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The SRB Interview: Ismail Kadare – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

The SRB Interview: Ismail Kadare

October 29, 2009 | by SRB

ISMAIL KADARE was born in Gijirokastër, Albania in 1936. He studied history and philology at the University of Tirana and later, once he had declared his intention to write fiction, at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow. The majority of his adult life and writing career took place during Enver Hoxha’s long Communist dictatorship of Albania. Hoxha appears in fictional form as the Guide in The Successor, the latest Kadare book to appear in an English translation. The Successor speculates about the mysterious death of Mehmet Shehu, who had been groomed by Hoxha as his replacement. In its deft entwining of the personal and myth, and in the way in which it locates the Albanian experience within European history, it exemplifies Kadare’s fictional interests. In 2005, Kadare won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize, despite claims he was closer to the Hoxha regime than he had represented himself. With the help of David Bellos, the English translator of The Successor, Colin Waters spoke to Kadare when he visited edinbugh in August.

Scottish Review of Books:When one encounters a real life mystery, imagination rushes to fill in the gaps. In The Successor however you’re careful not to dramatise the death of the Successor as other writers might have, focussing instead on the characters around him. What do you think the novel gains by such approach?

Ismail Kadare:The character of the Successor himself isn’t that interesting. And as you come to realise at the end of the novel the Successor and the Guide are interchangeable, they’re of the same race, the same matter – a clan of assassins. That is to say that the death of the Successor is not itself a tragedy; the tragedy is of a whole people who lived under the tyranny of both men.

SRB: It sounds as if you’re saying that the character of the Successor as far as the novel is concerned is what we’d call a ‘MacGuffin’?

IK: Yes, that’s right. It’s part of the history of Albania, part of the history of Communist Albania. It’s not so interesting in itself. An example. Last year when I was in Scotland for the International Man Booker Prize, I went on a little tour of the country. And I went to Glamis Castle. I am very interested in Macbeth so I visited the dungeons of the Castle. The tour guide stated that Macbeth did not kill Duncan here, that Shakespeare was wrong because Duncan was actually killed in battle. I burst out laughing. It doesn’t matter; Shakespeare got it wrong but everybody gets it wrong. It’s not the history that matters; who cares? It’s like the case of Schliemann’s Troy. The question there was, is this Troy? Did Troy exist? It didn’t make any difference to Homer. Homer’s Troy exists whether or not the real one does.

SRB: Yes, but Shakespeare and Homer were writing about historical events that took place centuries before their times. The fictionalised events of The Successor took place a mere two decades ago. You can see how this might lead to confusion.

IK: Of course, that’s why I stuck pretty much to historical fact; I wouldn’t want to create an awkwardness with the readers if I was to change things too obviously. The Successor sticks pretty close to the facts – in as far as there are any facts. It sticks close to what is known. There are two versions of the story: the official state explanation, which is suicide, and the rumour, which was that he was killed. I sketched in a third version, that he was killed by his family, which I believe to be true. But to find that truth I didn’t get there by detective work – truth for truth’s sake – but because the literary structure of the work led me there.

SRB: What’s the relationship between fact and fiction in The Successor then?

IK: I don’t accept the term ‘historical novel’ or ‘historical fiction’ in the literary novel. I wrote a literary novel and the laws of literature governed how it turned out.

SRB: When the historical murder took place, you were still living in Albania. Did you immediately sense its dramatic potential? Did you set it aside in the knowledge you’d use it later?

IK: I thought of it as good literary material straightaway. In the mid-Eighties, about three or four years after the death, I wrote a short novel called Agamemnon’s Daughter, which focuses on the Successor but not on his death. I couldn’t publish it in Albania at the time, but I was drawn back to the characters in the book. Agamemnon’s Daughter deals with [the Successor’s daughter’s] engagement and its break-up which took place before the murder.

SRB: The portrait you paint is a remarkable one of a society where everyone is afraid, even the people doing the frightening.

IK: I’ve always defended the position that you can’t really consider literature to be a victim in these kind of societies. The dictatorship was also a victim of literature. They’re head on with each other and it’s a harsh fight, a fight to the death. I’ve been persuaded that dictators are cowardly people and are much more frightened of others than we realise. There’s a Swiss philosopher Jean Starobinski who talks about this. He says that the ultimate degree of paranoia is when you fall into the belief that you are part of the conspiracy, which is what happens in The Successor with the character of Hasobeu.

SRB: It seemed to me while reading the book that one of the ways an authoritarian regime survives is through the suspension of laughter. There are lots of obviously absurd, surreal even, moments – one thinks of the dead party member who is reburied several times according to the status of his posthumous reputation – but to laugh would be to place yourself in terrible danger.

IK: In your inner being you can of course not take them seriously. When you are in a zoo amongst wild animals, you have to take them seriously or else you’re going to get bitten. But you don’t have a conversation with them. That’s why you have to understand that in those societies the idea of a sincere relationship between writers and power is impossible. It would be like having a sincere relationship with a snake.

SRB: Foreign secret services act as part of what is almost a Greek chorus in The Successor, although they know little: “What was known about Albania was mostly obsolete and some of it was distinctly romanticised”. How aware were you of the outside world during those years?

IK: Actually, in Albania people could pick up foreign radio stations, and if you lived close to the border even some TV stations, so we were aware of what was being said about the country from the outside. We had that external vision up to a point even at the most closed moment of Albanian society.

SRB: Did this create a schism in the minds of the people, between what people heard from abroad and what the government was officially saying?

IK: Yes. Everybody felt that like a tragic schism or tragic gap because everybody who wanted to know knew that they were being lied to. We were living in a society of lies. It happened in most of the so-called ‘people’s republics’. The nearer you were to the Iron Curtain, to the border with the West, you got all sorts of information. The further away, the less; within the Soviet Union there was a large section of the population who knew nothing.

SRB: Could you say then, in a very weird and relative way, that you were ‘lucky’ to live in Albania?

IK: Maybe one of the underlying reasons why the Albanian dictatorship was harsher and crueller than some of the others was that the country was actually in a vulnerable position.

SRB: I’m interested in the process by which one became a writer in Albania then. I know that like everything else it was state regulated. But how did one go about it? Did you have to declare yourself at an early age, did they talent scout – what was the situation?

IK: There was nothing special about it. It was just that there was a call to a mass literature in those times, with the idea that the more writers there were, the better it was. And the idea of that was to struggle against the cult of the famous writer. So the authorities would stimulate a lot of people to write. It was the opposite of a selection process; it was an encouragement process. And that system reached its height in China with the statement, China needs a million novelists. But that was actually the best way of killing literature. Because if literature becomes a mass process, it is finished. It was industrial literature.

SRB: You trained as a writer in Moscow but disagreed with most of what you were taught. From what you said at your EIBF session, it sounded as if you had what one might call a contradictory personality. Would you agree this is something of a necessity for writers? Even in non-authoritarian societies? In Britain, it’s not unusual for writers to accept awards from the government, although other writers refuse.

IK: You don’t have to make any effort to be contradictory. It’s completely natural, the more a writer is a real writer. There are a thousand reasons for me to be contradictory, not just to do with political power, but with society, even with the whole of humanity. Insofar as a writer feels the need to be a writer, he knows he has several generations of readers ahead of him. In an unconscious way, I write for all those future generations. Not one of those future generations will be completely in agreement with me, it’s impossible. Inside of myself, I feel I’ll probably be in contradiction with everybody. Deep down, that doesn’t matter at all, because a belief in literature is something that is almost mystical. In the last analysis, great literature is in contradiction with everything. I mean, what is great literature? Our first thought is that great literature, that is what must be right, and that mediocre literature is merely ugly. But if you are a mediocre writer, you will hear a different sound, a different point of view. They say, Well, we are the writers who supply millions of readers around the world and some of our readers will go on to read great literature. They say, We are the unknown soldiers of the army of literature and the true martyrs to the cause. What they forget these foot soldiers is that under a harsh regime it is they who will be in alliance with authority against great literature. Great literature is a very small family. It’s actually a family of ‘dictators’ and ‘tyrants’. It crushes the millions of second rate. It’s a merciless clan, almost anti-democratic. Professionals know this. But it is very dangerous to explain this to other people. So remember, elitism in ordinary life and elitism in literature are completely different things.-

SRB: You’ve said, “There wasn’t space to be a dissident in Albania”. Could expand on what you meant by that?

IK: People make a lot of speculation about this word ‘dissident’. It means to openly conduct activities of a liberal kind hostile to a tyrannical government you are subject to. That was not possible in Albania just as it was not possible in Stalin’s Russia. Dissidents, to exist, need a tiny chink of freedom. In a classical totalitarian system there is not the tiniest chink. I’ll give you a concrete explanation. You’re a writer, you want to make a statement against the authorities, so let’s say you choose to do so at a meeting. A few dozen people, a small meeting. People will throw themselves on you, and you’ll be hurled straight into a prison cell. The tragedy of it is that people will think one of two things: either that you are stark staring mad, or that you are actually a spy, an agent provocateur. People who now claim they were dissidents under that sort of situation, they’re just boasting, it isn’t true, it did not happen that way. All that means is that you want to stand up and tell crocodiles they are nasty beasts and it adds up to nothing. The only resistance you could put up if you were a writer was to put up twenty pages that were really good, that were real literature. I ended up believing that something as simple as a love affair was a form of resistance because it was not something that could be controlled by the totalitarian system. Almost anything could be an act of resistance. All kinds of private life, be they mystical or sexual, could be a form of resistance. A digression. I heard at one point that there were a number of suicides amongst army officers and I got very interested in that. I asked one of my cousins who was an officer whether it was true there were suicides going on in the army. What were the reasons, I asked, thinking they must be political. I was really surprised because my cousin told me most of the suicides were over love or jealousy. That really pleased me. That meant it wasn’t over yet, that there were people suffering from perfectly ordinary things. You must remember they were terrifying people, these senior army officers, and here they were killing themselves over pangs of jealousy. They hadn’t been totally shaped by the regime.

SRB: You were published abroad early on. How did you manage it and what was the effect?

IK: There’s something that people don’t really know about anymore. Under the Communist regimes, each country published their native books in several foreign languages inside the country. There was a special publishing house for that. The translator of my first novel, The General Of The Dead Army, had been in prison for thirteen years for being a member of the wrong party. He had worked for the foreign language publishing company in Tirana. He chose The General Of The Dead Army as a book he wanted to translate for his own pleasure. Because it was a high quality translation it was cleared for publication in Tirana. There was a French journalist visiting Albania who took a translation back to Paris and showed it to a French publishing house. It was published without my knowledge or permission. Albania at that time was not a signatory to the Universal Copyright Convention. There was no copyright in Tirana so the French were free to publish the book. It had a double effect, because once the book appeared in France, it was translated into most European languages. I became known in Europe around 1970, 1971, which was good but it created a problem. It made me a famous writer of the Communist world who was appreciated in the Western world, by the enemy. The Party hacks emerged to say, There must be something wrong here. So the effect was double: on the one hand it protected me because I became a celebrity with foreign audiences, while on the other it made me an object of suspicion and more vulnerable within the country. I was very glad it happened though.

SRB: The main criticism of you that was made after winning the International Man Booker Prize was that you were something of a chameleon, that you did well enough for years under the Hoxha regime but find it convenient now to allow yourself to be portrayed as “a hero of dissident literature”.

IK: They’re just lies. No truth in them at all. For example, they claim I claim to have been a dissident and I’ve never said that ever, it’s not a word I use. So they construct false ideas in order to shoot them down. It’s a game. All the books I’ve ever written have been published in the West. Everything is available, the whole record is available, even the novel I consider the most conformist work, The Wedding. People can read and decide for themselves. Nothing is hidden. The Wedding was even done as a radio drama on the BBC. So read what I’ve written and decide for yourself. I became known during the Communist period, it’s not a post-Communist phenomenon. So why did the West read a Communist work? Simply because it was a work of literature. As I’ve said before, all I sought to do was to write normal literature in an abnormal country. The others couldn’t do that, and they’re agitated about it. It’s an awkward truth for conformist writers.

SRB: Perhaps this is the point then to ask what has winning the International Man Booker done for you?

IK: At my age prizes can’t make that much difference. It was a great pleasure and I was very honoured. I didn’t think I had a chance when I saw the shortlist. And there was the anti-Kadare propaganda that you’ve mentioned which started on a website as soon as the shortlist was published. The Man Booker website invited people to make comments on the nominees and my critics signed themselves under a series of different names, but actually it was the same group of people. But the panel took no notice. Lies do not always triumph.

SRB: There’s the issue of “retranslation” here. The Successor has been translated into English from its French translation. It’s not the best way for the book to enter the English language, is it?

IK: In English translations, there are two types: those that are translated directly into English and those that come to English by way of another language. I do believe French retranslations are a viable possible. In principle it would be better to translate directly from Albanian into English. The Three-Arched Bridge was translated directly by John Hodgeson. Albanian is a very structured language; it has romance elements and Ger-manic elements, so it makes possible for these two universes to communicate reasonably well.

[Professor Bellos comments: The double translation via French isn’t ideal, and it was not something I’d propose as the right way of going about it. It’s essentially a practical thing. But as you can see Kadare has French and so can comment on French translations. So I think an English translator working from the French talking to the author about what he prefers and what modulations might work well can do a reasonable job. But yes, it is difficult to find Albanian to English literary translators who are available. Double translation is not as rare as you’d think, but usually it’s the English language that acts as the relay. There are for example relatively few people who translate from Finnish into Japanese or from Spanish into Serbo-Croat. English is predominantly the inter-language in such cases so the English reader is generally aware of the phenomenon. But English isn’t the universal inter-language – at least, not yet.]

SRB: What is the state of Albanian literature now?

IK: Albania is a democratic country now but with serious problems. A substantial proportion of the population want to leave the country. As for literature, fifteen years is not long enough to see where we’re going. Literature doesn’t change when you change the scenery. What you had before were novels set on a collective farm. Now the same writer does the same thing but set in a brothel. But that doesn’t change the essence of his novel. It’s the same untalented writer trying it on again. Have you read my novel The Concert? It’s a novel in which I do talk about ordinary life in Albania and the workers, but in a way that is different from barren socialist realism. I talk there almost directly about political repression, about anxiety and terror, and that was why it was banned. There’s a long chapter in which I discuss the death of Lin Biao [who was once touted as] Mao Tse-tung’s successor. There’s a thirty-page section on why Macbeth killed Duncan for personal rather than political reasons followed by the section on Lin Biao. That makes a clear parallel between the two murders. In Macbeth it was the successor who killed the king, and the opposite in the Chinese case. I finished the book in 1981, and three weeks after handing it in to the editorial office, Mehmet Shehu died. The same story was going on around me. But even under Communism you could critique the décor and describe communist life and so create eternal literature.

Canongate will publish Ismail Kadare’s Chronicle In Stone (£7.99) in May.

by Ismail Kadare
Canongate, £9.99
pp224, ISBN 1841957631

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