Archive for January 18th, 2021

Ismail Kadare: how life is like a dream, and nightmares are just like life.

Monday, January 18th, 2021
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“Kadaria” – a land where the weather is always awful.

I missed the news last October:  Ismail Kadare has been awarded the Neustadt Prize for Literature, often considered a precursor for the Nobel. The award came to my attention because of Princeton’s David Bellos’s article in the current issue of World Literature Today. Why should we read the Albanian writer? Here’s why, he says:

If you read Ismail Kadare, you also cover all the ages since the invention of script: from Cheops building the Great Pyramid to arguments over the succession of Enver Hoxha in 1980s Albania, and on to events and situations that take place in western Europe after the fall of communism.

The largest number of Kadare’s stories are set in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Broken April takes place in the 1930s, Chronicle in Stone in the 1940s, The General of the Dead Army in the 1950s, Agamemnon’s Daughter in the 1970s. These tales allow you to read the history of Albania—and of the world—through the prism of fiction. That’s one good reason why you should read Kadare, and why I love to do so. He has created, so to speak, a parallel universe, with a deep relationship to the one we live in. It is the whole world in literary form.

Kadare has created, so to speak, a parallel universe, with a deep relationship to the one we live in. It is the whole world in literary form. …

One of the most striking and constant features of Kadare’s world is the looming presence of certain myths from ancient Greece: not the whole of Greek mythology, but those myths that dramatize family hatreds and the intoxicating, corrupting, and fearsome effect of proximity to power.

The second thing that is always present in Kadare are Balkan folk tales. I call then “Balkan” rather than simply Albanian because these folk tales exist in many other languages of the region as well. Indeed, Kadare dramatizes precisely this question of the ethnic origins of Balkan cultures in The File on H, one of the most entrancing of his tales, based on the historical exploits of American folklorists in the Albanian borderlands in the 1930s.

The third dominant feature I want to mention is that Kadare explores in almost every one of his stories the relationship between the personal and the political. Not politics in the sense of topical or party-political issues, but politics in the broadest sense, that is to say, how groups and individuals manipulate others and exercise power over them.

Another characteristic of the world of Ismail Kadare—let’s call it Kadaria—is the weather, which, as others have said, functions almost like a character in its own right. The weather in Kadaria is always ghastly, and it makes the climate of Scotland seem by comparison as balmy as the Italian Riviera. As a reader, you quickly catch on to the almost comical dimension of Kadare’s climatic notations (fog, drizzle, rain, snow, cold, cloudy), since Albania’s climate is in fact more like the Italian Riviera than the banks of Loch Lomond. They are not plausible settings of any actual scene, but key signatures to the mood, which tells you that this is not going to be a happy story. But they do much more than that: they tell you that there are not going to be any blonde maidens sitting astride gleaming tractors bringing in the sun-ripened harvest of grain, and that the work will have no truck with the norms imposed on Albanian literature by Soviet doctrines of socialist realism. It is really a very sly way of carving out a uniquely critical position within a society where criticism was, shall we say, seriously underappreciated.

Many of Kadare’s human characters are often not sure whether they are awake or asleep. Typical introductions to the inner lives of protagonists begin: “it seemed to him that . . . ,” “he wasn’t quite sure whether . . . ,” and so on. The borderline between being able to see clearly and not being able to see clearly is never clear-cut. So that when you have finished reading a novel, whether it is the retelling of a legend like The Ghost Rider or a quasihistorical reconstruction like The General of the Dead Army, you are not quite sure whether you’ve had a dream or not. Kadare constantly nudges us toward doubting the difference between waking and dreaming, and makes us reflect on the ways in which life is like a dream, and in what way nightmares are just like life.

Read the whole thing here.

Postscript on 1/20 from Dana Gioia, former California poet laureate and NEA chairman: “What wonderful news that Kadare won the Neustadt Prize for Literature, one of the great international awards. He is such a powerful writer. Once I read “The General of the Dead Army,” I knew I was in the presence of a great novelist. I went on to read half a dozen other books. But I probably wouldn’t have read him at all had not one of my sons given me a copy of the book. Kadare remains too little known in the U.S. I keep hoping he is better known in Stockholm.”