A political fable of decapitation amid totalitarian oppression combines wickedly funny satire with darker, deeper lessons.
One of a series of books by Albania’s premier novelist (Twilight of the Eastern Gods, 2014, etc.) that was banned in his homeland, this novel was published in 1978 but has only recently been translated into English. The only signs that it's set in the early 19th century are offhand references to Byron and Napoleon; otherwise it reads less like historical fiction than timeless prophecy, as it anticipates the relentless expansion of an empire “encompassing three continents, twenty-nine peoples, six religions, four races, and forty languages.”In the language of a fairy tale, “the empire was larger than the night. People said that when dusk fell at one end, dawn rose at the other.” The title refers to the spot in the town square where the severed heads of rebel leaders are displayed and preserved, offering a cautionary lesson to the visitors who flock to the spectacle. There are a pair of protagonists—Abdulla, who guards the heads as the “keeper of the Traitor’s Niche,” and Tundj Hata, the imperial courier sent to retrieve the heads and deliver them by horseback for their public display. The narrative concerns a rebellion and its aftermath in the outpost of Albania, which must then undergo the process by which all conquered peoples are absorbed into the empire. Thus, the “full erasure of national identity” encompasses “the reduction of the language into Nonspeak” and the eradication of all other forms of national culture. Though the guard and the courier never appear in the same scene, the novel’s resolution finds one in open rebellion, having gone mad, as the other continues with business as usual. The separation of the head from the body, or the intellect from the emotions, takes other forms than capital punishment.
Kadare's political impact and significance have made him an oft-mentioned candidate in Nobel Prize handicapping.