Albanian treasure

Muhammad Hamid Zaman July 09, 2024
The author is a Professor and the Director of Center on Forced Displacement at Boston University


I had just landed at Tirana airport last week when I found that Ismail Kadare — probably the most famous Albanian author in recent history or perhaps the most famous Albanian writer, ever! — had died. My phone was abuzz with news notifications. By that evening, there would be portraits of Kadare, several stories tall, hanging from buildings of the Tirana town hall, ministry of culture, and other government offices. Two days later, he would get a state funeral. The New York Times wrote in his obituary that Kadare “single-handedly wrote his isolated Balkan homeland onto the map of world literature”. Critics have often compared him to Kafka, Orwell and Milan Kundera.

I first read Kadare when my son gave me his book, The General of the Dead Army, a few years ago. I had heard of Kadare before but had never read him. Despite not knowing a word of Albanian — and recognising that translated works can never do justice to the original creative work — the book was extraordinary. The story is about an Italian general, sent to Albania (Italy had briefly colonised during the Second World War) two decades after the end of the war. The general was tasked to bring back the remains of the many Italian soldiers who had died in Albania. In Italy, the families of the fallen soldiers viewed the general as a hero. Family members kissed his hand as he left and had pinned their hopes on him for closure and comfort. In Albania, the general and his colleague, a former colonel who was also a priest, entered a different world. As the general moved through a vast country, going through towns whose locals were now being reminded of the atrocities the Italians had committed, he wondered about the futility of his task, the reality of war, and the purpose of life. On a quest to find the remains of the most famous Italian soldier on the Albanian soil, Colonel Z, the general came face to face with a haunting past and painful secrets.

I read the book several years ago, but still remember how it touched something deep inside me. Kadare opened up a new world to me. As my work took me to Albania several times in the last couple of years, picking up yet another (translated) book by Kadare became a routine. Kadare helped me understand Albania of the twentieth century, its people and its complicated relationship with its own history. The General of the Dead Army came out in 1963 and his later work (e.g. The Concert, Twilight of the Eastern Gods or The Successor) were a more direct criticism of the absurd communist system and the brutal dictatorship in Albania. Every book of his that I read was rich, nuanced and original. His words — written as a citizen of a country that has had overlapping episodes of colonialism, corruption and absurdity — felt authentic and personal. Despite not being able experience the raw beauty of his language, I was enveloped in his world that felt so familiar.

In the course of his illustrious career, Kadare received nearly every major literary award with the exception of the Nobel Prize (though his name was often discussed as a strong possibility). In Albania he remains extremely famous — his books are available everywhere and are part of the school curriculum. However, without denying his genius, many Albanians question how he survived in the brutal regime of Enver Hoxha when so many other intellectuals disappeared permanently. Kadare himself acknowledged his privilege in his autobiographical essays in the later part of his life.

As I reached my hotel that afternoon, the news had reached everywhere in Albania and beyond. I asked the receptionist about Kadare. The receptionist, like nearly every Albanian I have ever met, had read Kadare thoroughly. He talked at length about his favourite novels — and while acknowledging the complexity of the man — told me that Kadare wrote beautifully and made everyone think about the world we create for ourselves. He felt his life was richer because of Kadare — so did I.


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