I have recently read Ismail Kadare‘s Spiritus. It is the twenty-second of his novels that I have read and, I suspect, the most novels I have read by the same author as an adult. As a child/teenager, I undoubtedly read more Biggles novels but that was a long time ago and I very much doubt if I have read twenty-two books by the same author since. The question is why?
There are a couple of problems with Kadare. Of course, he writes in Albanian. His books are generally translated into French and then translated from the French, usually by David Bellos, author of the fascinating Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, a book about translation and meaning, with its title taken, of course, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, written by Douglas Adams who…, no, this is going to end up in a never-ending Hitchhiker’s Guide type chain. What this means is that if you read him in English, you are reading a double translation and, however good a translator Bellos is, and he is a very good translator, you will lose something. However, as Salman Rushdie sensibly remarked about Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude), it is far better to read it in translation than not at all. Indeed, it is far better to read Kadare in double translation than not at all. I am fortunate enough to be able to read French so I can and do read Kadare in French. This has another advantage. Of the twenty-two books of his that I have read, eight have not been translated into English, I know not why, though some have been translated into other languages, for example Spiritus.
The second problem is that he has been accused of having been too cosy with the Hoxha regime. Both were born in Gjirokastër, though Hoxha was twenty-eight years older. However, it is very easy to condemn him for this. I wonder how many of us, from Western Europe and North America, would have resisted the Hoxha or other oppressive regimes. Not too many, I think. I very much doubt if I would have done it openly though I would like to think that I would have done it behind closed doors. The idea of being tortured and killed or even denied any job is not one that would have appealed to me and I can only admire those dissidents, such as Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov or, indeed, those currently opposed to Assad in Syria, and be grateful that I do not have to face what they have faced. In short, some may condemn him. I do not.
A glance at my website will see that I have a fascination for the exotic and it is certainly that that attracted me to Kadare. But Kadare is not just exotic, though Albania is probably as exotic as you can get in Europe, from the Western Europe perspective. He superbly mixes in history, myth, fantasy and realism so that you are never quite sure what, from the story’s point of view, is real or not and the answer, of course, is that it is all real and none of it is real. And the legends and stories that he tells are suitably alien from the Western European tradition to make them seem more exotic than, say, other, more familiar legends of bandits such as Robin Hood or brave kings such as King Arthur. Kadare is also a superb writer. His Dimri i madh [The Great Winter] which, sadly, has not been translated into English, is, on the face of it, a conventional story about the break-up of relations between Albania and the Soviet Union. The usual interjection of legend is limited, though we do get some of the earlier history of Albania, one of Kadare’s trademarks, but the book is, nevertheless, a superb book, so well written and gripping, that it remains one of his best works yet without his usual style. But it is the legends, the otherworldliness, the outsiders, bandits, if you will, struggling, often ferociously, to remain fiercely independent that are his trademark and which appear in all of his best work.
Why is he not better known in the English-speaking world? He is, of course, fairly well known. Amazon US shows around a dozen of his books available in print, with a couple more in Kindle, while Amazon UK has one or two more. The very wonderful Canongate will be bringing out this summer The Fall of the Stone City, a translation of Darka e gabuar, only three years after the French edition, while a new edition of Doruntine came out eighteen months ago with the new title of The Ghost Rider. However, despite Canongate’s The much anticipated new novel, I doubt if The Fall of the Stone City is much anticipated by all that many people.
Kadare should, in my view, be a perennial Nobel Prize candidate and, while his name does get mentioned, he is never up there in the betting with the Philip Roths and that Korean poet. Kadare is still alive and there are still a few of his fiction works available in French which I have not read, so I will top twenty-two. And one day I hope to go to Albania myself to see the rugged scenery, the bandits and the living legends for myself.