| E diele, 20.07.2008, 09:15 PM |
Banned novelist and Man Booker International prizewinner; communist bigwig and political refugee: the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare has many faces. He talks to Duncan Fallowell about surviving totalitarianism.
Ismail Kadare won the Man Booker International Prize in 2005 but few people know what this Albanian man is like, so I thought I'd try to find out while he was passing through London. I sit with Mrs Kadare in the foyer of the hotel while her husband is being photographed (something he hates). She tells me in French that she doesn't get to visit any places when they are on the road, just airports, hotels, conferences, so I explain that there's a place called Harrods and give her instructions how to find it.
She is a warm, beautiful woman in her sixties, with long, blonded hair, and I'd be just as happy interviewing her about life under the dictator Hoxha who ruled Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985. It might help to solve the conundrum of how her husband was able to publish anything decent at all during such a regime.
Kadare was born in 1936 in Gjirokastër in southern Albania. My first impression of him is that he is all brown, dressed in crumpled brown clothes, with the drained brown look of one who has come through endless, gruesome committee meetings in order to stay alive. Even his spectacles have that dead politburo look. It's a style I never came across in Russia itself. It seems characteristic of provincial Stalinism, a world of quiet, logical executions and pointless projects, neurotic backbiting and stale weariness.
advertisementLike most Albanians, Kadare's parents were of Muslim background. His father worked for the post office. I ask if he had a good relationship with them and he answers, "Yes, I did, but I am always amazed when people try to find the origins of literature in childhood circumstances. I don't believe in that."
Does he recall their death?
"Certainly. My father died in 1979. It was New Year's Eve just before midnight. People said it was a sign - but I don't know what it was a sign of. My mother died 10 years before that."
Did he cry when his mother died?
"I was very upset. I don't think I cried. It's not the sort of thing I do." His hands move somewhat nervously.
He studied in Moscow in the late 1950s. Was he happy there?
"Yes. Very happy."
But then he catches himself as though he might have given the wrong impression. "I was happy… as a human being. But I was none the less aware that I was in a college that was somehow twisted. The Gorky Institute was a factory for conformist, dogmatic writers and, because I understood that, I was saved."
How did he discover the facts of life?
"Oh… well, after my school in Gjirocastër, I went to university in Tirana and I was awoken to the facts of life in my first year by a girl on the same course."
And what was his most unhappy love affair?
"I don't remember…"
Then he loosens up. "There was a classmate I had a relatively long affair with - but then I decided it was not the fashion." I think he means that personal attachment was viewed as anti-Communist. "Long-term relationships were considered out-of-date. One's friends and classmates were the real enemy - it was worse than having the police on your tail! Especially in Moscow. They would say, 'Are you still with that girl there? Time to change!' And I think it's the greatest failure of my life that I dropped girls that I liked because comrades told me to. It was complete madness."
So what, for him, is love?
"This is the most difficult question of all. Very important - but in literature it doesn't play the role that people think. It is not a direct inspiration for literature." And I don't get an answer.
advertisementBack in Albania, Kadare started to work for a literary magazine and gradually emerged as his country's most distinguished novelist and poet. It involved a lot of fancy footwork, occasional plaudits to the leader, while trying to hold fast to his inner truth. From time to time a work would be banned, including The Palace of Dreams in 1981.
"It was worse than being banned. Its title could not even be mentioned, not even to attack it. The formula used was that it contained 'anti-government allusions'."
Kadare has subsequently said that this novel was his attempt to create a vision of hell on earth, a society in which even people's dreams are under surveillance. It is his most Kafkaesque book but, funnily enough, I didn't find it particularly hellish. I read it more as a metaphor of how a work of art is created.
"Look, I'm deeply convinced," he says, "that a work of literature, apart from its historical, philosophical or political meanings, first of all obeys the laws of aesthetic beauty. When I decided to write about the Palace of Dreams I was drawn to it because I thought it was a beautiful idea. First and foremost it is a literary decision, and that is why it can be adapted to many situations."
In the novel Spring Flowers, Spring Frost (2000), a girl says to an artist, "You told me about the permanent stress of life under the dictatorship." I wonder what symptoms of stress he experienced himself.
"The most important tool of oppression for dictatorship was poverty. Little food, tiny apartments. People were given such narrow lives that they did not dare to think of anything else."
He's speechifying and I try to cut it short - I want to know about his personal suffering. Was it anything more than having a few books banned?
"Friends in prison. Your life changes completely when you have a friend in prison in a Stalinist country. Every night you think: what is he saying down there, what is he confessing, what is he fabricating, what might he be forced to say under torture? It's like losing an arm - you're handicapped. You think you can carry on leading a normal life but actually you can't because your life depends on the people inside. The hell-life below actually controls life in the upper world and the inquisition never stopped. Whenever I struck up a friendship in Albania, my first thought was always, 'I hope that man is not going to end up in prison so that he'll have to report on what we have said to each other.' "
One of the controversial aspects of Kadare's past is that he became vice-president of the Democratic Front, not really a party so much as the mass structure of Communist Albania. Though this appointment came after Hoxha's death, Communism was firmly in place until 1992. How the artist survives under tyranny is what I call the Shostakovich Problem.
"They elected a whole set of vice-presidents - one intellectual, one peasant, one soldier, and so on - representing the alleged classes of Albanian society. People abroad have made speculations about me on the basis of this, but if you are Albanian you understand that it was a joke. In a Stalinist country there were honours and titles which had no meaning - but which you could not refuse or resign. To refuse was to challenge the party and you would be called a spy and unmasked as an agent of the international bourgeoisie."
But if you refuse to join the gang, there is some truth in it - that you are their enemy.
"Agreed! People sometimes ask, as with Shostakovich, why did you not refuse? When you explain that to refuse means death, they shut up. Their real question is: why are you not dead? When I use the expression 'Don't take dictatorship too seriously', what I mean is that you should not lose your life for the sake of idiots and murderers."
Eventually it was all too much and he sought asylum in Paris in 1990. But why did he not get out before?
"My family. If you know that because you have run away your wife, children, relations will go to prison, you could never sleep, you would end up mad."
By 1990 that threat had presumably slackened. He has two daughters, the elder still living in Paris. The younger has returned to Albania. Does he feel guilty about anything?
advertisement"Nothing. In the Communist regime we writers were considered permanently guilty. The whole nation was infected by that stupid idea. So I'm fed up with it!"
Lord Byron travelled in Albania in a more romantic age. He said the men were the most beautiful he had ever seen and that the homosexuality of the Ancient Greeks still flourished there. I wonder if anything survives of this old homosexual world. After all, Kadare's novel The File on H (1981) is about the survival of Homeric rhapsodists in Albania.
"What Byron saw had nothing to do with Ancient Greece," declares Kadare. "It came with the Ottoman occupation and was paedophile, little boys."
Not exactly. The Ottomans took quite a lot from the Greeks in these matters, and the boys had to have reached puberty. The ruler Ali Pasha was very attracted to Byron himself, who was in his early twenties.
"Oh, everything amused Ali Pasha! But in the Kanun [the old Albanian system of justice which was written down in the 19th century but had medieval origins, a glorified bandit code of honour leading to almost permanent vendetta and bloodshed] homosexuality is, unfortunately, severely punished as a crime.
"Maybe there was an even older code, from the ancient Greeks, because there is a story of mine called 'The Male Beauty Contest', which has not been published in English, which is about this strange tradition that survives in the highlands of Albania."
What qualities does he admire in a man? "Fidelity. Loyalty. In the free world, loyalty is a moral concept but in totalitarian countries betrayal can take you to the firing squad."
And in a woman?
I have read five of his novels straight off and, whether they are about the old murder-politics of the Kanun, or the more recent murder-politics of the dictatorship, Albania strikes me as an awful place, an inverse Ruritania. Does the Albanian language have a word for "delightful"? Apparently not. In London, the most ruthless criminal gangs are said to be Albanian and they run the city's prostitution. Does he know why?
"Perhaps it is a perversion of the joy of freedom."
And in his own books - no happiness anywhere. Everything is shadowed by fear. Can the future of Albania include a little happiness now?
"Literature has got nothing to do with happiness. I don't know a single work in world literature where you can come across happiness."
Good Lord, what an extraordinary thing to say.
"I'll tell you where the health in life is," he continues, "and in literature, too. It is where you find a sense of humour combined with a sense of the grotesque. In my own work, I always combine the tragic, the grotesque, and the humorous."
Well, that cuts out Tolstoy, George Eliot, Henry James, D H Lawrence and all the other great, humane novelists. To an outsider, this is one of the most obvious indicators of totalitarianism: the way it painfully narrows literature. I've a whole wall of books from 20th-century geniuses writing under the Communist yoke and they are all about the same thing: the ghastliness of the situation. The subject is always the individual against the system. By happiness I mean some tincture of light-heartedness, a humanitarian literature that can explore relationships between individuals, which contains not only the hard stuff but is also an elaboration of intimacy and love and the delights of being alive.
Writers who have laboured under totalitarianism, whether for or against, whether publicly or in secret, are always contaminated by it. For me, the most interesting aspect of Kadare's work is this ambiguity. He is very gifted. His dry, unfussy prose is as poised as a cobra and carries a lethal bite. But the chief reward in reading him is realising how lucky I was to have been born in Harrow and not Gjirokastër.
Now that he is a world-famous writer, what does he like to spend his money on?
"Normal things. I don't look for luxuries."
In which case Mrs Kadare should definitely take him to Harrods.