The Siege by Ismail Kadare
E marte, 20.05.2008, 08:02 PM
In the eyes of western Europeans, Albania has long had about it an aura of mystery and exoticism. Ismail Kadare (the country's leading novelist and winner of the Man Booker International prize in 2005) played a riff on this reputation in his 1980 novel The File on H - a charming tragicomedy set in the 1930s, in which two Irish-American classical scholars travel into the Albanian mountains with a tape recorder in order to unlock the secrets of how Homeric epic poetry is transmitted from generation to generation. Naturally, the local authorities assume that the foreigners are spies, and much of the humour arises from the disparity between the romantic quest and the banal realities of provincial Albanian life.
The Siege, first published in Albanian 10 years earlier in 1970, seems at first sight to pander much more straightforwardly to the romantic definition of Albania as a place of ancient conflict and barbarism. It tells the story of the siege of an Albanian fortress in the early 15th century by invading Ottoman Turks. It is indeed a tale steeped in blood, a snapshot of a centuries-long conflict, but at the same time, Kadare's realism and lively sense of irony give it a modern twist.
The plainness of the author's style conceals a considerable artistry of pace and construction. Throughout, the narrative switches point of view between the Christians embattled in their fortress and the Turkish army massed about its ramparts. But the passages given to the Christians are short and written in a collective first-person, as though extracted from some ancient chronicle. The bulk of the narrative is given over to the Turks, and it is they who are individuated, with a gripping account both of the increasingly desperate stratagems they adopt to break the resistance of the Christians, and of the tensions that surface among them when, one by one, those stratagems fail.
Not long after the siege has begun, four members of the Turkish camp spend the night wandering among the tents drinking raki - they are Mevla Celebi, the official chronicler of the expedition; Sadedin, the poet whose job it will be to turn the Turks' victory into epic verse; the camp astrologer, whose role it is to determine when the stars are auspicious for an attack; and Tuz Okcan, a janissary officer. Around these four (of whom only Celebi will emerge from the mayhem unscathed) Kadare weaves his narrative, along with the stories of two other important characters - Ugurlu Tursun Pasha, the Turkish commander in chief, for whom the stakes could not be higher (“His own path ended at the foot of these ramparts. What awaited him now was either the peak of honour or descent into the abyss”), and the quartermaster general, who observes events with a jaundiced and cynical eye, and, in an important series of conversations with Celebi, puts the siege into a wider historical and philosophical context.
Already it can be seen that this is no ordinary historical novel of derring-do - although Kadare does plunge with a story-teller's relish into the blood-soaked action scenes, as wave upon wave of Turks smash themselves against the mighty walls of the fortress. (A contemporary reader can't help but think, a little incongruously, of Sauron's vast army engulfing the citadel of Minas Tirith in the final film of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.) After a huge frontal assault fails, the stratagems adopted by the Turks to defeat the Albanians become ever less heroic, from tunnelling under the walls (the tunnel collapses, condemning hundreds of men who had been mustered there - including the astrologer - to a lingering underground death) to catapulting plague-infected rats over the battlements (Okcan meets his own grisly end when he is bitten by one of the rats and has to be disposed of to stop him spreading the infection). Celebi, the chronicler, struggles to put a suitable gloss on events. Pasha sees the abyss before him and commits suicide.
In an afterword, the translator David Bellos points out that at the time Kadare wrote the novel, in the wake of the Soviet Union's crushing of the Prague Spring, Albania itself, as the only European ally of Mao's China, felt itself isolated and under siege, caught between the two cold-war blocs. Some Albanian critics read The Siege at the time as a double-edged parable - the Albanians successfully repel the Turks in the book, but as every native reader would know, the Turks eventually prevailed. Albania was absorbed into the Ottoman empire. A post 9/11 western reader is as likely to be tempted towards clichés of the “clash of civilisations” type. Which goes to show, perhaps, that great books, books that last, are shape-shifting books. The Siege is about what it is about - a siege in the 15th century. It is also a universal evocation of human violence.