I was stunned by the utter brilliance of these beautifully crafted short stories. They unfold with a mesmerising, hypnotic inevitability. The outcome is bleak in every case - but what else could it be? Each tale dissects, with perfect clarity, the mechanisms by which a totalitarian regime functions. They have a mythic quality, rooted in timeless truths about human society; yet the horrors they delineate are familiar to everyone aware of the events of the 20th century.
The narrative voice is cool and unemotional. Some people find this makes the narrative hard to ccnnect with, but in my opinion, this sense of dislocation and distance is necessary, in order for the reader to be able to handle the information these stories contain.
The Canongate edition of Agamemnon’s Daughter is actually a collection of three stories.
The longest is the story after which the collection is named: a story set in socialist Albania of a writer who has been invited to view the annual parade in from the grandstand. The story is intriguing, not least by offering glimpses into everyday life in the most isolationist nation on Earth. Under socialist rule, almost nobody went in or out of Albania. When the Iron Curtain fell, Albania was seen to be a nation that had not developed since the end of World War II, where the people could barely afford bread; and where the landscape was covered in gun turrets, all pointing inwards. It was refreshing, then, to see Albanian society shown to have had education, jobs of status, cafés, petty rivalries, and lazy bureaucrats who were more likely to ignore dissention than fill out the forms needed to punish anyone for it. Dissent, indeed, was seen to be a pretty common occurrence and not to be treated very seriously unless it got caught up in a bigger issue or showed any sign of becoming organised.
The story is striking too for the extent to which the supposedly equal society had become stratified. As the writer makes his way along the streets to the grandstand, he gleefully feigns embarrassment when, at successive checkpoints, lesser people are diverted from the path to inferior vantage points. At the same time, he is conscious that there are others who are closer than him to the leadership – people whose company he is deemed unworthy to keep, including his lover Suzana.
And ultimately, the privilege of sitting in the grandstand is hollow. The parade is as dull and predictable wherever it is viewed from. Having to watch it is an inconvenience and sitting in the grandstand would make the writer’s absence obvious. After the parade, as people drift off home, the moment of privilege has ended. All the awe and respect has gone as the writer just merges back into mainstream society.
The story is told with many references to history and legend, both ancient and modern. Much is made of Albania’s relationship to Ancient Greece, but even more, there are references to bloody and brutal Albanian folklore. It is like a melting pot where civilization and brutality come together.
The second story is the strongest. The Blinding Order is a more horrifying version of The Crucible, with an apparently historic Ottoman emperor addressing complaints that people were putting the evil eye on key projects by designing a programme of disoculation. Five methods of blinding were to be available to those in the population deemed to have an evil eye, and those who surrendered themselves willingly would be blinded in the most sympathetic way and receive the best compensation packages. This was an exercise in popular appeasement that was dropped just as suddenly as it started, leaving a legacy of needlessly broken people. But at no point in the process did it appear anything less than reasonable. The story is told well, both at the national level and then at the personal level. And as the story progresses, there are more and more references to contemporary society that make the reader see that the story is not set in Ottoman times, but in modern day Albania.
The third, and shortest, story is The Great Wall. This was written long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and relates to the use of the Great Wall of China as a barrier to free travel in and out of the Empire. It asks (obviously and clunkily) whether the wall was for keeping invaders out, keeping peasants in, or more for stopping the free exchange of ideas. It is clearly a parallel to the Berlin wall on the one hand, and the isolation of socialist Albania from the rest of the world.
The collection as a whole feels haphazard. The stories don’t link and have no obvious reason to be presented together other than for convenience given their length. Ismail Kadare’s style is very plain, verging at times on journalistic, but with a departure every now and then for the inclusion of an ancient legend or another reference to his favourite three-arched bridge.
I’d recommend Agamemnon’s Daughter more from a historical and social perspective than for reasons of literary aesthetics. But that’s still a recommendation.
on 2 June 2007
This book is about dictators and while its events take place inn a small country irrelevant to the world, its story is indeed relevant to the world.
It draws comparisons with other dictators (Stalin) or leaders (Agamemnon) which in our timne would be defined as such.
Most of all this books is about the corruption that power brings to the society and especialy how those corrupt individuals, whoare in charge of our societies (politicians and great leaders) would do anything to achive their goals, including...(wish I could tell you).
I gave it only four stars, since when you are from free countries who have never been part of any kind of dictatorship, might find it to be les relevant, neverthe less this should serve as a vacination for future dictatorships, be it cultural, governmental, religious ( a dictatorship does not have to be a Government one, it can be religious, life stylre, cultural and we must be aware of its anatomy)or social.