Nobel Laureate’s tale of battle
In 2005 Ismail Kadare was the first winner of the Man Booker International Prize, a honour that undoubtedly made him the world’s most famous Albanian novelist, but perhaps did not altogether consolidate the international reputation his remarkable writing deserves. Kadare was born in Albania in 1938 but now lives mainly in France. In an afterword to his novel The Siege, which Kadare has partly rewritten for a definitive edition of his complete works, the translator, David Bellos, who won the Man Booker translator’s prize for his work on Kadare’s texts, explains the background to the novel.
(Readers interested in the problems of double translation, from Albanian to French, and French into English, should read Bellos’s fascinating essay on translating Kadare in The Complete Review Quarterly).The Siege is one of a cluster of fictions set by Kadare in Albania’s Ottoman past. It tells the story of an Albanian fortress besieged by the Ottoman army in the early 15th century. The novel appeared in 1969, when Albania, the only European ally of Communist China, felt again besieged – as much by the Soviet Union as by the capitalist West. The reaction of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s dictator, was to order the construction of concrete pillboxes across his country, as defence positions against possible invaders.
Kadare was inspired by an early chronicle: an account of the siege of Shköder by Marin Barleti, who was also the biographer of George Castrioti, known as Skanderbeg, the Albanian national hero who led the resistance against the Turks in the early 15th century. Skanderbeg does not appear in The Siege, but the novel is haunted by his presence, hiding in the mountains, biding his time while his countrymen struggle to repel the besieging army. Although the story is told mainly from the viewpoint of the besiegers, among whom there is an official chronicler – an inglorious figure who hides in a hole when battle breaks out – brief ‘interchapters’ tell of conditions within the fortress.
The result is extraordinary: an epic with the force of myth and the delicacy of a miniature; with an immense cast in which each individual – from the military commanders to the harem girls and the siege-fodder, the janissaries whose bodies strew the plain beyond the castle walls – is delineated with a pungent and minute regard for his or her particular humanity. You could reread The Siege every year for a lifetime and find something new each time. There seems no reason to refrain from calling this ideal collaboration between author and translator a masterpiece.