Why Ismail Kadare was my accidental peacemaker

Source: Financial Times

By Nilanjana Roy

Among the pavement stalls in Delhi’s Sunday book bazaar, one bookseller was a genius at sorting second-hand books into little piles guided by the affinity between novels. I was a student looking for a cheap copy of Franz Kafka’s The Castle, and he offered it to me sandwiched between a tattered copy of Brecht’s plays and a book by an author I hadn’t come across: Ismail Kadare. Over the years, I’ve bought many more of Kadare’s books in clean, crisp editions, from his first novel, The General of the Dead Army (1963, first translated into English in 1971), about an Italian general and his chaplain searching Albania for the remains of their countrymen fallen in the world wars, to other classics — Broken April (1978), about a man caught in blood feuds that stretch for generations, The Siege (1970), which captures the clash between the Albanians and the Ottoman Empire — and more.

This week, Kadare won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Run by the University of Oklahoma and World Literature Today, the Neustadt is less showy than the Nobel Prize for literature and in its almost 50 years, has had a far more global set of winners than the heavily Eurocentric choices made by the Swedish Academy. Kadare was born in 1936 in Gjirokaster, Albania, and studied first in the capital, Tirana, and then at Moscow’s Gorky Literary Institute, where he found the atmosphere rigid and constricting. He came to writing early, publishing his first collection of poetry at 18 and his first novel at 27.

Back in Albania, Kadare played a cat-and-mouse game with the regime. He wrote poems in praise of Lenin because under the dictator Enver Hoxha, who kept Albania in his grip until 1985, every student had to perform that task, but he also wrote novels that enraged the dictatorship. The Palace of Dreams (1981) imagined a state that devoted an entire branch to sifting through its citizens’ dreams, bringing the best of them like rare treats to the dictators’ attention. It was banned in 1981 for being filled with “allusions against the regime”, so thoroughly that it was forbidden to even write or speak the title of the book. Kadare won the International Man Booker prize in 2005, sparking controversy.

Romanian poet Renata Dumitrascu wrote that he was “no Solzhenitsyn” — Kadare had held active party membership in Hoxha’s regime, and enjoyed privileges that other Albanian writers lacked. But in a completely totalitarian state, it is impossible to be an ideal dissident. Those who raise their voices too loudly or use their pens too freely disappear into prisons, might be murdered, or if they’re fortunate, exiled. Often, the dissident’s job is simply to survive. “I have never considered myself either as a hero or as a dissident,” Kadare wrote in a 1998 exchange of letters published in the New York Review of Books. “In Hoxha’s Albania, as in Stalin’s Russia, a declared dissident was sure to be suppressed.” Many of his novels were banned, as was his 1974 poem “The Red Pashas”, thought to have been lost until it surfaced in an archive in 2002.

Kadare finally left Albania for Paris in 1990, claiming political asylum. In France, he could speak and write more freely, but he insists that his writing stands on its own, as in this 2009 interview: “I think that my writing is no more political than ancient Greek theatre. I would have become the writer I am in any political regime.” The edition of The Palace of Dreams I bought on that crowded Delhi pavement has long since disappeared. It was not a beautiful copy — the front cover was missing, the pages dog-eared and marked with tea stains. But I wish I had it now as a reminder of how we build our reading histories. It is one thing to discover an author from a prize, reading their work in order of publication, or to pick up a book from the endless flow of bestsellers.

For many readers, though, our relationship with an author comes about in an accidental but natural fashion. A bookseller adds a novel to a bundle; it is not the book you wanted but the price is cheap; it is set in a country that you know nothing of; it intrigues you and, over the years, you find yourself seeking out everything that once-unknown author has written. Kadare offered me a measure of peace, in his understanding of the stains left behind by wars and empires less widely explored. In his novels, people find their freedoms and a touch of grace in small moments, even when bound by unjust laws or by a tyrant’s power. “A writer can be free in an enslaved world, or he can be enslaved in a free country,” he said in a 2001 radio interview. He makes it clear that the choice is always with us.

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