Next Monday, Ismail Kadare will accept the first Man Booker International Prize, in Edinburgh. He has for long been the best-known Albanian writer of his generation, perhaps of all time, and is one of the most remarkable European novelists of the 20th century. His work is as immense as Balzac's, as unrelenting in its critique of dictatorship as Orwell's, and as disturbingly fantastical as Kafka's. It is an invention as well as a reflection of what it means to be Albanian, and an exploration of both the ugliness and the dignity of a small, ancient, oppressed nation. Kadare is perhaps the last "national writer" of European history.
The son of a minor non-communist official and a mother from a wealthier background, Kadare was born in 1936. He grew up in the walled city of Gjirokaster, not far from the Greek border, and also the home town of Enver Hoxha - the "Red Sultan" of Albania from 1945 to 1985. The city and its atmosphere are recreated in Chronicle in Stone (1970; Serpent's Tail).
Kadare was a brilliant student at Tirana University, and published poems in his teens. Albania was a Soviet satellite, and in 1960 he was sent to Moscow to pursue his education. After Hoxha broke off relations with the Soviet Union, he was obliged to return to Tirana. Albania remained an isolated nation and a closed society until Hoxha launched the strangest alliance of modern times, with Mao's China.
Written around the time of his return from Moscow, Kadare's first published novel deals with the bizarre duties of an Italian general sent to Albania to gather the remains of soldiers who had fallen during the war against Greece. The General of the Dead Army (1963; Harvill) established his reputation; it was translated and turned into a film starring Marcelo Mastroianni. Its ostensible subject covers deeper themes, inherited from Greek myths, Shakespeare and the German romantics.
Kadare probably owes his own survival in a backward country ruled by paranoia and repression to The Great Winter (1973), which recounts Albania's split with the Soviet Union and includes a picture of Hoxha himself. Kadare described the novel as the price he had to pay for his freedom. Hoxha was reluctant to ban the book, since that would involve eradicating a not unflattering portrait of himself, and refrained from persecuting its author. All the same, Kadare often sailed perilously close to the wind and many other texts were banned.
Some he smuggled out of the country as pages stuffed inside wine bottles. From 1965 to 1998, all his "permitted" novels were translated into French by an Albanian, Jusuf Vrioni. The status Kadare acquired inside Albania and, especially, internationally made him one of the very few Albanians allowed to travel abroad. A visit to Turkey in the 1970s brought him into contact with the great scholar of Balkan oral epics, Albert Lord: the result was a novel about the struggle for national identity, The File on H (1981; Harvill).
But Kadare's writing is always set in Albania - even if that sad land sometimes appears disguised as Egypt (The Pyramid, 1992; Harvill) or the Ottoman Empire (Palace of Dreams, 1981; Harvill). Broken April (1978; Vintage), perhaps the most widely-read of his novels in English, is a harrowing narrative of the ancient customs of blood feud. Indirectly, though, it is an oblique assertion of the permanence of Albanian civilisation. The film version, made by Walter Salles in 2001 as Behind the Sun, transposes the story to Brazil and abandons the political subtext.
Kadare's mere survival in an environment as hostile as Hoxha's Albania led many in the West to suspect him of compromise, or worse. His appointment as a member of parliament misled many into thinking him sympathetic to the regime. It has now been shown that these suspicions were unfounded, and that Kadare's remarkable story is one of courage, persistence, wiliness - and luck.
In 1985, Hoxha was succeeded by Ramiz Alia, who maintained a Stalinist regime. Kadare fled to Paris in 1990; he was granted political asylum, and awarded French nationality. Since the collapse of the Alia regime in 1991, he has divided his life between Paris and Tirana. As a "privileged resident" of the Latin Quarter, he has used his influence to promote other Albanian poets and novelists. His own rate of production remains intense.
Even while revising his opus for a bilingual series for Fayard, he has brought out new work at high speed. Long-suppressed novels, new ones portraying post-Communist Albania through the lenses of myth and dream (Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, 2000; Vintage), and retrospectives of the mental tortures of life under tyranny (The Successor, 2003) continue to flow.
With each new work connected to all the others, the Kadarean universe goes on acquiring ever greater self-sufficiency. It adds up to a portrait of an imaginary land - Kadaria, some have called it - with a single, central topic: how to remain human in a world ruled by fear and suspicion. It is a singular, magnificent achievement, and has long been thought worthy of the highest honour.
David Bellos has translated Kadare's 'The File on H', 'The Pyramid' (Harvill) and 'Spring Flowers, Spring Frost' (Vintage)
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