Book Review

Ismail Kadare: The Writer and the Dictatorship 1957-1990 by Peter Morgan

Ismail Kadare: The Writer and the Dictatorship 1957-1990 by Peter Morgan

Before embarking on this review, I should firstly provide something of a context and refer readers to my RSB essay Call Me Ismail: Kadare's Capers, plus TLS letters (July 15 & August 12, 2005), countered by those (July 29 & August 19) from another Kadare stalwart, David Bellos...

Being unconvinced by its central thesis, it's only fair to begin by signalling the better side of this Kadarography. Peter Morgan's opening survey of Albanian history from ancient to modern is exemplary in its breadth, depth, and punctilious detail. And, throughout, his literary analyses (up to a point, see below) are the most thorough-going yet attempted in English, from which the reader, Albanologist or general, will learn a lot, as did I.

To my taste, though, Morgan goes overboard in detecting discreet anti-communist sentiments in the smallest of details, a good/bad example being the three pages (133-35) on the supposed multi-symbolism of spectacles in Chronicle in Stone, leading to such bafflegab as: 'If the glasses of the intellectuals give access to the worlds of modernity, the black eye sockets of Kadare's blind seers are the means of access to the underworld of Albanian reality.' To what extent these expiscations are Morgan's own, or provided/invented by Kadare, with whom he is on close terms, is hard to say. For contrast, see Savkar Altinel's review (TLS December 7, 1990), dismissing Chronicle in Stone as 'by and large conventional, without being especially adventurous or innovative,' also tracing an unacknowledged debt to Yugoslave film director Ernir Kusturica's When Father Was Away On Business.

I say 'up to a point' because Morgan seems to know little if any Albanian (equally true of David Bellos, whose 'translations' are from French versions, not the original texts). All quotations from Kadare are given in French, with English versions appended. We are on dangerous ground here, since (as Morgan admits) Kadare often revised, sometimes tendentiously, his books for republication/translation, hence the urtexts on which the case for Kadare the dissident ultimately rests can get lost or distorted.

For example, Alan Brownjohn (TLS September 5, 2003), observes that Derek Coltman, who in 1971 Englished Albin Michel's French version, added to his republication 'numerous authorial revisions incorporated in the 1998 French version.' As I have frequenty mentioned in print, in the analogous case of another spurious dissident, Kadare's protégé Neshat Tozaj, his novel Të Thikat (The Knives) was on authorial admission doctored in some sensitive political areas.

Morgan (283-293) is in thrall to Kadare's ultra-patriotic and largely baseless attempt in his Aeschylus, or The Great Loser, to transfer credit from Greece to Albania for the origins of folklore tales concomitant with tragic drama, with the silly conclusion that Aeschylus was the 'great loser' because only seven of his ninety plays have survived. Exactly the same fate befell Sophocles, on this reckoning an equal loser. More to the present point, Robert Elsie, the greatest living authority on Albanian literature and overall admirer of Kadare's work, appends to his review of the Aeschylus (repr. in Studies in Modern Albanian Literature and Culture, 1996, 67-68) examples of how Kadare fiddled with the text of Cavafy's Greek poetry in his 'translations' thereof, respectively adding and subtracting verses to change the meaning. Elsie cannot decide if this is Kadare the nationalist or Kadare under political pressure at work.

No Albanian titles feature in the bibliography. None of the novels and memoirs by Todi and Fatos Lubonja, father and son, imprisoned artists, their books and experiences surely to be contrasted with those of the untouched Kadare. No sign of anything by Hoxha's successor, Ramiz Alia, e.g. the fawningly relevant Our Enver (see now his autobiography My Life). No mention of the abundant electronic sources, including (see below) ones potentially fatal to Morgan's idealised Kadare. Also notably omitted are the eight volumes of Enver Hoxha's own Diaries, posthumously published. According to Vladimir Tisemaneanu, reviewing (TLS, September 5, 2003) those of Bulgarian leader Georgi Dimitrov, "it was very unusual for Communist militants of such a high rank to keep a diary." As I have previously indicated, two extracts from the unpublished ones (Gazeta Shqiptare, March 14, 2010) attest to the close personal friendship between Hoxha and Kadare, valuable supplement to Morgan's account (141) which depends solely on the latter. Morgan frequently argues that one reason for Hoxha's protection of Kadare was that he hoped to get his own books published abroad via Kadare's reputation and connections in France. There may be something in that. But, few would-be writers would do anything different. Kadare here sneers at Hoxha's literary pretensions, a far cry from this eulogy delivered at the 1982 Third Plenum (text in Nëntori, no. 5, 1982, 101-107):

"The ensemble of memoirs of comrade Enver is a marvellous example of creating complext tableaus involving national and international problems and great themes in their whole gamut: dramatic, lyric, meditative, sarcastic. This is a major ensemble, possessed of an extraordinary breathing space and horizon, and the action of which covers unparalleled ground. The memoirs of Comrade Enver Hoxha are a very important new factor for the further development of our literature."

On this literary side, a major Morgan preoccupation is to demonstrate how Kadare's novels managed skilfully to throw off the 'shackles' of Socialist Realism. This genre is not, of course - though the point is not here made - restricted to Albanian or communist literature in general: what else (e.g.) are George Gissing's working-class novels from Workers in the Dawn to The Nether World? Or 1950s 'kitchen-sink'? In his Man Booker International Prize acceptance speech (August 5, 2005), Kadare laments havng been in 'that boundless hopeless desert called Socialist Realism.' This is the same Kadare who in 1968 edited the Party literary magazine Drita (Light), whose official mandate was 'To Combat decadent bourgeois literature and ideology' - no job for a maverick author. The same Kadare who (text in Albania Today 3, 1977) delivered a speech with a Hoxha-style title, 'The Literature of Socialist Realism is Developing in the Struggle Against Bourgeois and Revisionist Pressure,' containing this all-embracing denunciation: 'In their spirit, in their content, even in their style and intonation, many of the works of the present-day decadent bourgeois literature are reminscent of the Bible, the New Testament, Koran, the Talmud, and other tattered remnants of the Dark Ages.' Small wonder that Kadare's own writings, prose and verse, e.g. Endërr Industriale (Industrial Dream) - Morgan has relatively little on Kadarean poetry, thus eliding this opus along with such servile trash as his Hymn to Lenin - were hailed by the top Party literary hacks such as Koço Bihiku (History of Albanian Literature, Tirana, 1980) and Jorgo Bulo (ignored by Morgan in (ed. Bihiku) Studies in Albanian Literature 2: Problems of the Albanian Literature of socialist realism (Tirana, 1988).

Kadare - echoed by his admirers - frequently avers that he never claimed to be a political dissident, only a literary one. A spurious distinction: in Hoxha's Albania, they were the same thing. And, there were braver individuals. On October 5, 1953, the writer Kasëm Trebeshina wrote an open letter to Hoxha criticising the obsession with socialist realism shared by the Party and the Writers' Union. His predictable reward was seventeen years in gaol. Another who wrote in support, Mehmet Myftiu, suffered similar punishment. Morgan, who gives Trebeshina shamefully short thrift and who does not even mention Myftiu, fails to mention that not only did Kadare fail to join in, but that in his memoir Invitation to the Studio (Tirana, 1990), written just before he left Ramiz Alia's Albania for France, he denounces Trebeshina as 'a mediocre writer but with boundless ambition.' This pair get their due in the review-article on Myftiu by Gjovalin Kola (unmentioned by Morgan) in Letërsia Shqiptare, January 8, 2010, online.

As Elsie remarks, 'one wonders at the depth of Kadare's vindictiveness.' Other gaoled dissidents similarly insulted in this volume include Arshi Pipa, who escaped from his labour camp - a rare achievement - to America, where he wrote voluminously on Albanian communism and literature, dispensing even-handed praise and criticism in Kadare's direction. Also Kapllan Resuli - unmentioned by Morgan - who in an interview on the Macedonian Truth Forum (on-line) claims that Kadare was in fact a Sigurimi (Secret Police ) agent, code name 'General', adding many details in support of this - expanded in two books - and concluding 'Kadare's main preoccupation today is to poison and deceive the West with historical falsifications...'

Apart from his own experiences, Resuli adds the corroboration on Albanian Radio-Television (1996) by former Sigurimi boss, Zyifiar Ramizi. The same accusation was made in print by another ex-secret policeman, Dilaver Bengasi, in his Enigmat e 2 Korrikut '90 (The Riddles of July 2, 1990, Tirana, 2003). Obviously, one needs to be careful with such sources. But, they must be tackled, not just ignored, as does Morgan.

Likewise, with the anti-Kadare polemics (online) of Janice Rrapi and son Renato, who maintain that Kadare used his influence to have Renato arrested and confined to a mental hospital in order to break up his romance with Kadare's daughter. Family feuds have been endemic to Albania for centuries. Kadare may hint at his own indulgence in suchlike through his absurd laudatory contrasting in the novel Broken April that regulates the traditonal murderous vendettas with communism, an attitude in which Morgan tamely acquiesces. It was actually to the credit of the communists that they tried to eliminate these. A vain effort. They remain rampant: an article in the magazine MAPO (June 10, 2010, alluding to a BBC television doumentary of this same year conducted by Philip Alston) estimates that in 2009 at least 90 people were killed in these family feuds, with 1450 (including 800 children) currently immured in the traditional towers of refuge. How can any reasonable person approve this way of life and death?

A key Albanian text that undermines much of Morgan is the entry for Kadare by the aforementioned Jorgo Bulo in the Party's official Who's Who and What's What, the Fjaori Enciklopedik Shqiptar (Tirana, 1985). It was published after Hoxha's death, hence no question of the dictator's fine protective hand. Kadare could/would have been let out, had he been the suspect dissident we are led to believe.

The entry (complete with large photo) is too long to quote. The opening sentence introduces him as 'Poet and Prose writer, one of the most distinguished figures in Albanian literary socialist realism.' Then, various of his poems are singled out by title, the most lavishly praised one being Përse mendohen këto Male? (What are These Mountains Thinking About?), which hardly tallies with Kadare's claim (reproduce by Morgan, 63) that it was criticised for lack of communist enthusiasm. The novels eulogised are: General of the Dead Army - contra Morgan's claim (82) that it was not well received and caused Kadare's enemies 'to begin to sharpen their knives;' The Castle - a safe historical novel, brimming with patriotism; Chronicle in Stone - despite its supposed (Morgan 138) encoded anti-communism; The Three-arched Bridge - Morgan's long analysis detects nuanced criticism of Hoxha's message of the constant need for personal sacrifice in the state's interest; Cold Blood (aka The Concert) - an especially striking choice since Morgan (212) claims it was banned until 1988, three years after this official tribute; Dimri i madh (The Great Winter), extolled above all the others for its praise of Hoxha's split with Moscow over Kruschev's denunciation of Stalin - Morgan (156) claims its publication marked the end of Kadare's 'period of protection', which hardly squares with Kadare's own cynical defence of this Hoxha hagiography (quoted by Morgan): ' I never regretted choosing this path. Without it, eighty percent of my work would never have been written.' As I have documented elsewhere, Hoxha (unsurprisingly) praised this novel in public and sanctioned its reprinting.

I also add, as Morgan (228) does not, that two of Kadare's novels, General of the Dead Army and Broken April, despite the supposed bad reception of the former and anti-communist elements in both, were filmed by the state-run Alb Studio, another surprising honour for our suspect dissident.

The other prose work of Kadare here lauded by Bulo is the short story collection Emblema e Dikurshme (Emblem of that Time), particularly injurious to Morgan's thesis since it contained the opening chapters of The Palace of Dreams, said to be Kadare's boldest and most fiercely persecuted novel - Morgan reluctantly ('admittedly,' 258) records this, significantly (?) leaving it unindexed, adding the coy disclaimer 'these early chapters scarcely enable the reader to guess what would come.' This does not explain why the official Party literary biography would select this collection for praise three years after the alleged great kerfuffle over the novel itself. In his Foreword, Morgan says it was The Palace of Dreams that first attracted him to Kadare. Not everyone shares his admiration. Imogen Foster (TLS , December 12, 1993) was dismissive of 'the characters so ghostly, the narrative so flaccid, the creation of a dictatorship so sterile and predictable.' Morgan (258) quotes the weird sentence in Kadare's memoirs, 'I prayed to God that this work would not fall into their hands, in particular into his hands,' sensible commenting 'But how could the work not fall into their hands, or even his?'

As Morgan tells it, in the role of Kadare's mouthpiece, a public Party plenum to discuss and condemn the novel was held, convened by Ramiz Alia and chaired by Kadare's jealous literary rival Dritëro Agolli, their strings being allegedly pulled by Nexhmije Hoxha, Kadare's 'most powerful enemy'. As per usual, Kadare made self-criticism (standard communist jargon) on some points, resisted on others. At the end, Alia warned Kadare to watch his step, while (a rider glossed over by Morgan) allowing that 'the Party and the People raise you to the heights of Olympus.' An unnmamed Central Committee member told the Writers Union that 'the book should be forgotten, as it it had never seen the light of day, just like a dream' - a nice joke on the title. It is unclear whether this meant the book was banned - 20.000 copies had already been sold - or simply not to be further discussed or reviewed. However, the basic outcome is clear: Kadare went unpunished, ungaoled, unexiled, unlike the genuine dissidents.

Where was Enver in all this? Morgan frequently states he was from 1980 on increasingly ill (diabetes and Parkinson's) and verging on senile dementia. This doesn't sound as though he was able once again to save Kadare from his literary (more than political) enemies. On the other hand, Morgan does note Hoxha's last public appearance in late 1984, before withdrawing from public life to work on his memoirs. His Tito-ites (Kadare's rapturous review has already been quoted), with its notorious and much-ridiculed 'unmasking' of Mehmet Shehu as a 'multiple foreign agent' appeared in 1982. I own Albanian videos of him delivering an election address late in the same year and of his 1984 epiphany. In the speech one, he looked and sounded physically and mentally alert. Hard to believe he was the mysterious 'Enver double' described or invented in Lloyd Jones' Biografi (London, 1993).

Kadare is also represented as getting into scalding hot water over his poem The Red Pashas, in 1974. Again at the instigation of Dritëro Agolli, he faced interrogation in the Writers Union offices and went through the motions of self-criticism. No further consequences, save a brief departure from Tirana. The biggest mystery is how the poem physically vanished until its rediscovery in the national archives in 2002 by Maks Velo, who pubished it (prior to this, some doubted it ever existed - why did Kadare not keep a copy?) and wrote a whole book (cited by Morgan) on the affair. There was nothing politically dangerous in the poem: it satirised bureaucracy, a safe target (Bihiku commends this genre, and it was ubiquitous in the weekly journal Hosteni (The Goad) which I used to read. Kadare took care to insert an entire stanza of gross flattery of Hoxha - Elsie's translation is available online.

If, as Morgan maintains, Kadare survived only courtesy of Enver, why did his enemies not 'get' him during the last communist quinquennium? Nexhmije was supposed to have been his deadliest enemy, also the most powerful, widely thought to be pulling the strings of new leader Ramiz Alia. Yet, not only was Kadare unharmed, but promoted by her to Vice-President of the Party's Democratic Front organisation. And, in this period of supposdly enforced literary silence, Kadare published The Concert (1988) and Dossier H (1990), the latter singled out in a survey of commendable new fiction by the Party newspaper Zëri i Popullit (July 27, 1990). He also brought out a collection of short stories Koha e Shkrimeve (Time of the Writers) in 1986, plus his two books on Aeschylus, one receiving a full-page eulogy in ZiP (June 12, 1990) and the multi-language propaganda magazine New Albania (no. 4, 1990. Miranda Vickers and James Pettifer (Albania: From Anarchy to Balkan Identity, London, 1997), generally well-disposed towards Kadare, admit that in 1988 "his innovative novels received official approval." A noisy silence indeed, and a most dulcet dissidence.

As for Kadare's sudden flight to France on October 25, 1990, why then, at a time when he had been exchanging (on his own admission) in 'constructive' epistolary exchanges with Alia, and when the likes of chief Party ideologist Foto Çami were calling for more open ebate and criticism, and only two months before demonstrations and riots signalling the end of communist rule began. He had had plenty of earlier chances. I find it hard to disagree with Renata Dumitrascu (a fugitive from Ceausescu's Romania - see her various 'blogs') that this was the traditional option of rats on a sinking ship: Kadare sensed that the regime under which he had prospered so long was fatally floundering.

Elsie remarks that Kadare's return to Albania was met with a 'good deal of indifference.' His Man Booker Prize was greeted wth many protests (and some cheers) published both in Albanian newspapers and on the Man Booker website, aimed at his dissident protestations rather than his literary credentials. For his part, I have read and heard from Elsie and others, that Kadare claims that various Western critics (Elsie, Hans Joachim Hoppe, Noel Malcolm, Steven Schwartz) are in a conspiracy to deny him the Nobel Prize. As seen, he faces equally deep and quite open hostility from Albanian writers (Lubonja, Myftiu, Rasuli, Trebeschina), genuine dissidents and genuine sufferers. I myself belong to no conspiracy, here only concerned with presenting the documented case against Kadare and arguing that Morgan's failure to face these opposing facts and individuals fatally undermines his eulogy.

-- Reviewed by Barry Baldwin on 30/10/2010

Further Information
ISBN-10: 1906540519
ISBN-13: 9781906540517
Publisher: Maney Publishing
Publication Date: 01/01/2010
Binding: Hardcover
Number of pages: 200

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