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4.5 out of 5 stars
17
The Successor
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on 28 November 2008
I can think of very few contemporary writers who could carry this off so well. Shifting shadows, survival, fear, ambition...I found it a compulsive read. Hugely recommended
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 6 December 2014
In this impressive novella, Ismail Kadare, b. 1936, considers the death in December, 1981, of Mehmet Shehu, the Albanian premier and designated successor to the Albanian communist party leader, Enver Hoxha, then blind and severely ill with diabetes. In this novel the Successor is not named and the Party Leader is referred to as the Guide or Himself.

The book, published in Albania in 2003, was translated into French by Tedi Papavrami and is here translated from the French by David Bellos. The translation is only occasionally confusing, as in ‘Everything had changed in a flash when the Guide, after tergiversating unendingly….’ [surely ‘equivocating’ would be better?]

The story is outlined in seven chapters; 1. “A Death in December” which opens, ‘The Designated Successor was found dead in his bedroom at dawn on December 14’, and describes the responses of the authorities in Tirana, the confused external Western intelligence agencies and the rumours circulating amongst the Albanian population; 2. “The Autopsy” which recounts the activities of the Minister of the Interior, an architect who designed the Successor’s palatial home and the unfortunate forensic pathologist ordered to conduct the autopsy; 3. “Fond Memories” in which the memories of the Successor’s family are revealed – in particular those of his daughter, Suzanna, whose engagement to a man with links to the former monarchy was broken off when considered to contravene the country’s class struggle that had begun in 1944; 4. “The Fall” in which the Successor’s family are removed from the capital and the aspiring Adrian Hasabeu sees an opportunity for political preferment; 5. “The Guide” that reveals the concerns of the Poliburo Chief and the actions he takes to remove political competition; 6. “The Architect”, that offers a perspective on the events of the Successor’s last days by a man who, in order not to bring attention to himself, sought mediocrity [‘By my own hand I had stifled my own talent’], and 7. “The Successor”, in which the events of his last hours are revealed from the hereafter.

The story is riveting and gains from the author’s personal knowledge, his discussions with those close to Hoxha and Shehu, and his awareness of the Sigurimi secret police. Did the Successor kill himself [and if so, why?] or was he murdered [by whom? on the orders of the Guide, by political rivals, members of his family, so-called friends?]. The author offers a variety of options before answering these questions in the last chapter. In the process we learn a great deal about the paranoia at the heart of a totalitarian state. Kadare recreates the atmosphere of fear, rapidly shifting rumour, arrest, torture, public recantation and punishment of the period. In good dramatic form, the death occurred during violent ‘lightning, downpours and wild gusts of wind’.

The focus of the story is on the cabal at the heart of power and we see little of Albania outside of a few houses and meeting places where the Guide addresses the party faithful. This gives the story a strong sense of claustrophobia. There is also dark humour, as when describing Kano Zhbira, a former member of the Politburo who, like the Successor, is subjected to repeated exhumation. As a consequence ‘Zhbira’s posthumous rheumatism - “rheumatismus post mortem”, a condition that does not yet afflict us – was a better indicator of political change than any analyst’s prediction.’

Kadare also enjoys describing possible secret passages, midnight visitors and the failure of external intelligence services to understand Albanian politics. The latter’s folders gather dust until the next change in the senior Politburo when they are taken down and added to, ‘those brown folders got heavier by the day. Everyone realised that the material piling up inside them was contradictory and incoherent, to such a degree that even the most persistent analysts ended up making the same gesture as everyone else and declaring, with arms thrown wide: The only way you can get a grip on a place overcome by paranoia is by becoming a little paranoid yourself.’

Although never a party member, Kadare chaired a cultural institute run by Hoxha’s menacing wife, Nexhmije [b.1921 and still alive, kicking and worshipping Stalin], who had close links with the Sigurimi. In 2005, Kadare won the first Man Booker International Prize. This is an excellent book that pulls aside the curtain on the recent history of a country that few of us know.
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on 7 April 2010
Things are often not what they seem. Usually when this applies something ostensibly great turns out to be merely mundane. Occasionally, however, we meet an iceberg, an apparently small presence that becomes something vast and consequential. This latter case applies to The Successor by Ismail Kadare.

The Successor is apparently a small book. The cover shows a head in silhouette while a hand with a gun points from the left. "Just another predictable little thing in a predictable genre," were my initial thoughts. The cover illustration is apposite, however, and remains so throughout the book's short duration.

But in fact The Successor then reveals itself as a vast work, despite its obvious brevity. It's about nothing less than a whole country, its politics, its very identity in a world that is changing around it.

The country is Albania and Ismail Karade is clearly born of its very soil. At least that truth is reliable. But how would we describe a successor who does not succeed, a guide who has lost the power of sight, an architect whose plans are ignored and a young woman engaged to be married who is not in love? Things are often not what they seem to be.

The Successor has been shot, hence the cover. And yes, The Successor is a whodunnit, but in no way is it predictable. When a whole nation identifies with and is driven by the political choices of its leadership, how can it ever change organically from within? The figurehead has to go, even if he has already gone! And if change was the product of poor judgment, then should history record a suicide? And from whose perspective do we assess success? And who has the right to change history?

In his preamble, the author humorously sets the tone by announcing that "any resemblance between characters and circumstances of this tale and real people and events is inevitable." Thus, in a short book about a feud within an inner circle, Kadare creates a poetic world that mirrors reality, whose delicately-drawn images beautifully construct much larger ideas. The poignancy of a secret door that can only be opened from the outside is an idea that will last for a long time in a reader's memory. The Successor is a great little book.
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on 12 March 2010
Without a single surplus moment or redundant word Kadare creates a Darkness at Noon for Albania. The paranoia at the heart of Communist regimes is fed by a chance remark, a moment of inattention, and lives are ruined. The book does not name him (Enver Hoxha is called "The Guide" throughout), but the personality cult at the centre of Albanian politics thrived for 40 years (from 1945 to his death in 1985) and an atmosphere of quiet terror pervades the events depicted. The Successor (again, not named, but clearly Mehmet Shehu) has killed himself (or was he assassinated?) and we see the bewilderment of his family and the manoeuvrings of the Head of the Sigurimi (Secret Police) and the Architect who has just put the finishing touches to The Successor's new house. Is there a secret passage through which the assassins might have come? Even the Architect is not able to say - for if The Guide decides that there was one, he cannot be contradicted. The ground shifts alarmingly beneath one's feet for everyone involved, and those not involved, who might be co-opted to be involved should The Guide so decide.

A matter of 207 pages, one reads with a sense of claustrophobic horror and deep admiration for the skilful structural bleakness so brilliantly depicted. This book won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize and in part of his acceptance speech, Kadare described what his award meant for those who care about literature in his beleaguered nation:

"Tiny, forgotten, isolated Albania, a land that had almost been buried alive, had apparently shown a sign of continuing life. Albania had signalled that though bound hand and foot by dictatorship, it hadn't yet enslaved its soul."
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VINE VOICEon 14 April 2007
You never quite know where you stand with this book - but that is precisely the point. The paralysingly confusing world of a closed communist society (Albania), where Party is all, but the Guide (dictator, clearly based on Enver Hoxha) leads all. He expects his whims and hints to be obeyed as divine oracles - except that people too often don't really know where they are leading. The fear is driven precisely because of the impossibility of interpreting situations. That is the genius of this book - it keeps the reader (as well as all the characters) guessing to the end, like all the best books - but does arrive at some sort of resolution by the end (albeit a very unpalatable one). A word of praise, or a visit to an engagement party by the Guide could be all that is required to sign a death warrant. Black is white and history is a resource for the present regimes (just as Orwell observed in 1984 Nineteen Eighty-Four). The casualties of the party machine are everywhere, a party which for all its claims of progress and purpose, is as directionless and meandering as the whims of the Guide.

This is sparsely written but i know of no other recent book that conveys the utter insanity and terror of living under a dictatorship. Ingenious
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 April 2006
This novel is based on actual events: the Albanian communist dictator Enver Hoxha ("the Guide" in this book) denounced his long-standing premier and presumed heir, Mehmet Shehu ("the Successor"), who then was said to have shot himself. Whether he was murdered or committed suicide is the question at the centre of this book, and Kadare offers an ingenious answer in the last chapter. The whole book is suffused with the fear and paranoia prevailing in a country ruled by suspicious and devious tyrant: the terror felt by those near to him and by their families; the sycophantic rivalry for his favour; the dread felt by people like doctors or architects asked to work for someone in the government in case their work is dangerously caught up in some unpredictable political manoeuvre; the cautious and nervous gossip of the population; the attempt of foreign governments to make sense of what was happening in that hermetically sealed country.
Kadare has been fortunate in his translators. Most of his books have been translated from the Albanian into French and then from the French into English - in this case by David Bellos. This is the eighth novel of Kadare's that I have read and between them there have been at least seven translators - but they all capture Kadare's unmistakeable clean and simple style.
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VINE VOICEon 24 November 2005
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.
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on 22 October 2006
I was pleased to see that another reviewer compared The Successor with Darkness at Noon, as that parallel occurred to me as I read it. Although it refers to events some time ago, it provides a more modern slant on how people get caught up in the web of fear and secrecy spun by dictators. I think this is a better book for teenagers to read about this topic than some of the set reading they get for GCSE. It's too easy to dismiss "that sort of stuff" as "too long ago" and "couldn't happen here".

I agree that Kadare has been lucky with his translators as one wonders how many other books would survive a double translation.
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on 10 January 2007
Earlier reviewers have offered excellent insights into the content and structure of this book and, especially, about its relation with what we know of the 'historical facts'. What I would like to add is that, for me, the book acquires its disturbing quality not so much from the (nearly) unresolved mystery of the the successor's death as from the silence that surrounds important aspects of the plot. While aclimate of terror surrounds many episodes of the plot and afflicts several of the core characters, the terror is portrayed with a light hand, suggested rather than described. The scene where the successor's successor is expelled from the party through a bureaucratic (rather than literal) lynching is absolutely memorable and worthy of Koestler. Yet, in a curious way, the successor himself remains a pale figure - we hear nothing of his own brutality and fanaticism. Yet, we hear a lot from his daughter, who seems to be immersed in her own unfulfilled dreams of love, quite oblivious to the miasma that afflicts the country. We hear nothing of the large numbers of 'ordinary' Albanians who lived lives of abject poverty and terro for four decades, while their rulers were living in the own fantasy worlds. While the terror in Orwell's 1984 is direct, in your face and total, the terror in this book has been normalized. And this makes it more horrendous.
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on 5 March 2014
I was expecting a lot of this book from other reviews, and to begin with I enjoyed it immensely, fairly cracking through the initial set up and being dragged into the air of suspicion and paranoia that infected Albania in those years. But somewhere around half way through it all became a bit misty and dream like. I began to have the feeling that we would never find out precisely what happened to the Sucessor and in the end it was all rather inconclusive. Bad dialogue too, although I would still reccomend it as a view of a society that we hear little about.
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