The story revolves around the siege of an unidentified castle in Albania, as the Turks were beginning their invasion of the Balkans. Given that they eventually won and hung around for about 350 years, the result of this particular skirmish - win, lose or draw - doesn't really matter in the long run, but the author focuses on what it means to the people involved, and for all of them, it's a matter of life and death.
The view of the besieged is given only by an unidentified occupant of the castle, who tells how they prepared for the assault and fought off the ferocious attacks of the Turkish army, right up until the end.
Far more time is spent with the attacking force, and this is where the story really comes to life.
It's easy to think of an army - espcially a historical one - as a single unit, but here we see how it consists of different groups and individuals. There's the official chronicler, who has to record the whole thing, producing an account almost like poetry. There's the 'caster of spells' who is supposed to curse the castle, and when that doesn't work is accused of sabotage and sent to work digging under the fortifications.
In overall charge is the Pasha, and he is well aware that if he fails he might as well commit suicide, because there will be no mercy if he returns home defeated. His harem, which he has brought with him, is also concerned in this, as they will be up for grabs by another man if their current husband dies.
Peraps the cleverest trick is to focus on the Quartermaster, not normally at the forefront of battle narratives, but a very sensible choice here, as he is the one who is most aware of the overall state of the army - how big it is, what it requires, and how much needs to be sourced from the surrounding area in the way of provisions. At one point he even advocates an immediate attack, since if some more men are killed it will take a little pressure off the supply problem!
The accounts of the attacks are breathtaking and shocking, in the way they show the suicidal fury of the waves upon waves of attackers. This is literally true in the case of one division, the 'serden gecti' whose code forbids them to come back from an attack except with a victory. This means that the Pasha has to be sure, when deploying them, that they are certain to be successful, otherwise he has thrown away a division of troops. The accounts of the succeeding waves of attacks have a filmlike quality, as we cut from the distant view of the Pasha to the individual murderous man-to-man combat, taking place under a rain of boiling pitch which we can almost smell.
The casual attitude to loss of life permeates the whole attacking force - a small army of men is caught out by an explosion while they are digging a tunnel, and the last we see of them is as they resign themselves to death underground, knowing that no one is going to save them. Also, in a quiet period, to stop the men getting restless, a party is sent off into the surrounding countryside to capture some women. These are then traded from one man to another, and by the end of a single night not one is left alive. Brutal, but one fears representative of warfare at the time, if not now.
The feeling I came away with from the book is that no one, not even the Pasha, is really in control, because the forces unleashed are so great that everyone is simply caught up in them. In this respect, it's interesting to compare with the superficially similar novel 'Eclipse of the Crescent Moon' by Geza Gardonyi, which deals with the siege of Eger in Northern Hungary at about the same time. In Gardonyi's story, however, the day is saved by the ingenuity of one of the besieged townspeople, in an almost Boys' Own display of individual heroism. There is no scope for that in Kadare's book, and I regret to say Kadare's is probably the more realistic view of warfare.
(Can I just also add that the translator deserves credit for producing a version which comes across as if we're reading it in the original language. It can't be easy finding an Albanian translator, let alone one so skilful!)