Sacrifices on the Altar of Ambition: Agamemnon’s Daughter by Ismail Kadare
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, except for the obvious difference that his experiences were first-hand.
This book, Agamemnon’s Daughter 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 a 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 this 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…
The other myth that the narrator ponders 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)
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 we have been working through the early chapters of Daniel over the last few months. For every regime faces its own writing on the wall…