and very possibly the first Albanian. Yet a young French intellectual I spoke to earlier in the Cafe Beaubourg was openly contemptuous. For him the award spelt bourgeois conformism. He hadn't read any of Kadare's books but felt that Kadare, who he claimed had turned into a French media star, had sold out in accepting the Legion d'honneur. He also believed that Kadare was a kind of political turncoat - a bizarre distortion of the complex compromises and strategic feints that Kadare was obliged to adopt when fighting against the murderous Sigurimi.

Kadare and I met in his beautiful apartment which overlooks both the Luxembourg Gardens and the fast-food outlet McDonald's. He says that he works only two hours a day yet his output of fiction, poetry and essays is colossal. He 61 but looks a lot younger, and his dress and deportment remind me of one of my favourite school physics teachers. He wears a plain brown sweater and plain black trousers, and when he's not laughing he is above all emphatic and passionate.

There are at least two crucial reasons for reading Ismail Kadare. Firstly, because of the urgency of his political concerns, and secondly, because of his artistic versatility. Kadare is rare among writers inasmuch as no two novels read the same, even though they might share the same inspiration, The File on H, his latest to appear in English, is a black Chekhovian comedy about bumbling government officials in Thirties Albania. It has a thematic motif of eyes and vision, and the same obsession turns up in his powerful autobiographical childhood novel, Chronicle of Stone. There, the little boy, Kadare's alter ego, always carries a talismanic monocle in his pocket. Different again is The Pyramids, a chaste, austere novella in which the slavery of the Pharaoh tomb builders is used as a potent allegory for the world of Enver Hoxha, a Paris-educated madman who decreed that half a million entirely useless "defensive" pillboxes be built all over Albania.

But for me his finest book is The Concert, an epic study of the Albanians when living under the thumb of their sole world ally, the Chinese. It is half realism, half Borgesian, and the form and content jointly stun. It discloses, to my surprise at least, that the Albanians mostly hated their Chinese "guests". Likewise this novel jolts by informing us that Albanian intellectuals under Hoxha were just like intellectuals anywhere. They sat in cafes, they muttered about the government, they fell in and out of love, they had dinner parties, they were just like us. Kadare smiles at me and says, yes, it's an important point. Certain naive French admirers had once accused him of seeing his country through rose-tinted spectacles because he had written about buses and cafes in Tirana. But surely, they exclaimed, disappointed, Albania had never had either!

It is these misconceptions which make Kadare most passionately indignant. It is appalling, he says, that Albania has always been so misunderstood and maltreated by all sides. Born near the Greek border in Gjirokaster in 1936, of two Muslim parents, Kadare claims to be an atheist. However, much of his language, especially when he talks of forgiving the old Stalinist order rather than seeking revenge, is Christian. The paradox, then, is that Kadare is a humanist who claims that the greatest riches of Albanian culture derive from its Christian tradition. Nor let us forget, he says passionately, its classical tradition, its venerable Illyrian language (Indo-European and of the same antiquity, he insists, as Homeric Greek and Sanskrit). Kadare proudly points out that the magnificent cathedral at Shkoder is the largest Catholic church in the Balkans. And, he says, if we are talking about simple domestic architecture his (and Enver Hoxha's) home town Gjirokaster is full of very beautiful, old, three-storey houses. The beaches at Durres, Kadare boasts, are as good as the Cote d'Azur. Albania is a gold mine, he concludes, whose successive anarchies and Ottoman and Communist tyrannies are all rooted in the same painful cause. Europe has persistently turned its back on its Albanian stepchild, thereby belying its spiritual heritage and the Christian tradition of giving charity to orphans.

Perhaps this sounds like wayward, arch-mystical Solzhenitsyn, but Kadare's enormous courage - he once stood up at a committee and argued against Hoxha's irascible widow - cannot be denied. As late as 1982 they were still having show trials and shooting the enemies of the State. Anyone who needs reminding - especially the young man in the Cafe Beaubourg - only has to read Albanian Spring to get the full and moving story.

In the meantime his collected works in five fat volumes have just been issued by Fayard in both French and Albanian. A mere handful of his works are available in Britain. Only half of the well-read people I know have even heard of him, and of those, only a very few have read him. At London University's nearest bookshop they have every possible minor East European language primer except for Albanian. They have precisely one copy of one of his novels on display. I think Kadare has got a very strong point when it comes to Albania and orphans.

8 Saqi Books (0171 229 8543) publish 'Albanian Spring' (pounds 20/pounds 11.95), 'Doruntine' (pounds 16.95) and 'Broken April' (pounds 16.95). In partnership with Serpent's Tail they publish 'Chronicle in Stone' (pounds 12.99). Harvill publish 'The Pyramid' (pounds 14.99/pounds 7.99), 'The Palace of Dreams' (pounds 8.99), 'The Concert' (pounds 9.99), and 'The The File on H' (pounds 8.99). In August they will also publish 'The Three Arched Bridge' (pounds 9.99) and 'Broken April' (pounds 6.99). Quartet publish 'The General of the Dead Army' (pounds 6.95).