And so my slight obsession with Albanian literature continues. Well, I say Albanian – I really mean Ismail Kadare. I don’t know what it is about him that I keep coming back to, but his writing combined with the really pretty Vintage Classics covers of some of his novels just makes me go back for more.
An Italian general has been sent on a mission. He must go to Albania and collect the bones of all the fallen soldiers from the Second World War. Tagging along with him is a military priest and a local expert. Over the two years that it takes them to complete this mammoth task, all sorts of memories of the past begin to surface that many people have tried to forget for the last twenty years. Memories of Italian mistreatment of the Albanian population, and diaries of the deceased Italian soldiers provide a fascinating insight into what life is like in an occupied country – from both sides.
I love the central concept that this novel weaves itself around. I love the idea of someone going back to collect the bones of the dead (hence the title of the novel) and being forced to relive events that he is desperately trying to forget. I love that he is going to a country that was occupied by his own army not twenty years ago. I think this is a really clever way of writing a war novel, and I think what Kadare does best is to not blame either side for what went on. Or, at least, I didn’t read any blame. What makes this novel even better is that it is told from the Italian point of view.
Kadare could have quite easily have taken the Albanian side, and given us an Italian general who is narky and insensitive, but instead, he has given us a character who feels old, tired, frustrated with what he is doing and the way he is going about it. His attempts to befriend the Albanians, who are still (quite rightly) bitter about the war, are lovely to see from his side, and the stonewalling he gets from the other side is frustratingly predictable. But in a good way – this smaller token of reconciliation is no doubt meant to represent relations between the two countries, and to see Albania being portrayed as the people unwilling to move on is more interesting than the predictable inevitability of making Italy the bad guys. Albania itself is not characterised as a particularly nice place. Most of the descriptions of the landscape paint it as bleak and uninviting – especially since the novel focuses much of its time on the general doing his job in the winter, in mountains and backwaters that inspire dreariness and grayness.
For me, the best parts of the novel were the flashbacks to the war itself – the highlight of this being a diary of a deserter who lives out his life on an Albanian farm. There’s something so beautiful and elegiac about the whole thing, you just want to read it forever. And that, I think, is where the novel’s main weakness is. I would have much rather seen Kadare focus more on the flashbacks and diaries than the present day, mainly because I think his writing is much better in these sections. He brings some kind of balance and thought into what he is writing here, and it makes for some really unique war reading. Not that he condones what is going on – these diaries are far more personal than the political machinations of what was going on around them. Much like the general in the present day, Kadare chooses to focus on the personal rather than the national. There are some other really nice touches – the story of the whorehouse in the small Albanian village is perfectly pitched, as is the old woman at the wedding at the end. The German general, another man here to collect the bones of his dead, is another nice character, though it would have been nice to see him a bit more in the novel – he becomes vitally important at the end, though he is not set up as being so in the main body.
There is a reason Ismail Kadare was able to break out of the shudder-inducing genre of “world literature” and become a respected author in his own right, and this novel encapsulates it. His ability to paint characters who are placed in situations that are universal, and does not have to rely on making Albania, or its history, the backbone of every novel he writes, so that people read it to feel intelligent and well-read. Hopefully, people read this book because it is a very good novel, not just because “that guy’s from Albania”.