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Interview: Ismail Kadare

E premte, 30.05.2008, 06:08 PM

Ismail Kadare
Alice Fordham talks to the venerable Albanian author about his life under Communist rule

Ismail Kadare wrote for decades under Enver Hoxha's brutal communist regime in Albania, was suspected of spying and threatened with punishment for subversive writing. Despite all this, at 72 he is serene.

Sitting on a cream sofa in his lovely Paris flat, his architectural face and booming, accented French give him his authoritative air. But his confidence is also born of widespread recognition. A winner of the International Man Booker Prize, he is adored in Albania and read across Europe, particularly in France. Now, at last, his work is seeping into the Anglophone consciousness.

Last year, the collection Agamemnon's Daughter was published. The title story took the Greek theme of sacrifice and gave it chilling resonance within a totalitarian regime. Now The Siege, a novel, is published in English, thanks in part to the tireless work of the translator David Bellos.

Written in 1970, it tells of a fictional siege against an Albanian fortress by the Ottoman Army. One - patriotic - interpretation is that Albania is as impregnable as the fortress in the story, but another (given that the Turks did eventually conquer Albania) is that it is only a matter of time before greater forces overpower a smaller one. What is striking, though, are the nuances of the way the Ottoman general controls the army - he sends subversive elements to dig a tunnel, much as Hoxha sent dissidents to mine chromium. And the book seemed a rallying cry to people besieged by the forces of tyranny; even as they are brutalised by the siege, they are hardened against it.

But Kadare disagrees strongly with the idea of the book as a directly dissident work. “This is an almost entirely innocent book in that respect,” he says. “It doesn't claim to or aim to criticise the regime itself.” But despite this, he says, it is subversive in another way: “If you write real literature...normal, authentic literature, then you have already done something that by the fact of being there is against the totalitarian regime.

“Because all totalitarian regimes, especially Stalinist ones, aren't normal, they're mad,” he adds. “So if you manage to do something normal, then you are already against the regime just by the fact of doing it. For me, great literature is just genetically, by its very nature, against totalitarianism. If a book is well done, not to say great or anything - but is a good, proper genuine book, then it is automatically against the totalitarian regime.”

The idea of artistic expression as freedom in itself was obviously tremendously important to Kadare when he wrote the book. “I wrote it in the depths of the totalitarian night,” he says. “And I was very happy when I published it, because it had absolutely nothing to do with the Communist slogans of the day or all the ideological baggage that is part of the culture of Stalinist societies. To be able to write free things in circumstances that are not free is really wonderful.”

He tells me how, in 1981, the son of the Prime Minister, a friend, came to him to tell him that the Government suspected him of spying and that he must be careful. But Kadare's response was to try to forget this, to ignore the authorities and their view of him. Because, he says: “In a country of that kind, the first thing for a writer is the most important one, the most substantial one, it is: do not take the regime seriously.

“You are a writer, you are going to have a much richer life than they have, you are in some sense or another eternal by comparison with those kinds of people, and in the last analysis you don't need to bother about them very much.”

He laughs. “Easy to say,” he says, “but when you're actually there, it's not so easy to do.” He draws a parallel with Dante in the Inferno, when a tempest comes into sight. Virgil, his guide to the underworld, assures him that he need not worry because it is a dead tempest and cannot harm him. “If the writer convinces himself that the tempest is dead,” Kadare says, “the writer is saved.”

And yet the tempests in Albania were real enough. There was real violence and real oppression. Absolutely, he says, but death is inconsequential in comparison with oneself as a writer. Writing is therapy. “As a writer, this is how my days were structured. The first part of the day, I worked at home, myself, as a writer, by the fireplace, and I wrote. I was inside my own literary universe; I was completely at peace and completely free.

“In the afternoon, I went out, went to the café, went to see friends, and the morning's glow began to fade. I felt I was the citizen of a different world. I would hear gossip, mostly not pleasant gossip, people being frightened, people being arrested, and I would get closer to reality, and I was weakened. But a new day would come, and I would start my therapy again.”

Kadare was, to some extent protected from the regime because he came to be well known in the West. If he had been imprisoned or punished for his writing, it would have attracted attention. But his wider notoriety happened by chance.

“It was very simple,” he smiles. “All the communist countries had special publishing houses publishing work in translation for export. It was my great good fortune that Jusuf Vrioni came out of prison. He introduced himself to me and said: ‘I'm a translator; would you allow me to translate your novel The General of the Dead Army?' Vrioni was a person who was disapproved of and I didn't have the authority of being an established writer because I was still very young. So I handed the manuscript in to the foreign language publishing house and it just stayed on a desk for several years. But one day they found they were a bit short of stuff, so they published it, five years later, 1968, like an afterthought.

“It was my stroke of luck. A French journalist noticed it, read it, loved it, and gave it to a Paris publisher. No permissions, no rights, nothing. Albania didn't believe in intellectual property, it was abolished, indeed all personal property had been abolished. So the novel was published in Paris. Everybody was amazed, they came looking for other books by me and that's how it all started.” He laughs. “And that's how I became a Western agent.”

His confidence in the eternal power of great writing is unwavering. It is, indeed, the one kind of tyranny that he can get along with. “In social life,” he says, “dictators are detestable; Stalin, Lenin, Himmler, Hitler are all utterly revolting.

“But great writers and great composers are not at all. Shakespeare and Homer are tyrants who rule for two, three thousand years. Literature is just something else, it's different, and the rules are different. One great writer can do more good than a hundred thousand mediocre writers.”

What Kadare achieved required bravery. He left Albania only at the end of Hoxha's regime, and he is now a vocal commentator on Balkan affairs. His work may not be directly critical of totalitarianism but is inextricably tied up with it. The freedom that came with ignoring an ever-present threat has produced a body of work that, for millions who lived under Hoxha, must have illuminated the darkness of that totalitarian night.

For the rest of us, his books stand, as he says of the literature he loves, “eternal and timeless”, but they also remind us of the millions of lives manipulated by authoritarianism.

The Siege by Ismail Kadare, translated from the French of Jusuf Vrioni by David Bellos
Canongate, £16.99; 238pp Buy the book here


“This war will go on for a long time,” the Quartermaster said. “Albania will be drained of all its energy.

This is only the beginning.”

He took a sip and gave a deep sigh.

“Every spring,” he continued, “when the green shoots reappear, we will return to these parts. The ground will shake under our troops' marching feet. The valleys will be burned and everything that grows or stands in them will be reduced to ashes. The prosperous economy of the country will be ruined. Thereafter the people round here will use the word ‘Turk' to scare their children.

“And yet, as I've already told you, Çelebi, if we don't overcome them on this first campaign, then we'll need twice as many men to win at the second attempt, and three times as many at the third attempt, and so on.

“If they escape from this hell, then it will be very hard to annihilate them later on. They'll become accustomed to sieges, to hunger and thirst, to massacres and alerts. Meanwhile their first-born will be children of war.

“And the worst of it is that they will become familiar with death. They will get used to it the way an animal that has been tamed no longer causes fear. So even if we do conquer them in battle, we will never overcome them. In attacking them, in striking at them without mercy, in throwing our boundless army at them without succeeding in laying them low, we are unwittingly doing the Albanians a great service.”

The Quartermaster shook his head in bitterness.

“We thought we were putting them to death. But in fact, we are making them immortal, and by our own hand too.”

Ismail Kadare: landmark works

General of the Dead Army (1963)
A bleak reflection on war. An Italian officer returns to Albania 20 years after the Second World War to search for bodies.

Chronicle in Stone (1971)
A little boy grows up in a rocky mountain town. His small adventures are overshadowed by a growing feeling of fear.

The File on H (1981)
Two young Irish-American scholars trying to trace the roots of Homer to the bards that still sing in Albania are suspected of spying.

The Palace of Dreams (1981)
A vast Byzantine Ministry requires everyone to submit their dreams for interpretation by officials. The novel was banned when it first appeared in Albania.

Agamemnon's Daughter (2007)
Collection of stories including The Blinding Order, imagining a regime that blinds anyone found to have the Evil Eye.

We have five pairs of tickets to give away to Ismail Kadare's appearance at Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London SE1, on June 3 at 7.45pm. Email books@thetimes.co.uk with “Kadare” in the subject line, and include your name, address and telephone number. To buy tickets telephone 0871 663 2500 or visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk. Kadare also appears in Hay-on- Wye (May 31), Bath (June 1) and Oxford (June 2).

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