Tag Archives: Albania

Sworn Virgin (2007) – Elvira DONES

To say that we have a woman problem is unfair, but it something that we should all keep in mind, particularly with the recent conclusion of Women in Translation month: women seem to be disproportionately under-represented when we talk about translated fiction. I’m not totally sure why, but while And Other Stories can be commended for many things when it comes to translated fiction, to this point (four years in), they have only published one lady writer in translation. Odd.

Fortunately, the one novel they have published in this category is a good one.

It’s 2001, and Hana Doda has arrived in America to live with her cousin Lila. But Hana isn’t just dealing with entering a new culture—for the past 14 years, she has lived as Mark, a man in the Albanian mountains. Here in America, though, she will reclaim her former life as Hana, a young woman with hopes and dreams that have been suppressed for more than a decade.

Rather sensibly, Dones does not linger too long on either the way in which Hana becomes Mark, nor even the life Mark leads. She is not concerned with the titillation of a cross-dressing character—she is concerned with the emotions and thoughts of a real person who has made an immense sacrifice to ensure her own safety and survival.

What emerges from this novel is not just the truistic fact that gender is a social construct, but that navigating between the two is supremely difficult. Mark was never anything more than a construction Hana used to get out of a tricky situation, but he was a mask that she wore for 15 years, and one that she became used to. I’m not sure she was ever comfortable behind the mask (very few people ever are; and the only time we are given a glimpse into this life, the situation does not end well), but she learned what the mask entailed.

When Hana comes to America to make a new life for herself, ready to free herself from the cocoon of male identity she has spun, she finds herself stepping into a whole new world. Not America—Hana is too smart to let a small thing like culture shock get in the way, and she takes to the American daily routine like a duck to water—but to the world of female. Her guide, though, does not seem to realise just how big a transition this really is. For Lila, being a woman means conforming to a certain list of rules, regulating what must be done, what must be worn, and what actions must be taken. For Lila, there are two teams: Team Man and Team Woman, and never the twain shall meet.

It would be tempting, I imagine, for an author like Elvira Dones to ride on the coattails of her inherent otherness (an Albanian writing in Italian), but to her credit, she does not. She takes a tiny piece of Albanian culture—the idea of the burrnesha, or sworn virgin—and weaves around it the inherently human tale of the universal search for identity. If one were the kind of person to exaggerate wildly from a sample size of one, one might say: if this is what women in translation can offer, let’s get moving to find the rest of them.


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The General of the Dead Army (1963) – Ismail KADARE

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”.

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The Palace of Dreams (1981) – Ismail KADARE

A new year, a new list of books to read. What better way to start with another novel from an author I discovered only last year, and instantly loved. That’s right, it’s everyone’s favourite Albanian author – Ismail Kadare. And, this is a pretty Vintage Classic. A killer combination for my wallet.

Mark-Alem belongs to one of the most influential families in the Ottoman Empire – the Quprilis. When he is offered a job at the Empire’s most imporant organisation, the Tabir Sarrail – the Palace of Dreams – he is initially confused as to what he is doing there. Once his job begins, however, strange things begin to happen that he feels can’t just be put down to coincidence. Of course, once his powerful uncles begin to talk of revolution and change, the penny bgeins to drop. And by the end, everything will change.

I do wonder if I would have got more out of this book if I were Albanian. Certainly there’s something that is uniquely Albanian about this novel – it was banned when it was first published in 1981 in Albania. There’s a lot of stuff going on about the Albanian roots of the Quprili family being hidden because of their position in the Ottoman Empire – and I just don’t have a cultural reference for any of that kind of stuff. As such, I’m probably inclined to notice it, and then move swiftly on to what I think is the main point of the novel.

Mark-Alem is a pawn. Simple as that. Right from the beginning, he has no idea why he has been recruited to the Palace of Dreams, or why he might “suit” the people who run it. He’s so insanely thick that when his powerful uncle, the Vizier of a country province, is talking about revolution and change, and the history of misfortune in their family, he doesn’t make the connection until much, much later. As such, he’s a bit of a wimpy main character. Sure, he’s there just to present this world, and the politics that control and change his surroundings, but it would have been nice perhaps to see a little life injected into him. This is perhaps most evident in his final status – while his role as pawn has been carried out to completion, I’m not totally sure he ever knew that where he ended up is not some coincidence, but rather, as part of the political dealings of the Quprili family.

What fascinated me most about this world created by Kadare was the Palace of Dreams itself. It is a truly disturbing thought that there’s a government department out there designed exclusively to monitor the dreams of their population. For that is what the Tabir Sarrail does – with an outpost in every village, town and city, you must report your dreams to these people, so they can be sent to the head office, and determined if they will have an effect on the Empire, because it is believed that dreams are messages from God. An interesting, and frankly horrifying thought, considering dreams themselves can metaphorically be linked to ideas of freedom, of hope and desire, of revolution. People who dream ‘Master-Dreams’, that is, dreams that might affect the State, are tortured, and eventually killed, in the hope of further understanding any possible threat to the stability of the Empire. As such, the question of who controls the Tabir Sarrail becomes of vital importance, and eventually becomes the most important question of the novel – do the dreams control the Empire, or are the dreams fabrications – does the Empire control the dreams?

I don’t think that this is perhaps as tight or pointed novel as it perhaps could be. There are certainly some important points that are raised throughout – and the dream police idea is truly terrifying – but somehow, it seems to be a bit less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps Mark-Alem is the problem. Maybe I just need some time to let it all sink in – already, it remains in my head as a disturbing possibility.

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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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