Posts Tagged ‘Ismail Kadare’

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

Friday, March 2nd, 2018
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“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:

“Vengeance in Reverse”: exchanging pleasantries instead of punches

Thursday, March 1st, 2018
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I met anthropologist Mark Anspach on the internet a few years ago, when I was looking for someone to offer some online insight into the mind and motives of Anders Behring Breivik, the man who murdered nearly eighty young people in Norway in 2011. I posted about it in “Anders Behring Breivik: The Victim of Nobody” here

Mark and I have been penpals ever since, and have even met on a few occasions, for he has been a visiting scholar at Stanford, and still retains connections here – one of them our mutual regard for René Girard, who has been influential on Mark’s  thinking. He is now affiliated with the Institut Marcel Mauss at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. 

His new book intrigued me: Vengeance in Reverse plays on René’s theories about the inevitability of reciprocity. Although violent mimetic behavior (e.g., I hit you, you hit me) gets a bad name, René points out it is still essentially rooted in an impulse that is positive, because it pulls us out of ourselves and towards others: “It is everything. It can be rivalrous; but it is also the basis of heroism, others, and everything,” he has said, in a quote I include in my imminent Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard“But whether you exchange compliments, niceties, greetings, or insinuations, indifference, meanness, bullets, atom bombs, it’s always an exchange. You always give to the other guy what he’s giving to you, or you try to do so.”

Mark is considered “one of today’s most important figures in French social theory and cultural anthropology,” according to Mark Cladis of Brown University. So, a few questions to Mark about his new book:

Vengeance in reverse.” Provocative title – can you tell us what it means?

The urge to strike back is very basic, but vengeance is only the negative form of a more general phenomenon: reciprocity. In a blood feud, one side takes a life, then the other side takes a life in return. In positive reciprocity, one side gives something of value, then the other side gives in return. Reciprocal giving is the cornerstone of human interaction.

Mark in action.

As Marcel Mauss showed in The Gift, social life in premodern cultures revolves around gift exchange. I argue that gift exchange is like vengeance in reverse. It’s not just that one is the opposite of the other. There is an actual reversal in orientation. When people trade blows, each looks back to a previous event: you hit me because I hit you before that. With giving, each can look forward to what comes next.

That is, if I give you a gift, I can look forward to receiving a return gift. Right?

Right, whereas nobody looks forward to receiving a return blow! In vengeance, people are not looking to get a return – each side views its action as final, conclusive. Yet each action does provoke a return, so that everyone hurtles on in the wrong direction. Making a gift is a way to reverse course. This is a case where seeing into the future is not so difficult. It doesn’t take a crystal ball.

We know there is a tendency for any act, good or bad, to be reciprocated, so why not take advantage of that? Initiating a sequence of positive reciprocity gives everyone something to look forward to.

Revenge: it didn’t do much for Romeo and Juliet.

Who goes first, though? Someone is sending you anthrax — you reply with chocolates? Isn’t it dangerous to go first?

Whoever struck the last blow has to go first. In a blood feud, the murderer must make an offering to the victim’s group. The same principle holds in everyday life. If someone offends you, they’re the ones who need to send chocolates! People can get caught up in petty feuds over trifles. Often a small gesture will turn things around, and there is usually little to lose by showing oneself to be generous. But you are absolutely right that in a violent conflict, taking the initiative to seek peace can be dangerous. Let me tell you a true story from contemporary Albania.

A young man tried to rape a girl. Her brothers saved her just in time, but the family wanted to take revenge — and I don’t mean by shaming the offender with a nasty tweet! They were going to come after him. But he let a friend tie him up and stand him in a field in front of the girl’s assembled relatives. The friend said, “If you want to kill him, kill him. But then his family will come and kill one of you.” The man whose life was on the line had to be nervous, but in this instance going first worked. Both sides knew that once blood is spilled, the ensuing feud can last indefinitely. Post-communist Albania has seen a resurgence of the kind of vendetta described by Ismail Kadare in his historical novel Broken April.

He figured it out.

I’ve just written a review in the New York Times Book Review about Kadare, so naturally I’m pleased that you use Gjorg from Broken April in your first chapter.

Kadare’s novel was a key source of inspiration for me. Gjorg is a tragic figure. He has no taste for killing, but when his brother is murdered, he must avenge the family honor and become a killer himself. The ancient code of the Albanian blood feud leaves him no choice. Yet killing the killer does not bring closure; it merely triggers a new cycle of revenge. Gjorg’s fate is to be killed by his victim’s kin. When, as custom demands, he attends the funeral meal for the man he killed, he cannot stop looking ahead to the next funeral meal — the one that will be held for him. Gjorg knows very well what will happen next, but he is helpless to change course. Kadare’s protagonists cannot escape the framework of negative reciprocity. Moving from violence to peaceful exchange is extremely tricky.

Like Kadare, you also find precedents in the ancient Greeks, for example, in Homer’s Iliad.

Don’t forget!

Homer offers an example where the framework of the interaction changes. Two enemy warriors, Diomedes and Glaukos, meet in the thick of battle to engage in single combat. When they discover that their forebears had exchanged gifts long ago, a new context is born. Not only do the two warriors decide not to fight, they seal their own friendship by trading coats of armor right there on the battlefield!

The role of gift exchange in peacemaking could not be clearer. The speech Diomedes makes is just as interesting. He doesn’t merely invoke the past; he conjures up a peaceful vision of the future by announcing that he and Glaukos will take turns extending hospitality to each other in years to come. In effect, he says they’re going to be exchange partners tomorrow, so they can’t kill each other today! It’s a gambit that works through impeccably circular reasoning.

It’s a tangled loop, then.

Exactly! Negative and positive reciprocity are equally loopy phenomena. Violence is a vicious circle; peaceful exchange is a virtuous one. There’s no getting away from circularity, but we can do our best to shape the circles in which we find ourselves.

Postscript: On the other hand, given human nature, sometimes even positive reciprocity can backfire.

Ismail Kadare: “There is real literature, and then there is the rest.”

Friday, February 23rd, 2018
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My review is online at The New York Times Book Review today here, and in the print edition this weekend.  The book under discussion: the Albanian maestro Ismail Kadare‘s A Girl in Exile. Every year, the Nobel committee seems to look the other way while a matchless collection of novels, plays, essays pours out from Paris and Tirana, his dual homes.

An excerpt from my review:

Kadare is still mapping out the boundaries of Albanian, a relatively recent literary language, where everything is new and newly sayable. He is the first of its writers to achieve an international standing. But how to describe something beyond words? “Better if you don’t know” is a repeated phrase in the book, along with variations of “it’s complicated.”

The two girls, “daughters of socialism, as the phrase went,” resolve their eternal love triangle with a stunning metaphysical selflessness. And they reply to injustice and repression not by resistance or retaliation, but with an utterly new, unconditioned response that leaves the reader lightheaded, transcending even that which we value as “freedom.” In Kadare’s words, they move “beyond the laws of this world.”

Read the whole shebang here.

Are you listening, Stockholm? (Photo: Lars Haefner)

Kadare’s relationship to his mother tongue intrigued me, especially given its affinities with classical Greek. I googled the language. I reached out to a Albanian Facebook group. I tried phoning the consulate. No joy anywhere. Who could tell me more? The most informative source turned out to be … Kadare himself. So I read more about it over at The Paris Review. “For me as a writer, Albanian is simply an extraordinary means of expression—rich, malleable, adaptable,” he explained to his interviewer, Shusha Guppy, in 1997. “As I have said in my latest novel, Spiritus, it has modalities that exist only in classical Greek, which puts one in touch with the mentality of antiquity. For example, there are Albanian verbs that can have both a beneficent or a malevolent meaning, just as in ancient Greek, and this facilitates the translation of Greek tragedies, as well as of Shakespeare, the latter being the closest European author to the Greek tragedians. When Nietzsche says that Greek tragedy committed suicide young because it only lived one hundred years, he is right. But in a global vision it has endured up to Shakespeare and continues to this day. On the other hand, I believe that the era of epic poetry is over. As for the novel, it is still very young. It has hardly begun.” 

He’s just warming up:

“Listen, I think that in the history of literature there has been only one decisive change: the passage from orality to writing. For a long time literature was only spoken, and then suddenly with the Babylonians and the Greeks came writing. That changed everything.” It’s a bracing interview because of the unexpected turns the conversation takes. He never takes the predictable position, the weathered road.

Faster than a speeding bullet

“For example, they say that contemporary literature is very dynamic because it is influenced by the cinema, the television, the speed of communication. But the opposite is true! If you compare the texts of the Greek antiquity with today’s literature, you’ll notice that the classics operated in a far larger terrain, painted on a much broader canvas, and had an infinitely greater dimension: a character moves between sky and earth, from a god to a mortal, and back again, in no time at all! The speed of the Iliad is impossible to find in the modern author. The story is simple: Agamemnon has done something that has displeased Zeus, who decides to punish him. He calls a messenger and tells him to fly to earth, find the Greek general called Agamemnon and put a false dream into his head. The messenger arrives in Troy, finds Agamemnon asleep and pours a false dream into his head like a liquid, and goes back to Zeus. In the morning Agamemnon calls his officers and tells them that he has had a beautiful dream, and that they should attack the Trojans. He suffers a crushing defeat. All that in a page and a half! One passes from Zeus’s brain to Agamemnon’s, from the sky to earth. Which writer today could invent that? Ballistic missiles are not as fast!”

In sum: “All this noise about innovations, new genres, is idle. There is real literature, and then there is the rest.”

After a few paragraphs to lure you in, the Paris Review interview is behind a paywall … well, I’ve effectively done the same, haven’t I? But my review is free. It’s here.

Postscript on 3/2: Guess what new offering made the top seven books of the week over at the New York Times Book Review? That’s right. Kadare’s Girl in Exile. It’s here.