Towards the end of Ismail Kadare’s 2003 novel The Successor, one of its protagonists – an architect – reflects grimly on the moral contortions necessitated by living beneath dictatorship: “The pain had to do with art. I had betrayed it. By my own hand I had stifled my own talent. We all did the same and for the most part we all had the same excuse for our contempt of art: the times we lived in.”
By the time Kadare wrote that book it was possible for him to think out loud about the damage done to Albanian people by Albania’s history. It is a thinly veiled meditation on the 1981 death, in still-debated circumstances, of Mehmet Shehu, long the presumed heir to Albania’s paranoid autocrat Enver Hoxha, who walled the country off from the world for much of the 20th century. But for most of his 78 years Kadare has had to write in riddles.
“Self-censorship did exist, of course,” he says. “I couldn’t say that Albanians were behind the crimes I was writing about so that’s why the books took place during the Ottoman empire, or at other times and places. But everyone knew what I was talking about.”
Kadare is second only to the unlamented Hoxha as the best-known Albanian, his wry meditations on the absurdity of power earning comparisons to Franz Kafka and George Orwell. He was, in 2005, the inaugural recipient of the Man Booker international prize and an eventual call from the Nobel committee is believed likely. For the past 20-odd years he has lived mostly in Paris, in a sunny apartment overlooking Luxembourg Gardens. On the wall above the television hangs an impressionistic painting of Gjirokastër, the Albanian town where Kadare grew up. As did Hoxha; indeed, the pair were born in the same street, the name of which, Kadare claims, translates as the “Alley of Crazy People”.
The journey from there to here began with a boyhood infatuation with Shakespeare. “I discovered Macbeth when I was 11 years old,” he says. “I loved it so much that I copied it out by hand so I could pretend I was the author.”
Kadare’s first poetry was published in Albania when he was still at high school and he honed his craft further at the University of Tirana and the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow. He first came to international attention with 1963’s The General of the Dead Army, reprinted in 1970 by a French imprint that had picked it out of the translations of local authors produced by Albania’s state publisher. He found himself turned into the sort of ironic paradox that could have served as a plot: an internationally renowned author in a country that barely admitted that the outside world existed.
“It was like living two lives,” Kadare says. “One as an Albanian writer, one as a European writer. It became very complicated – was I bourgeois or communist? The communists thought I didn’t like Albania, that I wasn’t one of them. I got used to it, eventually. In the end it became like a vaccination: I was seen as someone from the outside and that gave me a measure of safety.”
Kadare has been criticised, if mostly by people possessing no comprehension of life under tyranny, for the apparent compromises he made to survive. It’s as if his work would somehow be more valid if he’d been deported to the saltpile or quietly liquidated, as thousands of Hoxha’s opponents were. Instead he was appointed to the National Assembly – where he did “nothing”. He worked for a cultural institute run by Hoxha’s wife, which led to the only meeting between the two most famous Albanians. “Hoxha wanted to be thought of as someone who loved literature – he gave me the collected works of Balzac,” says Kadare.
The writer also produced a book, 1977’s The Great Winter, that is hard to read as anything but a paean to the wisdom of Hoxha’s leadership and an attempt to recover favour after being forbidden to publish for three years in the mid-1970s. However, 1981’s satirical The Palace of Dreams earned him another ban.
Kadare had opportunities to defect during the Hoxha years: he was one of few Albanians permitted to travel abroad. However, he didn’t make his break until 1990, claiming asylum in France five years after Hoxha had been interred in his Tirana mausoleum. Had Kadare stayed there were suggestions that he might have been named president, following the trajectory of Václav Havel in the then-Czechoslovakia. But he wanted to draw attention to the fact that the new bosses were not readily discernible from the old boss.
“Communism was collapsing everywhere except in Albania and the government was afraid,” says Kadare. “So they said that Albanian was going to liberalise, become more European. But they had no intention of changing. I wanted to tell people this and I needed a way for my voice to be heard – so I came to Paris.”
Kadare still writes – “Essays, mainly” – and returns to Albania three or four times a year. He is still revered there to the extent that getting much work done becomes difficult, so constant are the requests for his time. For a country whose international brand is still unfairly tarnished by lazy assumptions, Kadare’s status as an internationally renowned literary titan is a source of considerable pride. In Tirana’s new airport his books are displayed as prominently as teddy bears dressed as beefeaters at Heathrow.
Kadare’s homeland is barely recognisable from the one in which he lived most of his life but is still, he insists, Albanian – for better or worse. “It hasn’t done some things it needs to do,” he says. “It’s the only communist country that hasn’t opened its archives to the public. The government has changed but the country itself hasn’t changed that much.”