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The Successor, by Ismail Kadare trans. David Bellos

Love, death and paranoia

Having carried off the inaugural Man Booker International Prize, and said to be standing in a tradition going back to Homer, the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare - who does hail from the land of Homer - invites great expectations with his new novella. Though he now lives in Paris, The Successor speaks with chilling directness out of his experience under the paranoid regime of Enver Hoxha, who provided every family with its own concrete bunker and sealed his country off from the rest of the world for 40 years. Its events, Kadare writes in his foreword, "draw on the infinite well of human memory" and so "any resemblance between the characters and circumstances of this tale, and real people and events, is inevitable".

Mehmet Shehu was the politician expected to take over power when Hoxha relinquished the reins, but murder was widely suspected behind his alleged suicide in 1981. He is the model for Kadare's "Successor", while Hoxha is represented by a figure known as the "Guide". Tirana's sinister, pot-holed grandeur provides the location; slate-grey skies reinforce an atmosphere of gloom.

The Successor has died by a bullet in the small hours of the morning, while his family slept undisturbed: an autopsy is ordered, and the house examined to see how an assassin might have entered and escaped. Had the Successor fallen from favour? Had his daughter's rash engagement to a boy with a bourgeois taint sealed his fate with the Guide? Was he due to be "pardoned"?

The doctor charged with doing the autopsy fatalistically assumes this task will result in his own liquidation; the architect who built the house is petrified by the discovery of an illicit feature which he did not install. As Kadare observes, the "architecture of terror" inculcated in Albanian citizens' hearts leads to total paralysis of the will. Nothing "happens" in this fable, which comes to resemble Kurosawa's Rashomon as it approaches its denouement, but we are gripped every step of the way.

It also recalls Kafka: in the brisk and hallucinatory narrative tone, and in the pervasive obsession with reading the signs - does a twitch of the Guide's eyebrow indicate a change in political line? But the excellence of this book lies in the uniqueness of Kadare's vision, and in his ability to reflect pulsating human reality in the grip of an invincibly dehumanising force.

The son's Hamlet-like encounter with his father's ghost turns on questions of revenge and blood-feud custom. The daughter's desperate search for love is presented with painful candour. Kadare writes about sex as he does about politics, with passionate engagement. Playful in form, quirky in conception, this short book speaks volumes.

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