The Siege, by Ismail Kadare, trans David Bellos

An empire falters at the castle of crossed destinies
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The Independent Culture

The Ottoman pasha leads a vast army towards Albania, where a lone castle stands amid plains. When his first attack is beaten back, great cannons are cast to smash the walls. The Christian defenders, cunning as well as fanatical, resist. The pasha tries tunnelling under the wall, tipping cages of diseased rats over the parapets, then cutting off the water supply. Nothing avails. Finally, he hurls his men at the castle in serial assaults, where they break like waves on the stone.

The Albanians' mysterious leader, Skanderbeg, appears invincible. The army is recalled, the despairing pasha kills himself, and the survivors wend their way back to Constantinople through the autumn rain.

The elements of Ismail Kadare's novel are so sparse, you may wonder how they can sustain a novel. Pushkin or Borges would have turned them into brilliant tales; Kafka, into a parable no bigger than a matchbox. As in his other books, Kadare operates by packing a slender plot with dread and uncertainty. The pasha does not know if this campaign is his best chance of glory or a poisoned chalice. How can he be sure that his advisors don't want him to fail? They all have their protectors and motives. Clashes in the war council are deadly. Power flows and ebbs around the tent.

The novel pairs the pasha with a chronicler, Mevla Çelebi, sent to immortalise the victory. A humdrum civilian, terrified of unconventional thoughts, Çelebi is our everyman wandering timidly through the Ottoman camp, witnessing the cruelties of war. Kadare renders his characters' compulsions and fearful intuitions like a Fauvist painter: boldly, without finesse. The setting is medieval, but if you want documentary, go elsewhere. The Siege is a pastiche epic, artfully crude, depicting situations so shorn of specificity that they feel elemental.

The figure who most appals and attracts Çelebi is the enigmatic Quartermaster, who torments the writer with heretical confidences. Kadare is always skilled at conjuring the fearfulness of people and surroundings that cannot be known. The atmospherics are insistent and fateful, like film noir. You believe it was like this in the upper echelons of the Albanian communist party, a milieu that Kadare knew from inside.

Big writers from small countries often want to champion their neglected homeland or, alternatively, to disown an identity that claims too much. Kadare is a fine case of the first kind. He revels in the otherness of Albania; it fires his imagination to set conceited foreigners down in his alien landscape and monitor their reactions as bafflement turns to ruin. The Pasha has one word for the place: "horrible". But Albania has the last laugh. How odd that by the end, after so much gloating bloodshed, cosy patriotism comes to seem the novel's only flaw.

Mark Thompson's 'The White War: life and death on the Italian front 1915-1919' is due from Faber in September

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