The Siege (1970) – Ismail KADARE

Now that I’m on holidays, I’m slowly working through the pile of books that I have accumulated throughout the year. This was last on the pile, and as such, first off it. I love book pile logic. And while people scream at me that holidays are times for reading trashy novels, I’ll read pretty much anything in the holidays – as long as I don’t have to write about it afterwards. Clearly, this is not working out.

The fifteenth century is drawing to a close, and the never ending war between the East and the West is continuing. The Turkish Army has come to invade Albania, but the mighty Christian stronghold is refusing to bow down to the Islamic world. The Siege takes place over several months, and darts between members of the Turkish and Albanian camps. These two viewpoints combined, the brutal truth of warfare is revealed, as everyone begins to feel the effects of a siege that should never have happened.

I don’t know quite what I was expecting, but The Siege turned out to be much better than what I thought it was going to be. Far from being a dry, boring recount of some obscure part of Albanian history, Kadare has created an excellent story that deals with a whole load of themes in not a great deal of time. But, this book is the perfect length – it doesn’t drag, and while the first 80 or so pages are very pacy (and could almost be a stand-alone short story), the rest of the book slows down to deal with some pretty interesting ideas about religion and warfare. What really struck me, though, was how relevant this book is. Even though it was written in the 70s (it’s just been translated into English), and it’s about an historical event from the fifteenth century, everything it says is totally and completely true about today. And I know that history is relevant, blah blah, but after this, I think it is even more. After 600 years, the West and Islam are still fighting, and the arguments are still the same. I particularly enjoyed the speech in the middle of the book, where the Quartermaster is trying to explain to the chronicler why they are really there, and how they will win this siege, but still need to remain vigilant to wipe out the Albanian religion and their language.

Kadare made this siege up – though (apparently) it is clearly based on an actual event in Albanian history. What I like about this novel is that, while Kadare is obviously Albanian, the vast majority of the novel is told through the Turkish point of view. The main characters are all high ranking officials in the Turkish army, and it is through their eyes that we see the siege. Each one is out for himself, and for them to come together to work as a group is a small miracle. There is a great deal of political dealings and back-stabbings that go on. I love it. The vast cast of characters could quite easily get out of hand, but Kadare handles them with such skill, they are a joy to read, and each time a character returns to the page, they are instantly brought to life again. Of particular interest to me was the Chronicler, who is on this campaign to write a history – and since its the 15th century, it is in epic poem form. So he spends all his time trying to describe what is going on around him in the most flowery language possible. He’s a genuinely nice guy, who is there not for the war, but because he wants to watch. And since he hasn’t before, his eyes are pulled right open.

The Siege is probably unlike anything I’ve read before. Certainly, it’s the least recent historical fiction I’ve ever read. But, it truly remains relevant in today’s crazy, mixed-up world, and hopefully can find a wider audience. Go and find it.

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6 thoughts on “The Siege (1970) – Ismail KADARE

  1. adevotedreader says:

    I confess when I read about Kadare being translated into English, I feared each of his books would be ” a dry, boring recount of some obscure part of Albanian history”. By the sounds of it, I was wrong, so I will look out for this one.

    As for reading trashy novels over the holidays! I find the best time to read more cerebral or difficult books is when I haven’t already spent my day at work and uni. It’s a luxury to be able to use your brain to concentrate on something you want to, rather than have to.

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    I’ve done just what you recommended, Matt, and have reserved it at my local library. I read The Palace of Dreams a while ago *pause…check reading journal* in 1995, and thought it was brilliant. Not fun to read, more in the tradition of Stasiland, but very compelling and certainly worthwhile.
    Oh, and I don’t read trashy novels in the holidays either – I save up the more challenging ones so that I can concentrate on them. This holidays I’m buddy-reading the new translation of War and Peace – I’ve tried twice before, so I hope this translation will be the one to get me through it!

  3. matttodd says:

    Good luck, Lisa! I work in a bookshop, and have reserved a copy of another of Kadare’s books about to be rereleased in the new Vintage Classics range – which I love. I look forward to it.
    And good luck with War and Peace. I have never read it, but probably should some day.

  4. You sure do make it sound interesting. The only book by Kadare I read is The File on H. It sure wasn’t “a dry, boring recount of some obscure part of Albanian history.” This one’s another Kadare that I should watch out for. Thanks!

  5. Sian Mason says:

    The Chronicler, a genuinely nice guy?

    I disagree! He shows himself to be disloyal on more than one account; notably towards the first Astrologer. He also displays a severe lack of compassion when it comes to the blind poet Sadedin, not to mention his eternal preoccupation with the issue of military hierarchy. I don´t think the author intented for him to be perceived as nice.

    Sorry for this outburst, but I really did not and could not empathise with his character!

    I agree with you on the rest though, it is a unique book and it is also very gripping!

    • matttodd says:

      No, no, fair enough. To be honest, it’s been a while since i read this book, so I can’t totally remember what happened. But I do seem to remember the Chronicler as being an essentially good man – if not a little pompous and bumbling. But as I say, this was a while ago…

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