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the successor

26 january 2009

With many authors, I have the sense that I'm not getting everything that they've put on the page. With Ismail Kadare, I am 100% certain I'm not.

For one thing, Kadare writes in Albanian, so things inevitably get lost in translation. For another, most of the English-language versions of Kadare's works are not translated directly from Albanian. Whether because of obscure rights issues, or because there just aren't very many Albanian-English literary translators, English versions of Kadare's novels tend to be translations of French translations.

For another, though this may seem unduly obvious, Kadare's work is about Albania. Everything I know about Albania I have learned from Kadare's novels except that: it's a coastal Balkan state, it was once supposedly ruled by somebody named King Zog, and it endured many years of totalitarianism under a dictator named Enver Hoxha – for several of those years, as the only European client state of Communist China. Oh, and during the deepest isolation of the Albanian state, filmmaker Werner Herzog is supposed to have walked into Albania and toured it on foot, which may have influenced the style of Herz aus Glas and other surreal films.

Kadare's themes are in fact the surreality and perverseness of Albanian culture, which in his books comes across as a mix of tribal vendetta and Circumlocution Office. He became famous for his first novel, the great General of the Dead Army (1966), which loads the paranoia and obsessiveness of Albania onto a foreigner come to the country to catalogue the bodies of dead soldiers from a recent war. He portrayed Albania in farce (The File on H. [1981] and in allegory (The Palace of Dreams [1981]), and in allegories so murky that though they said enough to be proscribed under the rule of Hoxha, they are frankly almost entirely opaque in English translation (The Three-Arched Bridge [1993; composed 1976-78]).

In more recent years, after the 1985 death of Hoxha and his resettlement in France, Kadare has turned to plainer allegories (The Pyramid [1992]) and more realistic treatments of contemporary Albania (Spring Flowers, Spring Frost [2000]). The Successor (2003) is not exactly high realism, but it is definitely set in Albania, it depicts a Hoxha-like dictator, and it attempts to capture the paranoia bred by the senescence of a total ruler who knows that his hour is drawing nigh.

The Successor begins with the death of the title character. Like Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red, the story is told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of a number of parties interested in that death. The hand-picked Successor has the problems that belong to anyone a heartbeat away from power, compounded by the problem that being a heartbeat away, in the Albanian order of things, is a recipe for getting yourself killed, notably by the man whose heartbeat is between you and that power.

State-sponsored murder? Suicide? Family quarrel? Without deciding, Kadare's novel explores each of these plausible scenarios in turn. As his narrators wonder about the Successor's death, they also wonder about the impenetrability of Albanian society. Can anything like the bizarre violence of this vengeance-filled place be intelligible from the outside? The opacity of the plot and its characters' motives models the opacity of the country itself.

Of the novel's many short chapters, I was especially struck by those written from the perspective of the Successor's daughter (whose cancelled wedding has been the catalyst for her father's demise), and the one told by the architect of the Successor's house, whose position as a state-tolerated artist must (unless I am really understanding nothing at all) reflect Kadare's own career under Hoxha. Unlike many Eastern European authors, Kadare left his home country after the Berlin Wall fell, and has lived under the cloud of being too close to his country's dictator. But who knows? He was also that dictator's most scathing critic on the international scene, and the one who will be the lasting interpreter of Albanian totalitarianism to the future.

Kadare, Ismail. The Successor. [Pasardhësi, 2003.] Translated by David Bellos, from the French of Tedi Papavrami. New York: Arcade, 2005.