It’s lonely in limbo. And that’s particularly true, it would seem, if you’re a member of the small, exclusive class of those who have suffered the same fate as the namesake of The Successor. Ismail Kadare’s novel, his most recent to appear in English, tells the story of the fall of the heir to the throne in the unforgiving Communist dictatorship of late-twentieth-century Albania. We learn the details of the Successor’s mysterious death, as it is told from a variety of perspectives, in the first six chapters of the book; in the seventh and last we finally hear from the man himself—or, rather, his ghost, who can be forgiven for seeming a bit confused as he wanders the afterlife. We know that he died at the peak of his power. We know that his death was declared a suicide by the official press, and that other well-informed sources know this version to be untrue. We have even learned, in fragments, a probable version of the actual sequence of events, and the identity of the man who actually pulled the trigger. And yet, even well into the narrative, the “unfathomable enigma” of why it had to happen this way remains unsolved.
Surely, though, the victim himself must know the secret; surely the dead are privileged sources on such matters. But the Successor immediately warns that anyone who expects him to provide a final resolution to the riddle of his demise is in for a disappointment:
Even if I wanted, I could not give you what you seek. It is not transmissible, not because of any whim on my part, nor because of any incompetence on yours, but because it is so by its very nature.
It’s a divide that runs not only between the living and the dead; even among his fellow ghosts there are very few who can understand what the Successor has gone through.
But there is, if we can excuse the expression, at least one potential soul mate at hand in the afterworld:
Thus, one summer’s night, I saw a scorched silhouette fleeing all alone, and thought I glimpsed my opposite number Lin Biao, the designated successor of Mao Tse-tung.
The Successor would love to compare notes with Lin. It’s not just that both men were Number Twos who were cut down before their time. It’s also that their deaths were the products of intrigues whose ultimate truth will never be revealed—at least not in the human world:
To him, a man of my own kind, I could have told the story of what happened to me; but no way can I tell you. For unlike the language that serves for us to talk to one another, a language allowing our kind to communicate with yours has not yet been invented on earth, and never will be.
But who is this Lin Biao anyway? We learn a bit about his story from a remembered conversation between the …