Leading a Dark Mission to Albania’s Fields of Bones
E merkure, 01.10.2008, 10:00 PM
By RICHARD EDER
Ismail Kadare’s world is a sort of antimatter. It destroys ours. Except that, unlike the example from particle physics, it also complements ours and to stark effect. To read the novels of this great Albanian writer (“The Palace of Dreams,” “The Pyramid,” “The Three-Arched Bridge”) is to enter a nightmare we cannot inhabit, but we sense that it inhabits us.
Our big-power cultural provincialism requires a corrective. “Great Albanian writer” may risk a reflexive yawn. But it’s tiny worlds that fill the large ones: Jane Austen’s village society, Mark Twain’s muddy Mississippi, Cervantes’s somnolent Mancha. For that matter, Dante’s hell is largely populated from the bloody quarrels of a few small city-states.
Albania has lived isolated, impoverished, overrun almost as an afterthought by the marches and countermarches of the East and West, and obdurately resistant, with an ancient code of retaliatory violence and blood feud. Mr. Kadare draws us into its strangeness, and we come out strange to ourselves.
“The General of the Dead Army” makes such a reversal more explicitly than Mr. Kadare’s later works, which achieve it by terrible implication. Here — in this recent translation from a French version — the intrusion of an advanced West into the Albanian darkness, and its moral dismantling, is literally spelled out in the story itself.
Twenty years after World War II, an Italian general is sent to Albania to track down and take back the thousands of his country’s soldiers killed in Mussolini’s vainglorious and disastrous invasion. They are buried in dozens of scattered and mostly unlabeled sites throughout the menacing countryside.
The mission is publicized as one of national honor; the general embarks on it with due self-importance, but it is not long before he feels overwhelmed. He has only the company of an Italian priest, and an Albanian expert and work party, to perform the grueling labor of consulting villagers to locate the piles of bones, have them dug up, sorted and bagged in little nylon sacks, and then shuffle through vague records to identify them.
He preserves his cocky assurance. His excellent maps and well-prepared lists of the dead are far superior to the clumsy tools of an Albanian general bent on a similar mission — and so unsuccessful that the Albanian appropriates a few Italian remains to supplement his own poor findings.
And then Mr. Kadare advances wryly and dryly into the darkness. The Italian general’s blithe confidence will gradually be undermined. The priest, who knows the country, warns him that his work party’s spades are violating a taboo. It is the second time in 20 years that a foreign military expedition has invaded Albania. The silence of the countryside is not acquiescence but menace; for centuries the code has demanded a deadly reprisal for any insult to honor.
“Their vendetta is like a play composed in accordance with all the laws of tragedy,” the priest warns.
“Their nature requires war, cries out for war,” he says. “In peace, the Albanian becomes sluggish and only half alive, like a snake in winter. It is only when he is fighting that his vitality is at full stretch.”
Mr. Kadare doesn’t do messages; he brings them to lethal life. A peasant gives voice to the dark current that the expedition releases. To bring out the remains of the Italian invaders and their Albanian collaborators is to reinforce the enemy, he complains. Dead soldiers are soldiers.
Gradually — as with Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness” — a seemingly primitive spirit of place infects the seemingly superior outsider. The general begins to think of the piles of bones the same way the peasant does.
“I have a whole army of dead men under my command now, he thought. Only instead of uniforms they are all wearing nylon bags. Blue bags with two white stripes and black edging, made to order by the firm of ‘Olympia.’ ” And “now we are on our way to completing regiments and divisions.” Immediately he begins to imagine this army, under his leadership, winning in Normandy, Korea, Vietnam. “He was a general who knew what it meant to command.”
His dead-invader army is as warlike in him as in the recesses of the Albanian soul, where even 20 years later injury calls for revenge. At the same time — because Mr. Kadare is too subtle a writer to follow a single track — the general shakes off what stirs inside him even as it stirs outside.
Arrogantly sure, he insists on attending a village wedding uninvited, despite the warnings of the priest. Dark stares and silence greet them, even as the head man receives him with ceremonious courtesy. There cannot be a threat, he boasts to the priest; witness the respect.
“Death commands respect,” the priest replies.
A stunning scene follows; drama erupting like a scream after long silence. Humiliated, the general confronts all that his Western superiority had him ignore. It is doom, but Mr. Kadare knows that doom is most strongly conveyed when not quite carried out.
In the book’s final section, the protagonist, his mission at an end, drinks in a hotel with his part-Westernized colleague, the Albanian general. The talk is deliberately, stupefyingly, endlessly trivial. Anticlimax is climax disguised. Mr. Kadare’s doom needed only a moment to show its terrible face before subsiding into banality.