I set out for Greece today to do a long weekend of training in Athens: a country and city wracked by austerity measures, riots and fearful pessimism. And the complexities of the situation extend back far in the country’s history – they certainly defy soundbite rhetoric or easy-blame zingers. But as I return, I’ve been thinking a great deal about one person’s experience of this history, a history inextricably if painfully linked to that of its neighbour, Turkey: Dmetri Kakmi’s Mother Land. Read more
Gjirokaster is an ancient stone city in southern Albania – not far from the Greek border. It was the birthplace and hometown of the wonderful novelist, Ismail Kadare. It was also where the terrifying Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha came from. Hoxha is a ghostly figure who lurks on the peripheries of many of Kadare’s books (some of which I’ve posted about before). And his great (semi-autobiographical) masterpiece, Chronicle in Stone is no exception. As I’m due to return to Albania in a few weeks, I eagerly picked this book up on holiday and my expectations were surpassed.
The narrator is a young boy trying to come to terms with the turmoil of war. His ancient city is swarming with occupiers, collaborators, revolutionaries, survivors, ordinary folk just trying to exist. And in the early 1940s, all is confusion – only a few decades after Albania’s independence from the Ottoman Empire, the city changed hands several times back and forth between Italians, Greeks (with the aid of the British RAF bombers), Nazis – not to mention the various Albanian factions each with their own agendas (monarchists, nationalists, communists). Trying to understand the world of adults is hard enough for children – but when this is going on, it’s impossible.
Kadare recaptures the innocent confusion of children with pitch perfect poignancy. Here is a little moment where the young narrator has a go.
I wondered how it was that it had occurred to people to pile up so many stones and so much wood to make all those walls and roofs and then call that great heap of streets, roofs chimneys and yards a city. But even less comprehensible were the words “occupied city”, which came up more and more in the grown-ups’ conversations. Our city was occupied. Which meant that there were foreign soldiers in it. That much I new, but there was something else that bothered me. I couldn’t see how a city could be unoccupied. And anyway, even if our city wasn’t occupied, wouldn’t there be these same streets, the same fountains, roofs and people? Wouldn’t I still have the same mother and father and wouldn’t Xhexho, Kako Pino, Aunt Xhemo and all the same people still come to visit? (p25)
Without giving much away, these words would prove to be strangely prescient.
One aspect of childhood that Kadare vividly evokes throughout the book is the inability of young children to understand metaphor and allusion (let alone the simple issue of gravity). Everything gets taken too literally. [Incidentally, this insight definitely provoked all kinds of thoughts about how people handle the bible – and whether it is itself an indication of maturity or the lack of it – but that’s another story!].
Here our narrator is chatting with his best friend Ilir. His wonderful imagination gets carried away as he processes what they have overheard. The cause of some of the confusion is that he and Ilir a few months before had secretly gone to check out the local abattoir.
Ilir raced down Fools’ Alley.
“Guess what?” he said, as he came through the door. “The world is round like a melon. I saw it at home. Isa brought it. It’s round, perfectly round, and it spins without stopping.” He took a long time to tell me what he had seen.
“But how come they don’t fall off?” I asked when he told me there were other cities under us, full of people and houses.
“I don’t know,” Ilir said. “I forgot to ask Isa. He and Javer were home looking at the globe. Then Javer tapped it with his finger and
said, ‘Soon it’ll be a slaughterhouse.’”
“Yes. That’s what he said. The world will drown in blood. That’s what he said.”
“Where will all the blood come from?” I asked. “Fields and mountains don’t have blood.”
“Maybe they do,’ said Ilir. “They must know something, they way they talk. When Javer said the world would be a slaughterhouse, I told him we’d been there and had seen how they slaughter sheep. He started laughing and said, ‘Now you’ll see what happens when they slaughter nations.’”
“Nations? Like on the postage stamps, you mean?”
“Right. Like that. Nations.”
“Who’s going to slaughter them?”
Ilir shrugged. “I didn’t ask.”
I thought about the slaughterhouse again. One day when she was talking about the aerodrome Xhexho said that the fields and grasses would be covered with cement. With wet slipper cement. A rubber hose sluicing cities and nations. To wash away the blood… Maybe we were only at the beginning of the slaughter. But I found it hard to imagine nations being led to the slaughter, bleating as they went. Peasants in their black woollen cloaks. Butchers in white coats. Rams, ewes, lambs. People standing around to watch. Other people just waiting. Then it was time. France. Norway. The square awash with blood. Holland bleating. Luxembourg like a newborn lamb. Russia with a big bell around its neck. Italy a goat (I don’t know why). Something mooing all on its own. Who could that be? (p91-92)
The book opens with a massive rainstorm (which causes all kinds of overnight chaos with flooding cisterns and streets) – but within a few pages the storm abates, and all is calm.
I went back up the two flights to the living room, looked out and saw with joy that far off, at a distance too great to measure, a rainbow had appeared, like a brand-new peace treaty between mountain, river bridge, torrents, road, wind and city. But it was easy to see that the truce would not last long. (p10)
And in many ways that longed for, far off peace treaty is what everyone in the city craves, as the storms of war descend. Yet the book doesn’t end with a rainbow. Interestingly, as the excellent introduction by David Bellos observes, it doesn’t end with Enver Hoxha’s triumphant conquest of his own country in the name of the people – we just know that it is coming (though not as triumphant as he’d have liked). This is in itself a sly form of Kadare’s rebellion against the official propaganda about the inevitability of the regime’s victory. But that is part of the book’s brilliance. He sustains his artistic and human integrity without compromising too much with the regime he submits too.
This boy (clearly based on Kadare himself) is a impressionable, curious and above all resilient observer of the world he’s in – and he sees the glimmers of hope even in the darkest corners. He is obsessed with Shakespeare’s Macbeth which he discovers in the course of the book – and sees all kinds of resonances within the stone walls of his own medieval home town. And the walls have seen it all. The people who inhabit them pass – but the walls survive (despite the aerial and artillery bombardments) – and tell their story. They are a chronicle in stone of the many rulers that have claimed Gjirokaster as their own.
But this book, a chronicle in its own right (interspersing the narrative with only apparently irrelevant snippets of news items, observations and reflections), is a true act of bravery. First published in Albanian in 1971 when the Hoxha regime seemed so unassailable, to even hint that it might pass was potentially reckless. But it is more than a brave book. It is also a beautiful book and a humane book. And I suspect it is a book I will return to again and again.
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…