Ismail Kadare is fast becoming one of my favourite writers. An Albanian who has divided his time between his native land and Paris since the early 90s, Kadare ingeniously captures the disorientating experience of life under dictatorship. In some ways, he is the iron curtain's equivalent of George Orwell (especially of course his Nineteen Eighty-Four), except for the obvious difference that his experiences were first-hand.
This book is actually a compilation of 3 short stories, fluently translated from a French translation of the original Albanian by David Bellos. - The title story is set in Tirana in the 1980s, as the unnamed narrator unexpectedly finds himself granted a ticket to the senior stands at the annual May Day Parade (normally the preserve of the communist party elite). - The Blinding Order is set in Istanbul during the reforms of the Ottoman Empire that occurred during the 1800s - The Great Wall is set on the Chinese frontier during the 1300s, the time that imperial China faced threats from the hoardes of Timur (or Tamburlaine) the Great. They're very different tales. But they share the loose but common thread of Ottoman history; and they all depict the bewilderment of those desperately second-guessing despotic regimes. Nothing is ever as it seems - the powers that be always more Machiavellian than one thought possible. The only certainty is that one's initial interpretation of political moves or decrees is wrong. It is grimly cynical - but then if you'ld lived under Albanian communism (supposedly the 'purest' in history), you'd be too. As the hapless sentry on the Great Wall in the 3rd story narrates: "That night a swarm of thoughts buzzed in my head. States are always either wiser or more foolish than we think they are. Snatches of conversations with officials who had been posted on the other side came back to me, but I now saw them in a different light." (p217)
I reviewed Kadare's gripping but terrifying book The Successor a while back. Agamemnon's Daughter was written a few years before, and involves some of the same characters. It was written during the dying days of Enver Hoxha's brutal regime, and smuggled out to a Parisian publisher 2 or 3 pages at a time (that story's worth another novel all by itself). While the other 2 stories in this book are certainly good, I want to focus on the title (and much longer) tale. For it illustrates how stories, especially ancient ones, can uniquely make sense of the present.
A DAUGHTER SACRIFICED FOR HER FATHER'S AMBITION The narrator has fallen in love with Suzana, the beautiful daughter of a top party official (one of those touted as successor to dictator, 'The Guide', who's clearly modelled on Hoxha). But as a fairly lowly worker in National Television, and because of his subversive, anti-regime views, the relationship was doomed and thus forbidden by the girl's father. Nevertheless, despite having been caught up in some murky Party purges in the past, he finds himself with the Parade invitation, much to the acute jealousy of colleagues and rivals. He can't fully comprehend why he has this ticket, and nor can anyone else - but while at the parade he catches a few glimpses of Suzana 'higher up'.
But in the days before the parade, he had been immersed in Robert Graves' classic Greek Myths. Presumably this was one of the few western books available in hermetically sealed Albania, both for the narrator and Kadare himself. Yet Graves' book, for all its ancient and mythological subjects, has profound resonance, a relevance that evidently slipped under the censors' radar. The narrator can't help but find in ancient legends analogues and articulations of his pain. 2 in particular ring true of the regime and those who suffer under it.
The first is from the era of Homer and the Trojan War. King Agamemnon has offended the goddess Artemis and so she has used the winds to prevent his armada from setting sail for Troy. A soothsayer, Calchas (as it turns out, a Trojan turncoat, now working for the Greeks), informs him that the only way to appease Artemis is to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. This he duly does.
But this is where Kadare's genius comes into its own. He turns the myth inside out, deconstructing it through the lens of the Hoxha regime. For the narrator suddenly realises how implausible it would have been for the king to take the word of the Trojan Calchas seriously. He could have been a double agent, after all, especially after making such an horrific suggestion. No - it was the king himself who devised the plan - such was his zeal and fanaticism for the war. For now, who of his band of soldiers, sailers and mercenaries could possibly find an excuse not to play their part? Who would dare suggest they had paid a higher price during the war than the king. He'd had to sacrifice his very own daughter, hadn't he?
Which is of course what, in the narrator's eyes, Suzana's father had done. He'd sacrificed her future happiness for his own future career. But this is completely true to the smoke and mirrors world of spin and propaganda - and it clearly heralded a terrifying future for the country. If he's prepared to sacrifice his own daughter like that, what might he demand of everyone else? What hope does anyone now have? And then it occurs to him that Stalin had done something with his son, Yakov, by refusing to accept an offer to exchange him after he'd been captured by the Nazis and held in Sachsenhausen concentration camp...
A CLIMBER DESTROYED BY HIS OWN AMBITION The other myth pondered by the narrator is a dark Albanian legend, that of Bald Man and the Eagle. This has particular resonance because Albania's indigenous name (Shqipëri) actually means Land of the Eagles - hence the double-headed eagle on the national flag. "One night, Bald Man fell all the way down to the netherworld... After his fall, Bald Man strove with all his might to find the way and the means to clamber back to the upper world. He wore himself out searching every corner, until an old man whispered the solution in his ear. There was an eagle that could fly all the way up by the sheer strength of his wings - but on one condition: throughout the flight, the raptor would need to eat raw meat. Bald Man didn't think this would be a problem." (p37)
But the eagle's flight to the upper world was taking much longer than Bald Man had expected. "When Bald Man finished off the meat he had brought, he cut into his own flesh and fed the eagle with that..." "It's not known if Bald Man was still alive when the eagle came out into the upper world. People say that locals who happened to be around at the time couldn't believe their eyes when they saw a huge black bird carrying a human skeleton on its back." (p41-42)
This tale's significance is obvious. It's interspersed between the story of a man who, in order to reverse his fall from political grace, denounces and tramples on others to climb his way back up. But then the narrator realises that he too has had a close escape in the party purges and is now making his way to the senior parade stands. After all, if he's been given the parade invitation, does that mean he's also (however unwittingly) offered others up? And what of his own flesh? Has he lost his soul in return for his life? But the significance goes wider too - Suzana's father has paid with others' flesh, and his own - and has lost his own soul. A terrifying thought for someone on the cusp of becoming supreme leader...
THE POWER OF LITERATURE Kadare won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005 - and his recipient's speech is included in this edition, and has been posted online. I found his account of the power of literature incredibly moving and thoroughly recommend it (it's worth checking out prize chairman John Carey's speech in awarding the prize too). There's one paragraph that particular struck me. In answer to the question of how such writing was even possible under such oppressive regimes, Kadare says: "To explain myself briefly, I'd like to refer you to an episode in the Divine Comedy. Dante Alighieri, as he travels through Hell, is frightened of a huge, oncoming storm. Dante's master Virgil tells him: "Be not afraid, for it is a dead storm!" That phrase helps to clarify what I was just saying. If you can manage to make yourself see the rough weather of dictatorship as a "dead storm", you'll have the key to the enigma. But a writer can only get that key from literature."
That's a potent phrase. To see all regimes as dead storms helps us to weather them. But this is where I gently venture to disagree with the great man - or rather, to quibble slightly with that final sentence. It is not just from literature. Dead storms become visible from the perspective of history, and above all of prophecy. This is what has struck me again and again as I've been working through the early chapters of Daniel in the Old Testament in recent months. For every regime faces its own writing on the wall and it's always been so...
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.
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.
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.
This is my first Kadare book and it is not an easy read to begin with yet once the allusions to Albania pre-1985 became clearer over the first 20-30 pages I really found it riveting - helped by my exposure to Albanian society over the last 10 years and the stories told by its people about life under Enver Hoxha. Deeper into it it becomes compelling reading as it draws upon how awful life really was in Albania (and that it the sub-text). Full marks for the vignette about how the script got out of Albania in the first place - says a lot about how unaware the secret police and state officials were about their own condition when told in the story of life around the times of the Trojan War.