The Three-Arched Bridge
The Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare once observed that every writer has two ages, two chronologies. First there is the author’s biological age; then there is his or her reputation, which is born at a different date and lives on another timescale. Kadare himself was born in 1936. His international reputation came into the world in 1970, with the French translation of his first major novel, The General of the Dead Army. From the late 1970s it grew rapidly, under the loving care of a new French foster parent, the Parisian publishing house of Fayard; by its mid-teens, Ismail Kadare’s reputation was strong enough to support frequent calls—as yet unheeded—for the award of a Nobel Prize. Today he is possibly the best-known of all living novelists from the former Communist bloc apart from Solzhenitsyn, and certainly the only well-known writer from his native land.
If publications are the yardstick, then Kadare’s fame is still growing, albeit at different rates in different languages: there are now nine of his works in English, and more than twenty in French. (Having fled to Paris in 1990, Kadare has become an established figure on the French literary scene.) But since the collapse of communism in Albania in 1990-1992, his reputation has come under serious attack. The accusation is that, far from having represented a kind of spiritual and artistic resistance to Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist regime in Albania, he was its beneficiary and one of its active supporters. The people who advance his claims to a Nobel Prize present him as an Albanian Solzhenitsyn; his enemies regard him as an Albanian Gorky-cum-Zhdanov. Or as the subtitle of a recent review in the conservative The Weekly Standard so succinctly put it: “Don’t Give the Nobel to an Albanian Party Hack.”
A new English translation of Ka-dare’s novel The Three-Arched Bridge provides an opportunity to test some of these claims. This short work (originally issued as a novella) offers a concentrated example of the Kadarean style and mood. It also takes us to the heart of Kadare’s oeuvre in a chronological sense: it was first published in Tirana in 1978, fifteen years after the publication of his first novel there and twelve years before his emigration. Albania in the late 1970s was nudging toward the nadir of the Enver Hoxha era, having lost first its links with the Soviet Union in 1961 and then, in 1976-1977, its bizarre alliance with China. All that remained was economic “autarky,” which meant grinding poverty and absolute geopolitical isolation. It was during this period that Ismail Kadare wrote a succession of historical novels, of which The Three-Arched Bridge is one. Such a retreat into the past could be seen as a sort of internal emigration of the spirit. But Hoxha’s ideological presence was not so easily evaded: as a counterpart to his geopolitical isolationism, the Communist dictator also cultivated a strident historical nationalism, propagating a version of Albanian history in which independence …