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Rumors of a Coup

In fact, he’d come to believe that a head of state’s most useful actions were those which remained incomprehensible not only to others but also to himself. They lent themselves to such a vast range of different explanations.

This calculated dissonance rattles the Albanians in the novel, who are anxiously waiting to see what new sort of turmoil the next shift in Mao’s policies will bring for their own country, which is deeply dependent on its big brother in the East both economically and politically. Their fears aren’t entirely unjustified. Mao’s confidant and competitor, Zhou Enlai, inspires an Albanian general to stage a miniature coup by ordering tanks into action against the Party leadership during maneuvers. We never learn precisely why Zhou goes to the trouble; and, typically for a Kadare character, the general himself isn’t really that sure why he agreed to Zhou’s plan. In any case, this suggestion of a power grab has catastrophic consequences for several of the novel’s main characters, culminating in the general’s arrest and likely execution. It’s bad enough, Kadare suggests, figuring out what’s going on in the mind of your own tyrant—just try predicting what happens in a Communist Middle Kingdom where the culture, the history, even the writing are all steeped in unintelligibility.

Kadare’s take on tyrannical power is revealed most clearly in the concert that marks the novel’s climax. In Beijing the Chinese Party leaders stage an elaborate opera performance designed to send “signals” to all those—ordinary citizens, Albanian onlookers, members of the world Communist movement, intelligence officers in hostile powers—who are trying to understand the next dogleg in the Party’s “course.” “The concert was not to be missed,” writes Kadare.

It would provide all kinds of hints as to what was going on: what you had to watch out for was the order in which the Chinese leaders arrived, who was seated with whom in the boxes, whether Jiang Qing was there or not…

Lest one make the mistake of assuming that this decoding effort is to be taken lightly, Kadare is at pains to stress otherwise: “As most of them belonged to one or other of the various rival factions, secret or otherwise, such questions were a matter of life and death.”

And now it was being whispered that at the end of the first scene, and somewhere around the middle of the second, and also at the yellow stork’s exit just before the interval, something of the highest importance was concealed in the movements of the second woman dancer and in the lilac tints of her costume. It might have something to do (“Not so loud! Put your mouth closer to my ear!”)—it might have something to do with Mao’s approaching death and the question of who was to succeed him.

Sounds like a lot of work. But, of course, the joke is on those doing the interpreting—and everyone who tries to arrive at the ultimate truth in the intrigues of politicians. Sure enough, the Chinese leadership dramatically departs moments before the concert’s end, and we soon learn that Mao is dying—though the strenuous interpretations inspired by the happenings on stage have not produced anything of use.

Nowhere, though, is this essence of power—its constructed, deceptive, sleight-of-hand elusiveness—revealed more vividly than in those moments when its transfer has been thwarted. And that is why The Concert, just like The Successor, is palpably haunted by Lin Biao, the avatar of the political uncertainty principle. Early in the novel we have caught whispers about the competing versions surrounding Lin’s alleged betrayal and premature demise, supposedly in a plane crash while flying to Russia. An Albanian diplomat, returning from China after delivering a letter from Hoxha, obsessively ruminates over the various theories. Later, just before the climactic concert, the diplomat’s writer friend (and likely Kadare alter ego) supplies a long, mesmerizing account of Lin’s death, which he portrays as an assassination carried out by Red Army troops on the ground at Mao’s bidding. But just as we are finally feeling solid ground under our feet, the writer suddenly confronts us with a retelling of the story of Macbeth told from the viewpoint of the usurper, Macbeth himself. (Like Lin, Macbeth is a general whose military skill boosts the leader he aspires to replace; it was Lin Biao, in his capacity as leader of the People’s Liberation Army, who helped Mao put an end to the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and reassert his own hold on power.) In this version of the drama, Macbeth functions not as a power-hungry intriguer but as a fearful retainer who engineers King Duncan’s murder out of a simple instinct for self-preservation when he realizes that he has lost the ruler’s favor and that this could lead to his own death.

And even though Mao knows that his own claim to omniscience is a sham, even though he understands the emptiness behind the trickster claims of absolute power, he, too, is haunted by the inexplicability of his would-be successor’s fate. As he is dying, Lin turns up again in a feverish vision:

Lin Biao appeared instead. He was strapped into a plane seat, and the words “No smoking” kept blinking on and off over his head. Where were they flying to—the Kingdom of the Blue Monkey? “You plotted the coup—you ought to know what happened!” said the marshal. “As the victim, you had a ring-side seat!” Mao retorted. “All the accounts were doctored—both on earth and in heaven!” said the other. Both on earth and in heaven? Mao was taken aback.

Not even a Mao Zedong can penetrate the mystery that underlies life—but he knows how to fake it. The job of dictators, as Kadare suggests, is to make the rest of us believe that they’re gods. Just remember Cheops’ pyramid. And when Skënder Bermema, the Albanian writer in The Concert, spots one of the Chinese leaders at the performance, he’s startled by his own reaction:

Zhou Enlai seemed to hover between a human being and a phantom. The curtain slowly rose. “God!” exclaimed Bermema, astonished to find himself using a word that had been obsolete for so long.
In reality, of course, not even Mao or Hoxha can change heavenly accounts, just as the prerogatives of power did not allow Oedipus, another archetype who crops up frequently in Kadare’s work, to outsmart fate.2

Of course, if tyrants can successfully pass themselves off as gods, then the gods don’t come off too well in the comparison. (In Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, for example, there’s a sequence where the bureaucracy of Olympus swings into action just like the security apparat of a police state.) Indeed, there is much in Kadare’s work that suggests that dictatorship merely represents the logical consequence of a deeper existential predicament. In The Three-Arched Bridge, the bridge’s builders placate (or intimidate?) those who would frustrate the work of modernization by fulfilling an ancient legend that demands that someone must be sacrificed to the project. “In fact,” argues one of the characters, “all great building works resemble crimes, and vice versa….” “Civilization began with a robbery,” muses one of the characters in Spring Flowers, Spring Frost. Tyranny is merely the most extreme expression of a more general challenge we face to deal with a world full of uncomprehended menace. We should have no illusions about the forces that control our lives: “Don’t try to work out where we went wrong,” the Successor warns in the novel’s final pages. “We are but the offspring of a great disorder in the universe.”

3.

Kadare’s work has long been well known and respected outside his home country—particularly in France, where he made his home for a time. Last year his notoriety in the English-speaking world received a dramatic boost when he received the first Man Booker International Prize against a shortlist of competitors that included five Nobel Prize laureates. (Kadare has himself been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel for several years.)

The Booker award has also had the effect of reviving old controversies. Some of Kadare’s detractors accuse him of unseemly closeness to the Hoxha regime. They argue that he served as a member of the Albanian Parliament, that he received numerous privileges from the government, and that he also wrote works praising the dictator. His defenders point out that Kadare’s name was chanted by pro-democracy demonstrators when the Communist system collapsed—evidence that, during the years of dictatorship, his works provided them with a spiritual sustenance that contradicted, sometimes subtly, sometimes more openly, the precepts of Hoxha-style Stalinism. Kadare himself has insisted on the purely heroic reading: “Every time I wrote a book, I had the impression that I was thrusting a dagger into the dictatorship, while at the same time giving courage to the people.”3 As evidence of his strained relations with the dictatorship, he notes that he was exiled to the countryside for a time, and that he was banned from publishing for three years, after one of his works displeased the regime in 1975.

The historian and critic Noel Malcolm, writing in these pages in 1997, argued that Kadare was making a bit too much of all this. Kadare’s exile from the capital was a punishment suffered by other writers at the time, he noted, and Kadare’s claim of a “ban” was contradicted by the appearance of four books during the period in question. While accusing Kadare of smoothing over some of the less flattering aspects of his own past in relatively minor respects, Malcolm insisted that matters were not quite so black and white as the detractors would have it:

The point, once again, is not that Kadare was an “Albanian party hack.” Rather, it is that a simplistic post-1990 interpretation, offering only the crude alternatives of party hack vs. persecuted rebel, has warped the judgment not only of Kadare’s critics but also of the writer himself. It is not an interpretation that will enable us to do justice to his novels, the best of which (including The Three-Arched Bridge) are too densely multilayered to conform to such schematic readings.4

Malcolm worried that Kadare’s sense of his own ideological role threatened to diminish the quality of his literature (which Malcolm generally praised highly). As a possible source of concern he mentioned particularly The Pyramid, which is, in fact, a rather leaden and one-dimensional satire of totalitarianism.

More recently, one of Kadare’s translators, David Bellos, has come more vigorously to Kadare’s defense by pointing out a bit paradoxically that to describe the author as a “dissident,” as some of his supporters have done, is nonsensical in the setting of Hoxha’s brutally repressive Albania:

The superficial argument over whether or not Kadare was a dissident can be easily terminated: he was no such a thing. “Dissidence” in the Soviet or Central European sense did not exist in Albania. There was no underground and no samizdat because there was nowhere in that small and suffocating society for anything like that to arise. Open opposition to the Party of Labour of Albania took people to the firing squad within a few days.

Bellos writes that even though Kadare “was not a dissident in the conventional sense,” he did occupy “a unique and complicated position” that ultimately enabled him to make “a huge contribution to the nation’s self-respect and to its capacity for survival.”5 And, as Bellos notes, the mere fact of survival, in Hoxha’s Albania, is not be sneezed at.6

For my part, that Kadare served in the official writers’ union and the Parliament, and even indulged in tactical praise of the dictator, is not to be condemned unduly. Kadare was indeed privileged. His international reputation enabled him to travel abroad occasionally, for example, an option available to few of his colleagues, if any. But he also, Bellos argues, used those privileges to write works that gave his compatriots desperately needed literary breathing room.

His behavior since the collapse of the regime should count for something as well. I recall, for example, numerous East German writers who benefited from the old socialist system but found themselves unable to condemn it as dictatorship after its demise; Kadare, for his part, describes the Hoxha regime as “evil.” And let us not forget, closer to Kadare’s territory, the countless intellectuals from the former Yugoslavia who were happy to aid and abet genocide and ethnic cleansing. By comparison Kadare is beyond reproach. Though a vociferous defender of the cause of the Kosovar Albanians, for example in his book Elegy for Kosovo, in April 2004 he condemned attacks by Albanian nationalist groups against Serbs, Roma, and United Nations representatives in Kosovo—a stand that earned him several death threats.7 His support for the cause of democratization in Albania seems to have been quite consistent.

In the final analysis, though, it is his literature that counts, not his behavior. I think that Malcolm was right to worry that Kadare’s sense of vindication could have negative repercussions for his literature. I do not know all of Kadare’s work, but what I have read suggests a wide oscillation between moments of real brilliance and belabored allegory—perhaps to be expected in such a prolific writer. The Concert, to name just one example, begins and ends with a lemon tree that seems to function a bit too transparently as a symbol of organic authenticity, fragilely asserting itself against the grand and destructive illusions of the humans. By and large, though, the signs are encouraging. His most recent book, The Successor, also happens to be one of his best. And we can only hope that his instinctive agnosticism will inoculate him against his own best intentions. In The Concert a frustrated intelligence analyst, stationed at a North Pole listening post, has this to say: “History was written quite wrongly: a few battles and treaties, but all the most important things left out….”

Where for example would you find a single word about the twelve thousand girls in Europe who fell in love between five o’clock and a quarter to six on the afternoon of 20 September 1976?—in what annals, what diplomatic documents, historical or geo-strategic maps? And what about the sorrow of eleven generations of bald men between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times? It was that kind of thing that was the real stuff of history, not that other squeaking of rats reeling home from some grotesque evening out, the tedious pastime of Lilliputians!

That contempt for traditional historiography harks back to a grand tradition of salutary nihilism vested in names like Nietzsche and Tolstoy. But what about all that stuff with the girls and the bald men? Just when we’re beginning to have our doubts about the sentimentalism of it all—the character behind these musings, still at his arctic post, reveals himself to be a madman, wandering off into an arctic haze. Comedy without consolation—a good description, perhaps, of the spirit of Ismail Kadare’s work at its best.

  1. 2

    One of the characters of Spring Flowers, Spring Frost cannot help but think of Oedipus in a conversation about the strange death of Hoxha’s would-be successor years before. Reflecting on the conflicting versions of the Successor’s demise, he’s reminded of Oedipus’ wife, who offers two contradictory confessions about her husband before taking her life.

  2. 3

    The Art of Fiction 153,” Paris Review, Summer 1998.

  3. 4

    In the Palace of Nightmares,” The New York Review, November 6, 1997. Among other things, Malcolm noted that Kadare had spent an inordinate amount of effort after 1990 justifying his position under Hoxha (“three defensive autobiographical books, plus two volumes of interviews, all of them traversing more or less the same ground”), concluding that “the author doth protest too much.” Malcolm’s point about Kadare’s defensiveness was borne out when Kadare responded with a furious attack that, among other things, accused Malcolm of a “Bolshevik mentality” and “cultural racism.”

  4. 5

    The File on K,” unpublished article by David Bellos of Princeton, the translator of The Successor and several other novels by Kadare. I thank him for providing me with a copy.

  5. 6

    In the course of Hoxha’s forty-year rule, 141 members of the LAWA [League of Albanian Writers and Artists] were punished for their actual or supposed opinions: 1 was hung, 26 were shot, 4 died in interrogation, 12 died from maltreatment in prison camps, and the remainder served long terms of hard labor.” From Bellos, “The File on K.”

  6. 7

    Terror im Kosovo: Wie die ANA den Dichter Ismail Kadare einschüchtern will,” Beqë Cufaj, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, April 17, 2004.

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