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Ismail Kadare doesn't need to be dissident to be good

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Ismail Kadare doesn't need to be dissident to be good Empty Ismail Kadare doesn't need to be dissident to be good

Post  Hëna Fri Mar 06, 2009 12:39 pm

The arguments about the Albanian novelist's relationship with the Hoxha regime grumble on, but they miss the point. Perhaps the Nobel prize is too politicised to be a true index of the finest world literature; and perhaps "world literature" is too problematic a category to begin with. Still, the question remains of why the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare has both missed out on the Stockholm award, and is barely acknowledged in the English-speaking world despite being widely published in French. Basic translation problems account for some of it: under Enver Hoxha's Maoist regime, Albania never signed a copyright convention, meaning no respectable publishing house would buy translation rights, and the lack of English-Albanian translators has continued the problem: most of Kadare's work available in English comes through David Bellos's translations from the French.

Still, Le Clézio's 2008 Nobel win shows that limited availability in English is thankfully no bar to the prize. What does stand in his way, by all accounts, is the persistent taint of his perceived co-operation with the Hoxha regime. Although not a party member, Kadare was at one point chairman of a cultural institute run by the dictator's fearsome wife, Nexhmije. More damningly, some claim, Kadare's works written during the Hoxha reign – notably The Great Winter – clearly praise the leader and his split from the Soviets in 1961, after which the country's communism was synthesised with ultra-nationalist mythology.

Such criticisms are hardly helped by Kadare's very honest admission that he never considered himself a dissident. Dissidence was an identity later imposed upon him by foreign journalists, he says, which he was then criticised for failing to live up to.

More importantly, Balkan history was always Kadare's inspiration. The whole history of Albania is almost completely retold through his numerous novels, from the ancient Greeks, to the Ottomans, to the present day – and, within this, during the Hoxha years there's some indication Kadare was participating in the re-writing and use of history as a weapon. Even The Siege, depicting a medieval Albanian city-state under gruelling attack by the Ottomans, has been read as a thinly coded endorsement of Hoxha's nationalist obsession with fighting off Soviet influence.

Robert Elsie attempts to salvage some of Kadare's political reputation, calling him a "profoundly dissident writer" who led a "collaborationist life". But why do we still require Kadare to have been a political dissident? And why have sympathetic critics been so ready to re-paint him as one, as though it lends his work a greater weight? As Kadare has often said himself, writing itself was an act of resistance in his country. Since it was impossible to even mildly criticise the Hoxhas, Kadare took refuge in historical and allegorical fiction, pushing against the confines of communist social realism. Far from romanticising Albania's ancient heritage, in The File On H, Kadare both satirises foreigners searching for the "authentic" Albania of Homeric poetry and delivers a veiled swipe at Hoxha's policy of isolationism. In his masterpiece, The Palace of Dreams, set in a "United Ottoman States" where dreams are scrutinised for signs of coming political unrest, he not only mocks authoritarian regimes' mania for surveillance, but also explores the contrast between modern Albanian identity and the "great past" Hoxha tried to invent.

I find criticisms of The Siege the most curious. It's been accused of mythmaking about noble Albanians and barbarian Ottomans, but it's quite clearly a complex and tender picture of the Balkans that is now more relevant than ever. Though the Albanian half of the story is narrated through the collective voice of a chorus, the Ottomans are depicted in all their vivid, multi-ethnic humanity. Kadare uses the Ottomans to explore the various co-existing identities of the region in a story, first published in 1970, which gained poignant resonance from the events in 1990s Sarajevo.

David Bellos writes in his introduction that the novel also doubles as a study of the "mentality of siege" under Hoxha – but the accusation will probably always stick that Kadare's recent fiction only condemns the Hoxha regime because it's now expedient to do so. But his writing doesn't lie: The Palace of Dreams, The Siege, and the novels he's written since the fall of communism, are all clearly expressions of the same artistic vision.
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