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A Balanced Review
on 17 November 2012
Let it not be misunderstood by the title of this review that I wish to condemn all the other featured reviews as unbalanced. Instead, I am only trying to deflect the attention of the reader away from certain notorious stereotypes which one-star reviews have earned themselves (culminating in the cretin who alleged Shakespeare had stolen his plot lines from certain Hollywood blockbusters). I am not said cretin, and my whole purpose in writing this review is to, in a way, justify the other reviews I have contributed to Amazon. When people ask me what my least favourite book is, I invariably answer "Ismail Kadare's 'The General of the Dead Army.'" The usual responses to this statement are: "Who's he?"; "What made you want to read that?"; "What was so bad about it?" or "No, but what was your least favourite book which I HAVE heard of?" With the omission of the final question, I shall attempt to relate my usual response in this review, albeit in a far more prosaic and self-important manner.
I decided to read 'The General of the Dead Army' as a part of my ever expanding obscure reading program. This has so far led me to read ancient Chinese poetry, pithy American travelogues and perhaps most rewardingly Ferdinand Ossendowsi's excellent "Beasts, Men and Gods." More specifically, I sought a book which I could take with me on a holiday to the Greek Adriatic coast, and fell upon Kadare through some chance so trivial I have completely forgotten it.
Firstly the language. It is awful. Before I decry the author, I should point out that I am reading the Derek Coltman translation for Vintage, and Mr. Coltman is quite probably the source of many of the novel's appalling phrases. The whole thing is coated in the most dull and uninteresting prose I have yet had the displeasure to read, perhaps comparable in its elegance to the stage directions of renaissance drama. The style may result from a rather unfortunate attempt to imitate Hemingway, or it may be native to Kadare. The fact that Coltman was translating from the French version of the novel, itself a translation from the original Albanian, may have something to do with it, but I find that the quality of the writing is so horrendous that the author can't be completely absolved of responsibility. Even for someone whose favourite writer is Tolstoy -- hardly remembered for his purple prose -- I find Kadare a touch too simplistic, relating, as he does, events in such painful slow-mo that I fell asleep on the beach more than once with this book open on my chest.
However, the problems don't end there. I failed to identify or sympathise with any of the characters in any way -- I detected that Kadare wants us to feel sorry for the poor Italian general dragged all the way to Albania to dig up bodies, but we hear far too little about the life, tastes and opinions of even him to make a connection. At some points Kadare gives us juicy snippets of information, such as the fact that the priest is not necessarily as celibate and angelic as he seems, but fails to follow these up to any kind of conclusion. I found myself at the end of the book wondering what had happened to all of the sub-plots, and whether my edition had pages missing. I realise that Kadare may be attempting to "mimic the alienation of modern society" by divorcing his characters from any kind of common humanity, but frankly it doesn't do it for me.
The final issue I will talk about (for there are many more I simply don't have time to mention) is Kadare's depiction of Albania. As an Albanian himself, one would expect Kadare to paint his homeland in warm oranges and rustic reds, but instead the country is depicted in a monotone grey. Rain, mud, concrete, corpses, misery, poverty, hostility, boredom. Perhaps Kadare is being ironic, I hear you cry, depicting the nation as it will inevitably appear to the infidel foreign general. But no. Not even the Albanian people seem enticing, and for once in a war novel the depiction of the Germans is preferable than that of the natives. Had I discovered this book with its title page torn off and all reference to Kadare erased, I would have thought this novel was the work of some embittered Italian private who hoped to reclaim some of his lost wartime years by giving the nation he was posted to a thorough trashing. Indeed, so miserable is Kadare's description that I frequently felt the book gave a grey tint to my own holiday in Epirus, despite the uniformly pleasant weather and people I experienced there.
Given the book's low quality and depressing aspect, it is strange that Vintage saw fit to publish it at all, especially under their 'Classics' imprint. I've read better books which are completely out of print, and, for a while, I was perturbed by the callousness of Vintage's decision. However, the key to the book's relative popularity with publishers lies, I think, in the fact that Kadare is an Albanian -- rather ironic considering his depiction of the country. There is a great pressure, and rightly so, on publishers like Vintage who purport to assemble a list of 'classic' reads, not to focus too strongly on western Europe and North America, and Kadare is simply a convenient plug for the hole of Albanian fiction. That is not to say that there aren't better Albanian writers out there (and I sincerely hope there are), but Kadare is the only one you're likely to find in Waterstone's. In printing his early novels, Vintage is hoping to establish something of an Albanian literary genus, although it would've been nice if they'd read the book before they endorsed it.
However, as I said at the start, I'm just the screaming madman one-star reviewer. For all I know my opinion is completely wrong and Kadare deserves the four-and-a-half stars he currently enjoys. This, naturally, won't stop me from truthfully telling people that this is the worst book I've ever read.