Spring Flowers, Spring Frost
Let us open this essay which ostensibly focuses upon Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, but that will range broadly over Ismail Kadare's work, with an anecdote Kadare offers. It was during the communist era, and "I heard at one point that there were a number of suicides amongst army officers and I got very interested in that. I asked one of my cousins who was an officer whether it was true there were suicides going on in the army. What were the reasons, I asked, thinking they must be political. I was really surprised because my cousin told me most of the suicides were over love or jealousy." Kadare adds, cruelly, cynically, sentimentally: "That really pleased me. That meant it wasn't over yet, that there were people suffering from perfectly ordinary things. You must remember they were terrifying people, these senior army officers, and here they were killing themselves over pangs of jealousy." (Scottish Review of Books) Where Kadare expected to find political machinations, he discovers human frailty, aware that the harshest of regimes still contain within them primal personal feelings. It might be a way of understanding the writer's work, to see in this Albanian novelist an interest in communist oppression and emotional expression. In The Successor we never find out for sure who killed the titular character, someone lined up to take over from the Guide, a figure who, like the Successor, was closely based on historical reality. The Guide more than resembles Enver Hoxha; the successor, Mehmet Shehu, but Kadare takes advantage of the mystery at the centre of Shehu's death to tell a fictional tale that speculates over all the possible ways in which he could have died. Could the successor's daughter have been involved, doing so not for the political reasons of a will to power but because of a will to love? She fell for a man her father rejected as unsuitable and takes up with someone else, and wouldn't it be somehow more optimistic if she were responsible for the deed than if it were an arranged assassination? If she has killed her father to avoid an arranged marriage then such a response escapes the politics of the regime and places the novel instead in the hands of ancient desire: it affirms the power of concrete love over the power of political abstraction.
There are other readings available of course, including one which the Successor entertains before his demise. This would be closer to the imp of the perverse meeting the terrified. The Guide talks about the rumour that Mao's successor Lin Biao "hadn't been a traitor and certainly hadn't been burned to a crisp in the airplane in which he was trying to escape but that Mao had had him to dinner and then had him killed when the meal was over." Saying anything in the company of the Guide was dangerous and the Successor's purpose is to avoid any number of contentious topics. But then he says "you never know..." adding "just to make matters worse, I went on to say that I didn't believe he was guilty any more than I thought he was innocent," the Guide hugs The Successor and starts weeping but for what? "Was he in fact mourning me before my departure?" The Successor wonders if his casual remark in circumstances where one cannot be casual was a suicide before the event: that now the Guide would murder him. When the Guide says "you are the most loyal, the most faithful, among the faithful," is this an ironic response to the Successor's ambiguous remark? Christian Caryl muses over this reading, saying "so perhaps it was indeed suicide, in some deeper sense beyond conventional moral codes or legal liability. Or perhaps not. Perhaps a final answer can be sought from the dictator himself, the man who clearly desired and instigated the death of his deputy. But we are not likely to find much enlightenment here, either." (New York Review of Books) Kadare keeps things so tantalisingly vague that we can see why James Wood says, "Kadare is inevitably likened to Orwell and Kundera, but he is a far deeper ironist than the first..." (New Yorker) But we can perhaps extract from much of Kadare's work three things: the structural nature of a regime, the personal feelings of the self, and the ancient myths that navigate between the two.
Wood, talking about Kadare's Agamemnon's Daughter, notes the book's passage where Kadare muses over the similarities between Agamemnon and Stalin: "Hadn't Stalin, he thinks, sacrificed his son Yakov, so that he could claim that he was sharing in the common lot of the Russian soldier? But what if the story of Agamemnon is really the story of Comrade Agamemnonthe first great account of absolute political tyranny? What if Agamemnon, in a tyrant's cynical ploy, had merely used his daughter to legitimate warfare?" (New Yorker) We have once again Kadare's double-jointed irony but we can see in it the structural nature of a regime that will do whatever it must to maximise and retain its power, the personal feelings of the daughter and also the ancient myths negotiating these two positions. In this fine, short novel, the book is narrated by a young man whose relationship with the daughter is now over: she must sacrifice herself to her father's success, and continuing to sleep with the narrator is tantamount to betrayal. Yet how far will her father go in expecting self-sacrifice or sacrifice, as Kadare continually invokes Agamemnon and several times invokes Stalin. Kadare may have for many years been living under Hoxha's dictatorship but his importance as a writer rests on the way he consistently looked at tyrannical systems through history and could find the personal within the historical, and the mythological aspect that indeed often augmented the irony. In Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, the central character, Mark "was convinced he had always known what suddenly became clear: that Oedipus had not killed his own father. Nor had ever been his mother's lover. These legends were just symbols of possible offences declared to have already been committed the day that Oedipus becomes a tyrant.") It is as if we shouldn't look for the reality behind a deed but its symbolic import. That a regime's purpose, whether Stalin's, Hoxha's, Agamemnon's or Oedipus's, isn't predicated on the deeds done but on the rumour of the deed. A writer who wished to uncover a dictator's terrible actions would be lacking Kadare's complex irony, seeing that by revealing the facts they have unveiled the truth. Kadare seems to suggest that the truth isn't the deed exposed but the mythological aspect that passes through the centuries, through fact and fiction, and that what counts is the purpose information serves whether true or false. One might see that Stalin so loves communism that he is willing to sacrifice his son to it, or so determined to retain power that his son can die in a camp without much impunity. It doesn't really matter which one is the case but that both can serve the greatness of Stalin. He can be both the caring leader who loves his son enormously but will allow his son to die because he loves the Soviet Union still more, and the ruthless leader who loves his son not a jot and thinks nothing of letting him die to augment his power. By allowing both versions to stand one can have a loving Stalin and a terrifying Stalin. He can make everyone feel guilty they haven't sacrificed enough; keep everyone fearful that he will do anything to retain power. Just as Abraham is willing to kill his only begotten son when God demands it, we cannot know whether God would have allowed Isaac to die, only that God must be obeyed. God is both potentially vengeful and hugely compassionate but the ambiguity remains because Abraham agrees to God's demand, and then God accepts that, since Abraham is willing to kill Isaac, Abraham needn't do so. Rather than uncovering reality in an investigative manner, Kadare often instead examines myths as they stand and how they function, how ancient many of them are and the role the individual can play within them.
Here, myth and ritual come together in the Kanun, vital to both Spring Flowers, Spring Frost and Broken April. These are a set of traditional Albanian laws but one of the most specific aspects is gjakmaarja (blood letting) or hakmarrja (revenge), where avenging the death of a family member is a ritual obligation. The central character in Broken April describes it to his wife thus: "in houses that have a death to avenge, they hand up the victim's bloodstained shirt at a corner of the tower, and they do not take it down until the blood has been redeemed. Can you imagine how terrible that must be? Hamlet saw his father's ghost two of three times, at midnight, and only for a few moments, while the shirt that calls for vengeance in our Kullas stays there day and night, for whole months and seasons." Kadare isn't dismissive of this vengeance and the young man in Broken April who is caught in the blood feud fascinates the central character's wife. In Spring Flowers, Spring Frost it is more ironic. No sooner has Albania got rid of communism than it looks like the Kanun is coming back; but how would it work in the context of contemporary culture? "The Kalashnikov rifle like everything that comes from the Slav, undermines the Kanun...We learned from our forbears, as they learned from theirs, that the Kanun is about one shot the first shot. When you've pulled the trigger, you've had your due. It's now your opponent's turn to shoot at you. A second shot is not allowed by the Kanun, a third shot even less, so the thirty-odd bullets that come out of a Kalashnikov's belt have nothing to do with the rules." There are further ironies and complications. When Mark's girlfriend's brother becomes involved in the blood ritual, seeing it as a chance to escape from the decadence of drinking and gambling with his friends in Tirana, he does so after a few lines from his uncle. Angelin listens with no interest in the Kanun until the older man says "those young executioners, the country's hope, had no thoughts for gain...they were ready to run in precisely the opposite direction: to their loss." Knowing that to kill was to accept being killed in the circular logic of the gjakmaarja, Angelin is willing to sacrifice himself to the broader cause of Kosovan freedom. "His favourite hero was Jan Palac, the Czech who had set fire to himself to protest the Russian occupation, but he had never had the opportunity to do anything similar." Now he had. Angelin's gesture is both contingent and absurd. If his uncle had talked about other things, Angelin wouldn't have been galvanised into action; as if the ancient Albanian myths that could have lain dormant met with personal frustration and Angelin could see a way of acting without much point or purpose behind the deed. It turns out really to be neither one thing nor another: it won't do much for the Kosovan uprising, and borrows from Albanian custom without reflecting the further roots of such a belief. After all, the narrator makes clear that Angelin "never had any respect for the Kanun."
Kadare doesn't mock the myths but he contextualises and ironises them. In Broken April he does so by framing the story around a couple visiting the region so that the husband can research the rituals, while also focusing on a young man who seeks revenge knowing that he too will die, giving the book a melancholic air of passivity: the husband can do no more than merely enquire into the rituals; the young man will die just as he must kill. In Spring Flowers, Spring Frost it rests on the inevitability of the Kanun tradition reduced to happenstance because the uncle talks about it in such a way and at such a time that it pushes Angelin into action: that it seems like an act of stupid freedom rather than part of an ongoing vengeful incarceration. It is one of the paradoxes Kadare explores, just as when bank robbers commit a robbery people know that the post-communist era is over. There weren't any bank robberies under Hoxha so from a certain perspective it can seem a liberation; that people can practice their newfound liberty stealing other people's cash.
Spring Flowers, Spring Frost is one of Kadare's most free-flowing and ostensibly haphazard works as it follows quite loosely Mark, a dreamy, procrastinating artist who spends much of his time waiting for his lover to turn up, and also offers digressive narrative interjections all the better to create folds between ancient myth and fable and the contemporaneous. In one of these digressions, a young woman is forced to marry a snake, who at night becomes a gorgeous-looking man but must return to his skin at dawn. After several months of bliss, she decides that the best thing she can do is throw the skin into the fire and have the husband all to herself as a permanent human being. But things don't work out that way: "you have destroyed me...It is his last gasp. Like breath that has misted on a mirror, the young man fades away before his bride's eyes, and then vanishes entirely, and for ever." Later, the narrator refers to this moment all the better to suggest the idealism in the fable and its absence in reality. Mark recalls a story of a young woman in a hotel room in Bari whose boyfriend turns into a wild animal. It seemed that many Albanian women in hotel rooms in Rome and Paris were also victims of men who turned into beasts, and who were themselves turned into prostitutes. "On each and every one of their wedding nights, the bridegroom had thrown off his human disguise, metamorphosed into an unrecognizable alien being, and insisted that his bride go to work on the streets." Women may hope that the frog turns into the prince, the snake turns into a man, but it seems that the myth is weak next to the reality expect it to be the other way round.
It would be unfair however to regard Kadare as a cynical writer if for no better reason than cynicism is a categorical position and irony can be at least a contrary stance and frequently ambiguous. There are possibly practical reasons for Kadare's ambiguities. Noel Malcolm in an excellent essay on the writer in the New York Review of Books ('In The Palace of Nightmares') sees someone who was in a quite unusual, even exceptional position. When we think of famous writers living under totalitarian regimes, capitalist or communist, we do so in the plural. It might be Pasternak, Mayakovsky, and Solzhenitsyn under Stalin, Sabato, Borges, and others in the shadow of Peron and the Argentinean junta, or Czech writers like Kundera, Klima and Hrabal. But usually there were a handful of writers a regime needed to monitor. In Albania, Kadare was by far the country's most significant novelist, someone whose acclaim in France with The General of the Dead Army gave him status abroad that made him by the mid-sixties simultaneously an object of distrust for the regime but also famous enough for the writer to feel that his fame might protect him. "After its great success in the West, did you feel a little more secure, protected by your international fame?" interviewer Sasha Guppy asked Kadare. "Yes, but also more watched, because I was considered dangerous." (Paris Review) Malcolm reckons "there is, in the end, something just a little too tidy about Kadare's post-1990 explanations of his work, which set up an entirely unidirectional relationship between a "real" message and an apparent oneboth of them ideological in nature. There is also something much too plaintive and insistent about his efforts to explain that everything he did under communism was part of some nonstop dynamic of persecution and resistance." (New York Review of Books) An Albanian emigre critic Arshi Pipa saw Kadare's Chronicle in Stone as an anti-communist work, which "surreptitiously alluded to Enver Hoxha's homosexuality (the ultimate taboo topic) made him fear, he now says, for his life. In return, he has waged a ceaseless vendetta against Pipa, issuing coarse insultsin one recent work he compares "Pipa" to "pipi," i.e., pisswhich do him little credit." (New York Review of Books) Yet Malcolm sees that in the post-communist era the very critique of communism Pipa saw in the work is now there to be seen. While before the work didn't question or attack the regime, now it does. The books are the same but the context has changed. It might not speak well of Kadare's character that he wants his books to be read one way when communists are in power and another way when they are not, but it might suggest his genius for the ironic and the ambiguous if reading them both ways are equally plausible. Even if there is something cynical in Kadare's wish for his books to be read a certain way according to the times, there must be indeterminate irony in them if they can be read in different ways in different times.
Kadare has been honest about this pragmatism that nevertheless needn't destroy the content of the work. "From 1967 to 1970 I was under the direct surveillance of the dictator himself. Remember that, to the great misfortune of the intellectuals, Hoxha regarded himself as an author and a poet, and therefore a friend of writers. As I was the country's best-known writer, he was interested in me." Kadare adds, "in such a situation I had three choices: to conform to my own beliefs, which meant death; complete silence, which meant another kind of death; to pay a tribute, a bribe." (Paris Review) There is irony to be had in these very biographical details. There you have a literary critic offering your work close scrutiny as he insists that it attacks the dictator, and there you have the dictator no less interested in giving your work close attention as he insists he is a friend of writers. He could see that the subtlety he insisted on creating in his work was also something he had to face in his life.
A good example of this delirious nuance comes from The File on H. Talking about the tradition of Oral ballads, someone says that they want to understand how one ballad takes material from another and how this borrowed material will then influence the repertoire. They need to establish a corpus of recordings comparing one to the other and then thinking about how oral diffusion impacts on the culture as some are successful, some seen as failures, and others immediate sensations. This will only be an initial step, however. Then you have to see how the ballads change from one generation to the next, and then of course one has to take into account that the ballads exist bilingually. "These epics seem to be the only art-form in the world that exists so to speak, in duplicate. But to say they are bilingual or duplicate is to underestimate the acuteness of the problem: they exist in the language of two nations that are enemies." And so on. Kadare offers some of this intricacy when talking of his own political situation: "You can't compare Albania under Hoxha with Czechoslovakia. We did not have a Dubcek, the Czech Spring, and all that followed. If Havel had been in Albania, he would have been shot immediately. That is why there were no dissidents in Russia under Stalin. No one could do anything. In Albania, as in Romania, Stalinism lasted until the very end. When Havel was in prison, he had his typewriter, access to world media, everyone talked about him. Those who compare our situation with Czechoslovakia have no idea of Stalinist repression." (Paris Review) Is this the writer asking for a get-out clause or acknowledging the nature of his political predicament? Can it not be both; that a writer seen to be in cahoots with a communist dictator would not play well after the collapse of communism but without some compromise how is a writer to survive in such difficult times? And if the writer happens to possess an ambiguous style that makes meaning difficult to ascertain categorically, then why should the work be harmed by such self-protective measures?
It wasn't as though Albania in the 20th century only had to accept communist oppression. Kadare was born in 1936 in the village of Gjirokaster, close to the Greek border. In 1939, Mussolini occupied the town; then the Greeks, when fighting back against the Italians, and before the end of the war Germany occupied it too. There is potential for farce here: "At ten in the morning on Thursday the Italians came back, marching in under freezing rain. They stayed only thirty hours. Six hours later the Greeks were back. The same thing happened all over again in the second week of November." (Chronicle in Stone) The young narrator cannot make sense of the events around him but Kadare can, through the boy, all the better to emphasise the absurdity of the situation. The boy is bewildered but the events themselves are bewildering; no wonder the villagers rely on myth and superstition to try and make sense of reality; others hardly leave their homes. When one child has to start wearing glasses, the locals don't see it as a simple case of improving a boy's eyesight. "How I kept from bursting into tears, I'm sure I don't know. He walked over to the cabinet, flipped through a few books, then went over to the window, stopped, and took off his glasses. . . . I reached out, picked up the glasses, and put them on. What can I tell you, my friends? My head was spinning. These glasses must be cursed. The world whirled like the circles of hell." As for people refusing to face the outside world: "Granny Hadje had not been out of her house in twenty-two years. One old woman of the Zeka family had been inside for twenty-three years. Granny Neslihan had last gone out thirteen years before, to bury her last grandson." (Chronicle of Stone) Believing in daft ideas or holing yourself up in your house allows history to pass you by without thinking too much about it. If one were to attend to the historical realities and contingencies of never knowing which country is going to be taking over your nation then existence might just seem too precarious. Better to believe the devil hides behind bifocals or hide within your own four walls.
Kadare's work indicates an interest both in the horror of constant invasion and the absurdity involved in dealing with it in various acts of denial. If Chronicle in Stone is a fine book that emphasizes the absurd within the horrific, The Siege, written the year before in 1970, offers simply the horrific. While Chronicle in Stone adopts a naive tone that plays up pathetic fallacies, personification, and words breaking apart, The Siege looks straight at an attempt by the Turks to take a citadel. In Chronicle in Stone, the narrator says: "stupid river, I thought. Every winter it tries to bite the city's feet." Elsewhere, he reckons "words had a certain force in their normal state. But now, as they began to shear and crack up, they acquired amazing energy. I was afraid they would explode." In The Siege, we have mainly an omniscient narrator who views events from the perspective of the Turkish invasion, with occasional interludes in the first person plural and in italics from inside the castle. Set in the fifteenth century at the time of the great Albanian hero Skanderbeg, there is little humour in the novel but a logistical grimness and precision. While in Chronicle in Stone many of the characters are in a denial aided by the narrator's innocence, in The Siege the book possesses a narrator within the story, one who struggles to describe the various atrocities and has difficulty making sense of the politics involved in the invasion. At one moment the chronicler in the Turkish camp says: "I'd like to represent this noise as accurately as possible, but words are powerless to describe such a terrible din." Later, when someone explains to him the Turks' more general plan as a conquering nation, the chronicler struggles to keep up with the paradoxes. "'So that when one day this Albania, the terrestrial one, falls to the Empire, that other, ghostly Albania, its shadow-self, will go on wandering among the clouds...do you see what I mean?' (Actually, the chronicler was increasingly befuddled.)"
Kadare is aware in such a book that wants to offer a rounded view of the siege that the chronicler wouldn't be that much more useful a narrator than the boy in Chronicle in Stone. But while he wants unreliability all the better to defamiliarise the world in the book about World War II, he wants a detailed, expansive approach to The Siege. When the Quartermaster says "I've still never read a historical work that even mentions soldiers' feet", Kadare critiques the chroniclers and justifies why a late 20th-century novelist cares to write a book about the 15th-century. If history is written by the winners then Kadare writes a book that acknowledges constant modes of defeat. In the first half of the book he describes a failed attempt at overcoming the citadel by going over the top of the castle, using ladders, and then another failure when the Turks build a tunnel determined to get underneath it. The Albanians fire "balls of rags soaked in a mixture of resin, sulphur, wax and oil...they make burns that never heal up properly." A soldier who has made it up to the top slides back down: his hands cut off. There may be superstition in the book since this initial siege has been instigated on the say-so of the resident astrologer but there is little humour to be had from his claims. Later, instead of killing him for his useless prediction, the Pasha in charge of the mission puts him to work underground on the tunnel. He would have been as well to execute him: the tunnel collapses after the Albanians place explosives at its deepest point the men underground are buried alive.
One can see The Siege as a book that wishes to possess the force of tragedy with the detail of modern fiction. "The speed of action, the cosmic vision in a page and a half of the second book of the Iliad is impossible to find in a modern author", Kadare says. "The story is simple: Agamemnon has done something that has displeased Zeus, who decides to punish him." (Paris Review) The contemporary writer may have lost that capacity to write with such brevity but they can at least describe in detail the blisters on a soldier's feet. The question then becomes how to make the classically inessential the contemporaneously pertinent. If The Siege is a book set in the 15th century, it allows, like work by other 'historical' Balkan novelists, the great Ivo Andric, but also Milos Tsernianski and Mesa Selimovic, for modern contemplation, for the exploration of interior lives. The inessential becomes the phenomenologically and psychologically essential: the sort of thoughts Oedipus or Agamemnon have are usually public: absorbed into action or exclaimed into existence. Obviously, this is the nature of the form, theatrical dramatisation rather than novelistic narrativisation, but when the writer is interested in the Ancient forms of tragedy, and yet fascinated too by the modern need to offer interior reflection, an interesting collision takes place. When Peter Morgan gives an essay on Kadare the title "Modern Homer or Albanian Dissident?" he later says that Kadare is best understood in terms of antinomies. "Kadare is both Albanian patriot and European existentialist, repository of the legends of his nation and communist modernizer, dictator and dissident, Zeus and Prometheus." Morgan may be hyperbolising here, but oppositional elements there clearly are, as though Kadare was always a writer marrying contradictions as readily as generating the progressive. In a writer like John Updike (who wrote favourably of Kadare's work) there is little antinomic thrust in the American writer's fiction, as though his adventures into sexuality and post-war mores needn't brush up against ancient resentments and modern fears, no matter the religious aspect that sometiems appears in Updike's work. Updike opens his review of Chronicle in Stone by speaking of Albanians' ferocity and their isolation and later on invokes the Hoxha regime, saying: "Hoxha is referred to in a late chapter, as a hunted resistance leader and a former, once "well-behaved" resident of the city, but without any flattering or obsequious emphasis." (Odd Jobs) Updike writes knowing that no such fear need attend mentioning Lyndon B. Johnson in Rabbit Redux or Jimmy Carter in Rabbit is Rich. Nor does he have to acknowledge the presence of myth coming up against modernising communism.
Kadare's work thus exists in a state of tension that seems to move in two directions at once: towards myth and modernity without privileging one over the other. It is why Kadare can achieve a wry parenthesis that in another writer's work would require a full explanation. In Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, the narrator says of the central character that: "he had long been aware that his father's one eye (the other had been lost in a shoot-out with bandits) could express joy and sorrow in alienation." It is why in the same book the many strands can seem more than random. Whether discussing someone marrying a snake, a young man starting a blood feud, or the numerous references to Oedipus, Prometheus, Tantalus and others, Kadare keeps the book fluidly available to ancient myth, medieval ritual (the start of gjakmaarja) and modern post-communist mores. When Mark's girlfriend says "have you heard about the revival of ancient traditions", it comes after mentioning the communist era and whether Albania happens to be a country living different periods as though simultaneously, or at least in close conjunction, there is no doubt that Kadare's work does precisely that. It gives to Kadare's fiction a modernism within primitivism, an intellectual assertiveness containing a deep historical reckoning that isn't simply down to learning. While in another writer there may a large difference between the folk tale and mythology, between a snake who turns into a man and Oedipus killing his parents, Kadare suggests they are part of the same cultural source rather than proposing a contemporaneous division. It isn't so much a name-dropping modernism that demands one knows the references; it is a pragmatic awareness that can see Oedipus in the idiomatic. When Mark thinks of Oedipus he does so crudely. "Go fuck your mother! That vulgar curse, uttered a thousand times, surely existed in every one of the Balkan tongues." Clearly, modernists like Joyce intermingled the highfalutin with the base but In Kadare it seems less a provocation than a fact: that his modern characters exist in an ancient world just as his ancient characters exist in a potentially modern one: in their blisters being acknowledged. When a character wonders where a Kalashnikov sits in the context of the Kanun, in Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, it isn't too different from the characters musing over why chroniclers didn't spend more attention focusing on the realities of a soldier's life when they fought these ancient and medieval battles. Kadare drags the present into the past and the past into the present, which is not the same thing as saying he allegorises. That may be a dimension to the work and many who wish to see Kadare as a writer constantly negotiating with the diktats of a dictator will understandably see someone who phrases much of what he says indirectly. But chiefly what is of interest here is the entanglement of the temporal as it manifests itself in the historical. In many a writer, the era in which they are writing obviously takes precedence over other epochs and it is often centrally what defines a writer's literary identity.
When Kadare says of Updike's review that "I have been greatly touched by that article's noble posture. I use the word "noble" because John Updike was significantly better established than I was", we might also see nobility in the American's admiration for a work that is so different from his own. Updike seems to us a writer of his time in the best sense of the term, in his chronicling of post-war American in the Rabbit books, but how many others might we think of who are of their time in this sense? Solzhenitsyn isn't easily seen outside the context of the Soviet Union; Thomas Bernhard outside of post-war Austria or James Kelman beyond the context of a post-industrial Glasgow. This is very much not to damn writers who capture so astutely their moment; indeed it is often writers who fail or refuse to do so who fall into mediocrity: the sort of historical novels that indicate socio-cultural denial or exhausted inspiration. Kadare draws on the historical not to bring it 'alive' but to show that it is constantly living. As Updike says of Chronicle in Stone: "though the narrative takes place during the Second World War, the city harbours timeless customs: brides' faces are decorated with 'starlike dots, cypress branches, and signs of the zodiac, all floating in the white mystery of powder,' and outbreaks of magic..." He also sees in the book animism at work. It indicates a writer at home in different periods simultaneously, drawing on beliefs that can still be active in the milieu in which one writes. Updike's strength was always much more parochial and temporally straitened: a cosmopolitan post-war consciousness that was especially at home on the East Coast of America.
In Paris Review, Kadare says, "there are inventions and innovations that are not acceptable, for there is a vein that one cannot cut with impunity, just as one cannot slice off certain aspects of human nature. A man meets a woman, and they fall in love. In this love there are all manner of possibilities, diversities, but one can't imagine this woman with the body of another creature. If there is a total gseverance from reality, it is the end, one enters the realm of signs." What he offers as a general claim is justifiable as a description of his intentions. When he says in the same interview, in the remark that we opened on, that he was fascinated by all these military men who were killing themselves over love rather than being taken out by politics, he proposes that, no matter how much people want to read him as a writer under an oppressive regime, there are other ways to read him too. If he is of any import it will rest on these other ways, and the sort of readings that acknowledges in the anecdote he tells about lovelorn generals during communism, that what matters is the idiosyncrasy of these generals' personal lives, the absurdity that can come out of them, and the misapprehension that can assume the political is surely more important than the personal -only to find it can just as easily be the other way round. Near the end of The Siege, the Chronicler is trying to find the right words to describe the attack on the castle but cannot seem to fit crocodiles charging the ramparts with the raging storm of battle. The images don't go together at all since crocodiles live in Rivers and so he thinks stream of battle is better but doesn't sound dramatic enough. It is an amusing passage in an often harrowing work but captures well Kadare's awareness that a writer's obligation isn't either to fine prose or nation-building, but in comprehending the contradictions in a culture and the sedimental layers that bring it into being. When asked by Paris Review if he rewrites a lot he says: "not much, just small adjustments, but no drastic changes" and that "there is no conscious stylistic effort on my part." It is as if there is something essential in the work that fiddling with it won't discover. What matters more is "the fundamental function of literature: maintaining the moral torch." (Wall Street Journal) This obviously doesn't make Kadare a moralist; more someone who knows that the morality of the novel needn't be the same as the morality of life, especially when circumstances won't allow the writer a freedom that might be taken for granted elsewhere. If Updike could write very freely about the United States during the time he was living in it, Kadare under Hoxha in Albania could write directly about it hardly at all. However, it is as though he didn't need to; that his purpose was to extract from what couldn't be immediately addressed all that could be accessed. It is an ambivalent resource but few have made more of both the resource and the ambivalence than Kadare.
© Tony McKibbin