The Books Interview: Ismail Kadare - Enver's never-never land

Ismail Kadare's novels take Albania's plight into the heart of Europe. Shusha Guppy talks to him

While the Serbian and Kosovan delegates were locked up this week in the Chateau de Rambouillet, in Paris Albania's greatest living writer was anxiously awaiting the outcome. Ismail Kadare's latest book, Three Elegies for Kosovo, has just been published in France to great acclaim. It recounts the famous Battle of Kosovo in 1389, in which several Balkan kingdoms joined forces against the Turks, and lost.

The battle lasted only one day, but the Turkish leader Sultan Murad was killed, and the Turks left. (They returned 150 years later, took the whole of the Balkans, and stayed for 400 years.) The battle is described by three narrators - Turkish, Serbian, Albanian - in three short sections. For the following six centuries, the Serbs and the Albanians have been fighting over Kosovo.

Ismail Kadare once said that a writer has two ages: his natural age, and his reputation, which lives on another time-scale. His own reputation came to the West in 1970, when his novel The General of the Dead Army took literary Paris by storm. It tells the story of an Italian general who goes to Albania after the Second World War to recover the bodies of Italian soldiers and bring them back for burial. It was hailed as a masterpiece, and in France its author was received by intellectuals as a new, powerful voice from behind the Iron Curtain.

Since then, Kadare's prodigious output - 15 volumes of fiction, several collections of poetry and essays - has been translated into most major languages, and he has been nominated for the Nobel Prize 15 times. He has been compared to Gogol, Kafka and Orwell, but his is an original voice, universal but rooted in his own soil.

Kadare is profoundly involved with his country - "the antique Illyrium, the third region of southern Europe beside Rome and Greece" - and its language, a unique branch of the Indo-European family. He speaks in prophetic accents of "La Grande Litterature Universelle", which is his spiritual home: "Literature led me to freedom, not the other way round". That a small far-away country should have produced a writer of his stature adds weight to his belief that Albania belongs to the mainstream of European culture.

Kadare partly blames the West for the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha's entrenchment: "The West forgave Tito and helped Yugoslavia, but it did not forgive Hoxha. When Hoxha broke with the Soviet Union in 1962, he was ready to turn to Europe, but he was rejected, so he made an absurd short-lived alliance with China. When that went wrong he built thousands of anti- nuclear pill-boxes, which he knew were useless, but he wanted to create a fear- psychosis. Albania suffered longer than any other Eastern European country."

The success of The General abroad put Kadare in an awkward position in Albania. Official critics savaged him. Where were the cheerful peasants, the Stakhanovite workers, the optimism about a glorious future? His book was gloomy, all mud and rain and rotten bodies, and the false heroism of war. Thereafter Kadare used a variety of literary devices - allegory, satire, mythology, historical narrative - to escape Hoxha's ruthless censors: "Hoxha fancied himself an intellectual and poet who had been to the Sorbonne, and he didn't want to be seen as an enemy of writers. Of course, he could have killed me in a `car crash', or by `suicide', as he did many others."

There followed nearly three decades of a deadly cat-and-mouse game. Kadare's books were in turn published and banned. He was made an MP one day, exiled to a remote region the next. In 1975, he narrowly escaped being shot, when his satirical poem The Red Pasha was denounced by a government employee. Yet he did not want to uproot himself by defecting. Instead, he chronicled the dark years of dictatorship in masterpieces such as The Pyramid, The Concert and Chronicle in Stone, an enchanting account of his childhood.

"Everyone knew that I was an anti-regime writer, and the fact that the regime could not condemn me gave courage to others," he explains. He finally left Albania in 1990, and was welcomed in France as an honoured guest: "One day I received a letter from Tamiz Alia, Hoxha's successor, in which the Party was mentioned 23 times. I knew it was time for me to go. There was a struggle between democracy and dictatorship, and I thought that my departure would help the cause of democracy."

Kadare is slim, shy and courteous. His dark dapper suit and large horn- rimmed glasses emphasise his serious expression while his deep voice and strong accent are mitigated by a ready smile and laughter. He lives in Paris in a spacious, bright apartment overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens, which belongs to the French Academy. In 1996, he was made a Member of the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, replacing the British philosopher Karl Popper, and last year he was presented with the Legion d'honneur, the first Albanian to receive the honour.

In Britain, until recently, few people had read Kadare. Yet his literary progenitor is Shakespeare: "I read Macbeth when I was 11; it hit me like lightning, and I copied every word of it." Later he discovered the Greek classics: "After that nothing could have power over my spirit. I realised that there was a great universal literature which nothing can destroy. So when I went to Gorky Institute in Moscow, which was a factory for producing Party hacks, I was already immunised. What was happening in Elsinore or by the ramparts of Troy was more real to me than the wretched banalities of socialist-realist novels. I had three choices: to become a conformist, to stop writing, or to write as if I were free. I chose the last."

Since the collapse of Communism some former dissident authors have stopped writing, as if they had lost their raison d'etre. Not so Kadare, who has since produced Spiritus (a novel about two ghosts who return to a postcommunist world), poetry, memoirs, and Three Elegies for Kosovo.

Has freedom of expression helped him? "For a writer personal freedom is not so important. It is not individual freedom that guarantees the greatness of literature, otherwise writers in democratic countries would be superior to all others. Some of the greatest writers wrote under dictatorship - Shakespeare, Cervantes. The great universal literature has always had a tragic relation with freedom. The Greeks renounced absolute freedom and imposed order on chaotic mythology, like a tyrant.

"On the other hand, nobody forced Gorky to write The Mother, in New York in 1905. Gorky's slavery was in his head, and his piece of rubbish murdered half the writers of Eastern Europe, as it became a model everybody had to copy. In the West, the problem is not freedom. There are other servitudes - lack of talent, thousands of mediocre books published every year."

Nowadays, Kadare prefers working in Paris. He writes in a cafe near his home for a few hours a day, reads, and spends time with friends, mostly French writers. At the moment his main preoccupation is Kosovo: "Why was this piece of Albania given to Serbia as a present after the War? It was a tragic error: 40 per cent of all Albanians live in Kosovo: a classic example of colonialism, worse than South Africa under apartheid. The Serbs evoke the Battle of Kosovo; it is as if Britain claimed Belgium because of the Battle of Waterloo."

I pointed out that the world community feared the disintegration of the whole Balkans, with every tiny bit demanding independence. "You cannot keep a people in slavery by that sort of reasoning," he answers. "It is immoral. But I agree that there is a danger, and for that reason the European Community should negotiate for serious compromises, even sacrifices... For example, that for 5-10 years Kosovo would not join Albania, and that the Albanians of Macedonia would not rock the boat for the same length of time." What about America, I wondered? "I cannot answer that question," he says, "but I know that Europe must be responsible for its own destiny, otherwise it is the end of European civilisation."

Ismail Kadare talks (in French) at the French Inst, 15 Queensberry Place, London SW7 on 2 March at 6.30 pm (0171-838 2144)

Ismail Kadare, A Biography

Ismail Kadare was born in Albania in 1936, in Gjinokastra near the Greek border (also the birthplace of Enver Hoxha). He studied literature in Tirana, then spent three years at Gorky Institute, Moscow. When Hoxha broke with the USSR in 1961, Kadare returned and published his first novel in 1962. He left Albania in 1990 with his wife and daughter and settled in Paris, but goes back regularly. He has published 14 novels, three books of poetry, and volumes of essays and memoirs. Ten novels are published in English, five by Harvill: The Pyramid, The Palace of Dreams, The Concert, The Three-Arched Bridge and Broken April.

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