“When I get a new book, I open and smell it”: An Albanian Kadare fan remembers when books could be dangerous.


“When I get a new book, I open and smell it.”

There have been some interesting after-shocks from my New York Times Book Review piece last weekend: First, I made the headlines in Tirana. My contention that Ismail Kadare should have received a Nobel long ago is apparently controversial. Second, I got retweeted by Kadare’s daughter, Besjana Kadare, the Albanian Ambassador of Albania to the UN.  And finally, I received the email below, from Albanian-born Kadri Brogi, a tech manager at Hunter College in New York City. He is obviously a Kadare fan of, and gives some insight into the devotion Albanians have for the language’s first international writer (and I include his second letter below):

Thank you for writing that piece about Ismail Kadare. Your analyses is spot on.

I am originally from Albania and grew up reading his books. It was one of very few things we could look forward to there.  The rest of the literature was just “socialist realism.” He had some of that as well, but he has explained why. As you correctly noted, he has been very much inspired by the ancient Greek literature. Most of his work reflects that.

Protection? Forget it.

I think one of the main reasons why he has not been considered for the Nobel prize has to do with the perception that he has been too close to the communist nomenclature.  He was from the same town as Enver Hoxha, and many think that served as protection. I don’t believe that, because Enver Hoxha did not offer protection to anyone. He murdered is brother-in-law (his sister’s husband) who had paid for Hoxha’s education in France before the war.

About fifteen years ago, Kadare was invited to the Columbia University Rotunda. I was there. He was bombarded with questions about his past, mostly from Albanian immigrants, and he explained everything very well.  He said that he had never pretended to be a dissident. He said he made a compromise in order to survive.

Modeled himself on Dante.

He said that, like Dante Alighieri (his words), he has to build his environment and surrender himself from that reality in order to produce what he did. He was referring to Dante’s status when he had criticized the Pope and was treated very unfavorably. That was the reason (according to Kadare) that Dante created his own isolated reality where he produced great works like The Divine Comedy. Kadare said that he had two options: compromise and continue to write books that we can read or end up with a bullet in back of his head and be a hero.

His writings were very ambiguous in many cases. I read every single book he published before 1990 and went back and read few of them again after 1990. It was then I was able to read between the lines.

I think he will eventually be nominated for the Nobel.

Thank you again for your piece and I look forward to getting your new book.

Kadri gives some insight into Albanian life under the Hoxha regime in a follow-up email:

There were two things you could do in Albania when we were growing up, sports and reading. I wasn’t good at sports so I picked reading.

In elementary school I would read all kind of books. I took some piano lessons then but other kids made fun of me saying that piano is just for girls so I quit. By today’s definition, that would have classified as bullying but not then and there .  One teacher came to my father and expressed concern that I read too much and it might be unhealthy. To this day I read at least 15-20 books a year.

I live in NJ but commute to NYC every day. My phone is filled with audiobooks that I listen while staying on traffic.

Reading was something that helped me grow and develop. I learned English by myself with some old English books called Essentials.

At that time Russian was dominant in schools even though we had broken away from the Eastern bloc a long time ago. We could manage to get some prohibited books at that time (they were called yellow books) that if caught it meant jail.

I remember when I read the first American book in 1982. The Genius from Theodore Dreiser. I was mesmerized.

I read pretty much everything, but mostly historical books, memoirs, biographies and military because I served for many years. I was an Early Warning RADAR Engineer.

I teach computer science but try to encourage students to read as much as I can. I feel like many now consider reading as an archaic thing.

My daughters make fun of me because whenever I get a new book, I open and smell it.

Meanwhile, Humble Moi has become famous in Albania. Witness the headlines:

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