Friday, July 19, 2024

Ismail Kadare, Albanian author who took on communist rule, dies at 88


Ismail Kadare, an Albanian novelist and poet who crafted a richly layered literature of resistance, drawing global attention to his isolated Balkan nation while cloaking critiques of the country’s communist regime in history, irony, folklore and myth, died July 1 in Tirana, the capital. He was 88.

His longtime publisher Bujar Hudhri, the founder of Onufri Publishing House in Albania, said Mr. Kadare went into cardiac arrest at home before being rushed to the hospital, where he died.

Mr. Kadare (pronounced kah-day-RAY) was often compared to Franz Kafka, George Orwell and Milan Kundera, with whom he shared a fantastical bent and a talent for illuminating the perils and psychology of life under totalitarianism. Like them, he was also “seemingly incapable,” as New York Times journalist Charles McGrath once put it, “of writing a book that fails to be interesting.”

His novels, including “Chronicle in Stone” (1971) and “The Three-Arched Bridge” (1978), were translated into dozens of languages and opened a rare window on Albania, a small country of fewer than 3 million people. The country was cut off from the rest of the world during the four-decade rule of Enver Hoxha, a paranoid and repressive communist leader who outlawed religion, restricted travel, harassed ethnic minorities, cut ties with Moscow and Washington and jailed and murdered political opponents.

Mr. Kadare was not strictly a political writer, and in his telling he was more concerned with literature than ideology. But through his work, which transported readers to contemporary Albania as well as to the Ottoman Empire and ancient Egypt, he offered veiled criticisms of the regime, using satire and mockery as a tool to poke fun at bureaucrats and the secret police.

One of his early novels, “The Monster” (1965), evoked the state of permanent paranoia that exists under a totalitarian regime, imagining a town that wakes up to find the Trojan Horse outside its walls — and then waits anxiously, day after day, for something to happen with the horse. (The book was banned for “decadence.”) In “Chronicle in Stone,” he reflected on wartime life in the small city where he was raised, offering veiled critiques of communist life. One of the book’s characters is executed for “the misuse of revolutionary violence,” and townspeople are deported for the vague crime of having “spoke against.” The supposed violation begs an obvious question (“Against what?”), though the answer is never spelled out.

“Life under Communism was principally a tragedy, but a tragedy with comic, not to say grotesque, interludes,” Mr. Kadare told the New Yorker in 2005. “Life over all could be described in those terms — as a tragicomedy.”

During the Hoxha years, Mr. Kadare treaded carefully between artistic freedom and the imperative of survival. Seeking to avoid being sent to prison or to the firing squad for his work, he served as a deputy in Albania’s legislature and as an official in the country’s writers’ union.

In the mid-1970s, he was forced to publicly criticize himself after writing a poem called “The Red Pashas,” which attacked the country’s bureaucracy. A follow-up novel, “The Great Winter,” restored some of his standing with the regime, offering a flattering portrayal of Hoxha while dramatizing the political split between Albania and the Soviet Union.

Mr. Kadare took on the dictatorship more directly in books like “The Palace of Dreams,” from 1981, which New York Times reviewer Richard Eder described as “a moonlit parable about the insanity of power — murderous and suicidal at the same time.” Set in Constantinople, the book explored a fictional government ministry, a kind of nocturnal secret police that probed citizens’ dreams, looking for any suggestions of unrest or discontent. As with “The Monster,” it was banned by the state, though by then it had sold some 20,000 copies.

As Mr. Kadare told it, he was ultimately protected from government reprisals by the support of “the entire Albanian nation,” which continued to read his work long after he defected to Paris in 1990. Mr. Kadare, who was granted political asylum by France, made the trip west under the guise of a book promotion. He said he faced threats from the Sigurimi, or secret police, and had become convinced “that more than any action I could take in Albania, my defection would help the democratization of my country.”

Communism fell some 18 months later, and Mr. Kadare soon returned to his apartment in Tirana, splitting his time between Albania and the West. His literary reputation continued to grow, and he was often cited as a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature. In 2005, he was awarded the inaugural Man Booker International Prize, now the International Booker Prize, presented with a lifetime achievement honor that later went to authors including Chinua Achebe, Alice Munro and Philip Roth.

British literary critic John Carey, who chaired the judging panel, called Mr. Kadare “a universal writer in the tradition of storytelling that goes back to Homer.”

“We propped each other up, as we tried to write literature as if that regime did not exist,” Mr. Kadare said in his acceptance speech, referring to his fellow Albanian writers. “Now and again we pulled it off. At other times we didn’t. The idea that we could create a few mouthfuls of spiritual nourishment for our imprisoned nation filled us with joy.”

The second of three children, Ismail Kadare was born in the southern town of Gjirokaster — the same hometown as Hoxha — on Jan. 28, 1936. His father was a civil servant, his mother managed the family’s home.

When Mr. Kadare was 3, Italian troops invaded. A political tug-of-war ensued during World War II, which Mr. Kadare dramatized to absurdist effect in “Chronicle in Stone”: “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.”

After the communists took power in 1944, Mr. Kadare and other children were steered toward works of Soviet socialist realism. He was far more interested in books like “Macbeth,” which he began reading obsessively at age 11, fascinated by Shakespeare’s depiction of turbulent politics in a rainy landscape populated by witches and murderers.

“I hated the Soviet books, full of sunshine, working in the fields, the joyous spring, the summer full of hope,” he recalled in a Guardian interview. “The first time I heard the words ‘hope’ and ‘hard work’, they made me yawn.”

Mr. Kadare studied at what is now the University of Tirana and did postgraduate work in Moscow, at the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute.

He was initially known for his poetry, including straightforward but evocative verses in which he questioned how the Muses ever found their way to his door: “My mother does not know Albanian well, / She writes letters like Aragon, without commas and periods, / My father roamed the seas in his youth, / But you have come, / Walking down the pavement of my quiet city of stone, / And knocked timidly at the door of my three-story house, / At Number 16.”

Mr. Kadare found wider acclaim with his first published novel, “The General of the Dead Army” (1963), about an Italian army officer sent to recover the bodies of soldiers killed during the Second World War. The novel was translated into French in 1970, introducing him to Western readers, and inspired a 1983 Italian film starring Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli and Anouk Aimée, along with a 1989 French film called “Life and Nothing But,” directed by Bertrand Tavernier.

The book was published in Albania the same year Mr. Kadare married Helena Gushi, who also became a novelist. In addition to his wife, survivors include two daughters, Gresa and Besiana, a diplomat who served as Albania’s representative to the United Nations; and two grandchildren.

Before defecting to France, Mr. Kadare published a poem called “Insufficient Time.” The poem, which Besiana Kadare posted on social media after his death, linked his eventual demise with his departure from his home country. The last stanza read: “Tormented until the last moment / By the silence and by being a tragic hostage / Perhaps with an incomprehensible signal / I will take leave of all and escape.”

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