Monday, June 13, 2005


Call him Ismail

While the BEA frenzy hit its peak (for a final, palate-cleansing bit of coverage, see my piece in yesterday's L.A. Times Book Review), and while Oprah carpet-bombed America with Faulkner's greatest hits, Ismail Kadare won the first Man Booker International Prize. The Albanian novelist was widely seen as a dark horse, unlikely to prevail against such marquee names as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Milan Kundera, or Philip Roth. But you know what? If the two books I've read are any indication--we're talking about Chronicle in Stone and The General of the Dead Army--then he deserved it in spades. Kadare is a little hard to describe. He's got a taste for rustic irony--no surprise, since the Albanians have spent the last two millennia hiding out in the mountains from a bumper-to-bumper procession of foreign invaders--but he can also be enchanting, almost wide-eyed, in the freshness of his perceptions.

The prize will earn Kadare £60,000. And since the Man Booker administrators added a secondary purse of £15,000 for the winner's translator, Kadare will be able to share the wealth. Who he'll share it with is something of a vexed question. Most of the English translations of his books have been made from French versions, which the author is said to have vetted quite carefully. (Just to cloud the waters even further: my 1987 New Amsterdam edition of Chronicle in Stone says Translated from the Albanian on the title page, but no translator is listed. Hmmm.) Luckily for us all, The Literary Saloon has posted a superb article on this very subject by one of Kadare's translators (or retranslators), David Bellos. Get over there right away and read it. Then come back.

Last but not least: in 1991 I reviewed The General of the Dead Army for Newsday. Here's the piece in its entirety, for anybody who wants a more detailed look at what is actually Kadare's first novel. (By the way, that OCR software is really something else. And on the Web, this isn't technically self-plagiarizing--it's called repurposing.)

Tucked inconspicuously into the flank of the Balkan Peninsula, Albania seldom makes headlines in the West. With its rugged terrain, widespread poverty and a mysterious, umlaut-ridden language, the People's Socialist Republic remains far off the beaten track.

Among European nations, however, it is one of the prime contenders for the dubious, tragic title of Most Often Invaded. The last 2,000 years have seen bloody entrances and exits by Romans, Goths, Bulgars, Normans, Serbs, Venetians and Turks. In our own century, the pace has hardly slowed a whit: the Italians "reclaimed" the country in 1939, followed by the Germans and, sporadically, the Greeks. Only since 1944 have the Albanians had their country to themselves, mostly under the stern Stalinist guidance of Enver Hoxha.

Needless to say, the revolving-door procession of foreign invaders has shaped the Albanian character. Armed resistance is a kind of national religion; a considerable share of Albania's literary tradition celebrates George Kastrioti, better known as Skanderberg, who fought the Turks to a draw for 25 years during the 14OOs.

These days, American readers have the option of viewing this battle-hardened culture through the work of Albania's foremost contemporary writer, Ismail Kadare. Kadare, who was born in 1936 in the mountain town of Gjirokaster, has long has been celebrated in Europe. His 11 novels and numerous volumes of poetry, criticism and short stories have been translated into more than 30 Ianguages. However, little of this work appeared in the United States until 1987, when New Amsterdam Books began an ambitious Kadare-in-every-garage program with Chronicle in Stone. Since then, New Amsterdam has published three more titles: Doruntine (1988), Broken April (1990), and now The General of the Dead Army. All four books disclose a major novelist at work, and one with a storehouse of very persistent, very Albanian themes: invasion, resistance and a corollary tradition of homegrown violence. As one of Kadare's characters says, "In peace, the Albanian becomes sluggish and only half alive, like a snake in winter. It is only when he is fighting that his vitality is at full stretch."

The General of the Dead Army is actually Kadare's first novel, which he wrote in the '60s after having already won a substantial reputation as a poet. It's also his only book to have made a prior appearance in this country. Published in 1973, The General of the Dead Army sank without a trace. Perhaps it will find the audience it deserves in this latest resurrection, though its depressing scenario makes it an unlikely candidate for a commercial chartbuster.

The general in question never is given a proper name. Kadare never even mentions his nationality, although it soon becomes apparent that he's Italian. But he's been sent, sometime during the earIy 1960s, to reclaim the bodies of Italian soldiers who died on Albanian soil during World War II. Wandering "across the country like an ambulatory tumor," with a priest and a platoon of hired gravediggers in tow, he unearths thousands of skeletons.

"I have a whole army of dead men under my command now," he muses. "Only instead of uniforms they are all wearing nylon bags .... At first there had been just a few sections of coffins, then, gradually, companies and battalions were formed." Other voices occasionalIy break in on the narrative--fragments of an Italian soldier's 1943 diary and the italicized thoughts of Albanian bystanders--but the bulk of the novel records the general's disillusionment with his task. Initially, at least, neither the ethics nor the utility of his work bother him much. He recoils instead from the "interminable boredom of the road" and from the mountainous landscape, "the backdrop for some tragedy."

Near the end of his mission, however, the general insists on gate-crashing a peasant wedding in a mountain villa. An angry confrontation occurs. Brought face to face with Albanian resentment, the general's sense of nobility finally begins to wobble. Perhaps there's little point, after all, in "running up hill and down dale sniffing for death like hyenas, trying to find ways of coaxing it or smoking it out of its lair."

The general experiences this illumination while he's dead drunk. And though Kadare doesn't say so, his grave-digging protagonist probably will gloss over the whole thing once his hangover disappears. All of which points to novel's main drawback: the author has tethered the narrative too firmly to general's low-octane imagination. The result, much of the time, is a bland, rather un-Albanian flatness. A useful comparison might be made with Chronicle in Stone, whose young narrator observes the end of a rainstorm over town and notes that "far off, at a distance too great to measure, a rainbow had appeared, like a peace treaty between mountain, river, bridge, torrents, road, wind, and city." Witnessing the identical rain, mountain, river and so on, the general never would notice this multi-colored cease-fire, let alone conflict that preceded it. But then again, he's no Albanian.

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