24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
The ultimate truth is penultimately always a falsehood,
This review is from: The Successor (Hardcover)
Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon.
"It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." That was how Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union. If Churchill found the USSR mysterious he would have been totally perplexed by life in Albania during the isolated, despotic regime of Enver Hoxha. Ismail Kadare's "The Successor" captures that inscrutable mystery in a masterful fashion.
Ismail Kadare is an Albanian poet and writer. He is also the winner of the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005 and was selected from a list of nominees that included Saul Bellow, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Naguib Mahfouz, Milan Kundera, and Gunter Grass. His latest work published in English, The Successor, is a remarkable book that provides the reader with evidence that Kadare's award was well-deserved.
The "Successor" of the title is Mehmet Shehu. Shehu was, until shortly before his death, Enver Hoxha's right-hand man. Shehu was a commander of a Communist-led partisan brigade during the Second World War and had a reputation for brutality that led to his promotion to a division commander of the National Liberation Army. After the communist takeover of Albania Shehu led a purge of those party members suspected of being aligned with Yugoslavia's Tito after Tito's break with Stalin and the USSR. Hoxha, referred to as "the Guide" throughout the book, took Shehu under his wing and Shehu was known throughout Albania as "Number 2". As is often the case being "Number 2" was a precarious perch to sit on in regimes where aging tyrants (Stalin and Hoxha both come to mind) often struck out at those closest to them as their own mortality seemed to weaken them. Shehu was no exception. On December 17, 1981 after an apparent split with Hoxha over Albania's continued isolation from the world, Shehu was found dead in the bedroom of his newly renovated house. A gunshot wound to the head was the cause of death, one quick ruled a suicide. Shehu's death and the speculation as to the cause of his death form the heart of Kadare's "The Successor".
The book plays out like a parlor room mystery by Agatha Christie but one influenced by Franz Kafka's The Trial and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. Neither the reader (nor anyone in Albania for that matter) knows whether the Successor committed suicide or was murdered. All the doors to the house were locked, but there was a secret passageway installed during the house's renovation. There are a number of possible suspects including the Guide, the Guide's "Number 3" man and successor to the successor, the Successor's wife and daughter and the daughter's former fiancé. Kadare takes us into the tortured mind of all the suspects. They each in their own way have some feeling of culpability for the Successor's untimely death, no mater the cause. As we read the thoughts of each player in this parlor room drama Kadare paints a vivid portrait of life in Albania during the Hoxha regime. The inexplicable, never to be determined cause of death is reminiscent of Kafka's The Trial. The world of party purges where one, like the Successor, ends up accepting ones unhappy face as a result of a system he was partly responsible for bears a stark similarity to the atmosphere portrayed by Koestler in Darkness at Noon.
Kadare's prose is very well crafted even though this edition is a translation from the French which in turn is a translation from the original Albanian. It must be hard to retain much of the original flavor of a novel after two translations but despite that hardship the chapters and scenes shift from real to dream-like in an almost unspoiled fashion. This shift lends an aura of surrealism to the story, one that seems perfectly appropriate to a society for which surrealism was the norm rather than the exception.
Kadare's Successor is a wonderful, thoughtful book. For anyone interested in Kadare's work, his Three Elegies for Kosovo was also one I found immensely enjoyable. Although both books deserve to be read, I think that my having read the somewhat more accessible Three Elegies for Kosovo first enhanced my enjoyment of The Successor. However, The Successor stands up perfectly well on its own.