In his classic study The Singer of Tales (1960), eminent scholar Albert Lord demonstrated strong links between the twin Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey and the tradition of oral storytelling continued even into the 20th century in numerous European and Asian cultures, notably those of the Balkan countries. Prominent among the more modern counterparts of these preliterate “singers” are two of the last and present century’s most fascinating writers. Generations of political strife and cultural upheaval were seen through the amplifying prisms of traditional ballad and folklore in the colorful novels and stories of Bosnia’s Nobel laureate Ivo Andric (1892-1975), in such masterpieces as The Bridge on the Drina, which remains too little read today. A better fate perhaps awaits the living author who most closely resembles Andric: Albania’s controversial dissident author Ismail Kadare (b. 1936), winner of the first (2005) Man Booker International Prize and himself a prominent Nobel candidate.
Throughout a highly productive career, Kadare has displayed a truly cosmopolitan sensibility. After studying in Russia and publishing several volumes of poetry strongly influenced by other European literature, he turned to prose, with a boldly political novel (The General of the Dead Army, 1963) about a retired Fascist general and an Italian priest who scour the Albanian countryside in search of remains of Italian soldiers who had perished there during World War II.
Such subjects have always involved risks in a tiny country that was until the early 20th century ruled by Ottoman Turks, and subsequently endured the 30-year dictatorship of brutal Stalinist Enver Hoxha. Recent opinions disagree about Kadare’s relationship to Hoxha. Some commentators argue that the novelist enabled the dictator by praising his strong leadership, while others point to transparent criticisms of totalitarian activities in fictions that are, on their surfaces, more allegorical and elliptical than they are openly confrontational.
Kadare lived in France from 1990 to 2002, returning to Albania only after his international reputation would seem to have made official persecution of him and his work unlikely. His more ambitious novels include Chronicle in Stone (1971), Broken April (1978), The Pyramid (1996)—and the forthcoming first English translation of another masterpiece, The Siege (1970). Set in the early 15th century, it chronicles an Ottoman Turkish army’s attack on a Christian fortress sequestered in the Albanian mountains. In a masterly conceptual stroke, Kadare presents the embattled Christians as a single, unified first-person-plural voice, and individualizes their attackers (an ambitious pasha, a nervous chronicler, an astrologer on whose predictions many lives depend et al.) as an unruly chaotic force foredoomed to failure. It’s an original approach to an old story many times retold; a song sung in an eloquently expressive voice, both agelessly familiar and refreshingly new.