Early in June, when the winner of the first Man Booker International prize was announced, you could almost hear the collective gasp from this side of the Atlantic, followed by a sharply whispered ” . . .
who?” Gabriel GarcÍa Márquez, G Grass, and Naguib Mahfouz were on the star-studded list of finalists, but the judges handed the prize to an obscure Albanian named Ismail Kadare. He appeared to have the requisite political cred—exile’s life in Paris, manuscripts smuggled out of Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist Albania page by page in wine bottles—and he was of course huge in Tirana, but his novels had not even been directly translated into English. (All those available here are second-generation translations of French editions.) The major bookstores in Edinburgh, where the prize was presented, didn’t have a single copy of any of Kadare’s books in stock.
When the shock wore off, the ritual rending of garments began—the obligatory if ever appropriate self-recriminations over the provincial arrogance of the English-language lit world. Another genius, hiding right below our upturned noses! Then, in short order, began the backlash.
In mid July, an essay appeared on the litblog MobyLives, authored by a Romanian émigré named Renata Dumitrascu. Kadare’s “dissident credentials are rubbish,” Dumitrascu fumed. The writer was an “astute chameleon,” who had always lived “firmly ensconced in the bosom of power. The man whose work had three weeks before been praised in London’s The Independent for being “as unrelenting in its critique of dictatorship as Orwell’s” had, it now turned out, been “head of the Albanian Union of Writers” (“a powerful Orwellian post”) and had later served in Albania’s version of the politburo. “There is absolutely no question about what kind of animal he was and what pack he ran with,” Dumitrascu concluded. “His resume screams careerism and conformity.”
In a polite interview conducted through his translator, Kadare asserted that he had never claimed to be a dissident. “Open opposition to Hoxha’s regime,” he said, “was simply impossible. Dissidence was a position no one could occupy, even for a few days, without facing the firing squad. On the other hand, my books themselves constitute a very obvious form of resistance.”
To anyone who had been able to locate copies of those books, the controversy could only have come off as slightly ironic. With the exception of one untranslated novel featuring an embarrassingly flattering portrait of the tyrant Hoxha himself (according to his translator, Kadare has called the book “the price he had to pay for his freedom”), Kadare’s novels have largely been about collective guilt and the impenetrability of truth. After all, he writes, “ancient tragedies dealt exclusively with that: how to expunge the crime, how to detach it from the clan.” Covering his tracks with layers of myth and metaphor, Kadare again and again buried inexpiable crimes in the very foundations of the state, often quite literally. Blood spills into blood. Everybody hides their sullied hands, even from themselves. Truth itself becomes a labyrinth.
Kadare’s latest novel represents his most straightforward attempt to grapple with the crimes hidden in the fog of Hoxha’s regime. The path it takes, though, is hardly unkinked. Published in Albania in 2003, The Successor takes on the still-enigmatic circumstances surrounding the death of Mehmet Shehu, once Hoxha’s chosen heir. “The Designated Successor was found dead in his bedroom at dawn on December 14,” Kadare begins. The official Albanian television station called the death a suicide, but the international press immediately began hinting that the eponymous Successor had been murdered.
The Successor begins with the makings of a good, old-school whodunit: political intrigue, a stormy night (“Lightning, downpours, and wild gusts of wind!”), a broken engagement, an insomniac wife who managed to sleep through the fatal gunshots, “an unusual number of cars . . . seen entering and leaving” the dead man’s gated compound, “an extremely high-ranking official” spotted skulking outside his house, even a “secret passageway” leading to a door which, “like the gates of the hereafter,” could only be locked from without.
Kadare chases down clues through a variety of narrative foils. There are the foreign-intelligence analysts who have to shake “a thick coat of dust” from their Albania files before asking whether the Successor’s fate might have had anything to do with “the recent disturbances in Kosovo,” or perhaps with “what was in those days the sine qua non of most conflict analyses, namely oil.” There’s Suzana, the Successor’s much wronged daughter. There’s “the Guide,” Kadare’s nameless stand-in for the tyrant Hoxha, also known simply as the ever italicized “Himself.” There’s even a concluding chapter penned in the voice of the dead man, but don’t expect any answers from him.
Perhaps the most personal, and certainly the most fully realized, of all these voices belongs to the architect who designed the Successor’s home, who fears he may have killed his client by building him a structure grander than the Guide’s palace. But the architect could no longer bear his self-imposed mediocrity and was willing to risk the Successor’s life for his art. “By my own hand I had stifled my own talent,”
he writes. “We all did the same, and for the most part we all had the same excuse for our contempt of art: the times we lived in. It was our collective alibi, our smokescreen, our wickedness.”
It’s not giving anything away to say that Kadare provides no solution to the mystery of the Successor’s death. He nods with almost equal emphasis in every direction at once. “All these ingredients churned unrelentingly in somber spirals,” he writes. “But in every variant of the mix, the ingredients themselves remained irreducible.” Ultimate responsibility recedes into the infinite, mythic distance, “the offspring of a great disorder in the universe.” Whether such stubborn opacity works as a confession or a dodge of the author’s own complicity is hard to say. He lets his architect answer in defiance: “Art is your vocation, its laws alone you should obey. Even if your art engenders murder, your hands will be clean.”
Ben Ehrenreich’s first novel, The Suitors, will be published in the spring by Counterpoint.