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The Successor, by Ismail Kadare

Land of the politely implacable furies

Albania, the "land of eagles", cannot complain of having been smothered in goodwill. For a long time, it was even more of an enigma than Russia, and when the bloc fell, what the world saw of it seemed unappealing. Ismail Kadare has done much to educate the west about his native land, and his new novel, based on the events surrounding the death of Mehmet Shehu, the ill-starred "Successor" to the communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, is a magnificent addition to his menacing, lyrical, darkly funny oeuvre.

One December morning, the man believed by all Albania to be the designated successor to Enver Hoxha, the "Guide", is found dead. Suicide as a result of nervous dep- ression is the airy official version, the first of several. Yet there is no fanfare, no mourning, no flags at half mast. Reports in the media barely graze the subject. The people ponder and gossip: was it really suicide? Or was it murder?

Spies and saboteurs are never lacking in such a regime. Not long before the tragedy, the Successor's daughter, Suzana, was to have married a young man named Genc, but the engagement was terminated. Rumour runs that Genc's family was too deeply implicated in the former regime, and that the Successor had realised the terrible betrayal of the class struggle such an alliance would represent, and had moved to oppose - but too late. And then there was the matter of the beautiful house he had had built, a house which outshone that of the Guide himself.

For Suzana herself, the loss of her father is yet another horrible token of the power "they" have. She is not permitted to love, and she is not permitted to question. Her brother is increasingly convinced that powers older than Hoxha's are, if not responsible, at least ancillary. A strange, forgotten aunt appears with unsettling counsel from the world communist Albania has forgotten. But is she a spy, a member of the Sigurimi, or is she herself a ghost? The family find their house part requisitioned while a long overdue autopsy is planned. Perhaps, after all, the beloved husband and father will be rehabilitated, and then they can all live in peace. The pathologist is frightened, knowing that such an important autopsy might well be his own death-warrant; the architect is frightened, fearing that he will be sacrificed as the architects of the pyramids were sacrificed; the man seen as a silhouette on the fateful night is frightened, though he is guiltless.

But the prose never panics. It muses and meanders; the focus does not so much shift as glide from character to character. As a result, the reader feels a progressive tightening around the chest: you want to get out, you almost want to scream.

Of Kadare's many great gifts, perhaps the most powerful is his ability to release the wraiths of that world while staying completely unruffled himself. Sometimes the most biting terrors are expressed in terms of gentle remonstrance, as when another victim of Hoxha's malice conducts an inner debate with the Guide, wondering what more he could have done. In the universe of the Guide, the dead can be "unburied" depending on their posthumous standing with him; a night can disappear at his wave. The horror of a world dominated by politely implacable furies, where everything is yes and no, where the only law appears to be the will of the dictator, rises in a choking miasma from the pages.

But of course there is another, older law. Again and again, the characters find themselves, at moments either of extreme stress or of half-waking languour, remembering old saws and customs, superstitions that government diktat can ban but never dispel. Six horses ride to the ruin of a French courtier who had aroused his sovereign's envy; there is vengeance, the 1,000-year-old law of the Kanun, waiting to be reborn. And Hoxha himself, the abolisher of the old order, is ironically its personification. Kadare makes him nothing if not human and not a whit less odious for that: an envious imp of vanity and cruelty, neither grand nor robotic in his evil, but self-seeking and sentimental. The "Black Beast", his euphemism for the night of grace he grants for his former favourites to end themselves, is a "delicate" beast which he tells himself not to over-work.

The Successor is strangely uplifting, despite the relentless tragedy it depicts, the tragedy of people yanked between fear and bewilderment. The final section, despite its sombreness, swings you up into the region where cruelty and pettiness are themselves left without air.

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