by Ismail Kadare
Ismail Kadare is the only Albanian intellectual well known outside the lands where that language is spoken. The Successor, originally published in 2003, is his most recent novel rendered in English. The word "translation" does not really apply here because David Bellos, a Princeton professor of French, does not know Albanian, and reworked this version, and his earlier such efforts with Kadare's writings, from French editions.
Kadare's novels fall into two categories. Volumes like Doruntine, published here in 1990, The Three-Arched Bridge (1997), Broken April (1998), and Spring Flowers, Spring Frost (2002) revive ancient Balkan legends. They sometimes center on a woeful but enduring tradition, the blood feud, which remains a serious problem in northern Albania.
These titles have been successful with Western readers thanks to their exoticism, an occasional air of menace and suspense, and touches of romance. The other stream of Kadare narratives is political: The General of the Dead Army, published here in 1990, and The Concert (1998). They reproduce the ideological issues and convoluted relationships in Communist Albania under the dictatorship created by Enver Hoxha, who ruled the country from 1944 until his death in 1985.
The common element in all of Kadare's fiction is stylistic detachment. The landscape of the Albanian lands is diverse and sometimes spectacular: the high, stunningly lonely peaks known as "the Accursed Mountains," and other impressive ranges, as well as immense lakes and the green fields of Kosovo. Greek, Roman, Slav, Venetian, and Ottoman architectural gems are numerous. But Kadare does not excel at description, and seems a stranger in his native country, even as his stories, which transpire mainly in the minds of his characters, incorporate many an obscure note. These include references to the Kanun, or Albanian customary law, which must be incomprehensible to foreigners. Anyone who has traveled among the Albanians cannot but wonder what impression Kadare's tales make on those who have not. Still, their disengaged temper and insubstantial tissue, set in a fantasy land best called Kadaria, appeal to Western European readers, who take them as simple, undemanding fables perfect for beach reading.
The Successor stands among Kadare's works with overtly political themes, but its indeterminate and formulaic style serves as a thin shroud for its subject: The very real death, in December 1981, in the capital of Tirana, of Mehmet Shehu, the 68-year-old second-in-command to Hoxha. This book may be called a roman à clef--but only barely, since its dust jacket and other publicity matter explicitly identify it with Shehu's demise. It never names the two main figures, Hoxha and Shehu, except as the Guide and (eponymously) the Successor. Yet an introductory note by Kadare states that the resemblance of the characters and circumstances in the book to real individuals and events is "inevitable." As will be seen, it is genuinely fictional, but in a way destined to be overlooked by most non-Albanians.
Kadare presents the death of Shehu as a mystery, and the primary enigma is whether Shehu killed himself or was murdered. A number of potential suspects are introduced, ranging from the dictator to the dead man's wife, and from a potential successor to the Successor to an architect working on the Successor's residence. Much of the plot is taken up with speculation, and even dreams, about these figures. It is also revealed, in passing, that the Successor's daughter Suzana has been involved with a man whose family has roots in the pre-Communist epoch and who is, therefore, politically suspect. In Kadare's quotation from the rhetoric of the time, the Successor "had pushed his daughter into the enemy's clutches."
But finally, The Successor's recounting of the Shehu case is evanescent, ending in confusion. Phrases in Hungarian and Mongolian are gratuitously introduced, apparently to heighten the sense of the bizarre. The final chapter is a monologue by the dead Shehu, which leaves the "mystery" unresolved.
And now, the backstory. In reality, there is little that is puzzling about the death of Mehmet Shehu, aside from whether he was simply killed outright or forced to commit "suicide." From the moment of his death, everybody in Albania and abroad understood that Hoxha, dominated by paranoia, had eliminated a rival--by no means the first, or the only one, whose liquidation was arbitrary and brutal. Mehmet Shehu, an adventurer and soldier, had always excited jealousy in the feckless and effete Hoxha, who affected expensive Italian suits and boutique footwear, and preferred party offices to army fortresses.
By contrast, Shehu was a veteran of the International Brigades in the Spanish civil war, where, like other Albanians, he refused assignment to a battalion under Yugoslav Communist officers. The Albanians preferred to fight alongside the Italian antifascists, which appears logical since Mussolini sent mercenaries to Spain while pursuing imperialist designs on the small Balkan land. (More important, the Albanians feared and distrusted all Serbs, including Communists.) Shehu was a battlefield commander of Albanian partisans during World War II, and became a notably cruel Communist boss in his own right. When Albania sided with China against Russia at the beginning of the 1960s, Shehu was said by Anastas Mikoyan to have declared, "Anyone who disagrees with our leadership on any point will get spit in the face, a blow on his chin, and, if necessary, a bullet in his head."
The immediate pretext for Shehu's downfall has long been known--the seemingly trivial romantic alliance of his child with a member of an anti-Communist family, as mentioned in The Successor without serious elaboration. In the real incident, a wedding engagement linked a son of Shehu, rather than a daughter, with a relative of Arshi Pipa, a dissident author and scholar. Pipa defected to the United States in 1958 and died in Washington in 1997. Although Muslim, Pipa was a strong defender of the Catholic minority in Albania, a particular bête noire of Hoxha. After Shehu's death, Hoxha produced a thick book entitled The Titoites, portraying Shehu as a traitor beginning with his service in Spain, and specifically condemning him for letting a member of his tribe consort with the clan of Pipa.
Ismail Kadare, a long-serving functionary of the Democratic Front, the Albanian ruling authority under communism, does not come to the Shehu-Pipa case with clean hands. In 1990, while the Albanian Communists still enjoyed absolute power, the future author of The Successor published a book titled Invitation to the Studio. (He then left for France, where sales of his writing in translation had provided him with a respectable bank account.) In Invitation to the Studio, Kadare denounced Pipa as "diabolical; to his misfortune mediocre; a snitch; absolutely a spy; an old hyena; a new Salieri." Kadare referred to this Muslim opponent of dictatorship by the Serbian name Pipitch, which he compared to the sound of urination. Kadare himself thus contributed to the original and unmysterious mystification about the death of Shehu. If anyone alive knows the truth of how Shehu perished, it is Ismail Kadare--but he has chosen not to disclose it.
The Successor is, then, truly fictional in its intentional blurring of the facts in the Shehu case--not for literary purposes, but to shield Kadare himself. Since his departure from Albania, Kadare has made an extraordinary effort to present himself as an anti-Hoxha dissident when, in fact, he was a figurehead for the most tyrannical order in Balkan history, and a persecutor of intellectual dissidents. Kadare has been fairly successful at this game among non-Albanians; earlier this year he was awarded the first Man Booker International Prize by clueless judges who treated him as a champion of creative freedom. But this led to numerous protests by Albanians and their friends, as well as by experts on Albanian culture and history, who are not fooled. It has also led, in response, to loud, defensive squeals from Professor Bellos at Princeton, who has made the promotion of Kadare his main résumé item.
Such is the state of literature today. A Communist hack reinvents himself as a martyr to liberty; his books, in a little-known language, are introduced to American readers by a man "translating" at second hand, missing references and nuances present in a foreign idiom. Prizes are awarded, and the chests of bien-pensants swell with pride.
Kadare has tried for years to get the Nobel Prize. Given the recent record of the Swedish Academy in presenting that honor to such charlatans as last year's recipient, Harold Pinter, Kadare should not have much longer to wait. But Albanians have enduring memories--strong enough to recall the case of Mehmet Shehu without help from an obfuscating novelist--and should Kadare get the Nobel Prize, Albanians and their genuine friends will not be fooled.
[A belated footnote: in an interview with The Paris Review in 1998, readable here, Kadare stated directly, "in 1981 the prime minister, Mehmet Shehu, committed 'suicide'—murdered by Hoxha."]