Ismail Kadar
Ismail Kadar; drawing by David Levine

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 and cultural self-sufficiency were projected far back into the past. No historical novel written in the late 1970s could break free of this ideological web—even assuming that its author was trying to do so.

The Three-Arched Bridge is set in late fourteenth-century Albania, on the eve of the Ottoman conquest. The Turks are a menacing presence in this story, but the great military might of the Ottoman state remains offstage. Hints of its maneuverings are made from time to time: we are told of an Albanian-Byzantine-Turkish power struggle over the control of a naval base in southern Albania, and of a request by the pasha of a nearby Ottoman province for the hand of an Albanian ruler’s daughter for his son. But the novel largely centers on events taking place within the Albanian ruler’s own territory.

One morning, on the banks of the territory’s great river, an unknown man falls down in an epileptic fit. A passing soothsayer, also unknown to the locals, declares that this is a sign from God that a bridge must be built on this spot. Three weeks later the ruler is visited by a deputation from a bridge-building company (of foreign, but unspecified, origin), which says it has heard of this divine portent and has come to construct the bridge: it will pay handsomely for the land and the construction rights, in return for control over the tolls. The ruler hesitates because he already has a contract with the “Boats and Rafts” company, another foreign concern, which operates a ferry there. “Boats and Rafts” has also lent the ruler large sums of money. But the bridge-builders offer better terms, and so their proposal is accepted.

We are looking, in other words, at a form of proto-capitalism; to clarify matters, the master bridge-builder will later explain that with the growth of trade and banking and the increasing influence of Venetian and Jewish merchants, “the lineaments of a new order that would carry the world many centuries forward had faintly, ever so faintly, begun to appear in this part of Europe.”


And so the bridge-building begins. All the events are described as seen through the eyes of the tale’s narrator, a Catholic priest called Gjon (the Albanian form of “John”). Like the central characters in many of Kadare’s other novels he is a humble figure, an observer rather than a protagonist, by nature anxious, slow to comprehend, and cautious, even suspicious, about other people’s motives. It is he who suggests, after due reflection, that the incident of the epileptic fit was a sham, staged by the bridge-building company.

Dusk was falling when they [the representatives of the bridge-builders] finally left. I stared after them from the bank for a short while. They were explaining something to each other, making all kinds of hand signs and pointing to each bank of the river in turn. It was cold. In the fast-falling darkness, they looked from a distance like a few black lines scrawled on the raft, as mysterious and incomprehensible as their inhuman gabble. And suddenly, as I watched them disappear, a suspicion crept into my mind, like a black beetle: the man who had fallen in a fit on the riverbank, the wandering fortune-teller who had been close by him, and these two clerks with their tight jerkins were in the service and pay of the same master….

So when, as the bridge nears completion, it begins to suffer mysterious scratches and gouges and acts of structural damage below the waterline, Gjon also suspects human agency—unlike the superstitious local population, which is convinced that the angry spirit of the river is wreaking its revenge.

The bridge-building company also assumes that human hands, hired by “Boats and Rafts,” are to blame. At the same time, it is worried about the power of superstition, which will prejudice people against the bridge. It sets guards on the parapet, hoping to catch the nocturnal saboteur, but it also attempts a more cunning strategy, aiming to use myth against myth in the way that one nail drives out another. An agent of the company questions Gjon repeatedly about the old ballad of the building of the castle of Shkodër in northern Albania, which was also undone each night by unseen hands. Eventually, the ballad relates, it was revealed that the dismantling would cease only if a human being were walled up alive in the structure of the castle. The next day, this gruesome ritual was carried out on the wife of one of the three master masons, who was placed, alive and standing, in a cavity of the castle wall. In a popular version of the myth, one of her breasts was at first left exposed as they walled her in, so that she could continue to suckle her baby son; ever after, a strange, milky fluid would be secreted from the stone at that point. Delighted with this eminently suitable myth, the bridge-builders’ agent arranges for new versions of the ballad to be popularized, in which an act of human sacrifice permits the completion of a bridge.

Not long afterward Gjon is hurriedly called out to the bridge by his parishioners. There he finds that a local man, already dead, is being immured in one of the piers. It is a ghastly sight: the man’s head is left visible but quasi-petrified by the plaster that has been poured over it. While the people accept this as an elemental sacrifice, Gjon ponders a more rational explanation: he deduces that this man was the saboteur, working for the rival “Boats and Rafts” company, who had been caught by the guards and murdered on the spot. And, having sensed in advance that something of the sort was being planned, he cannot escape a guilty feeling of complicity in the murder.

Meanwhile the bridge is completed. The first trading caravan to use it is transporting war materiel; and in the final pages of the book the first Turkish horsemen arrive and fight a small but bloody battle against the Albanian guards on the bridge.

There was a clash of spears, and at last the repulse of the horsemen, and their retreat into the fog out of which they had come, with one riderless horse following them, neighing.

That was all. The horizon swallowed the horsemen just as it had given them birth, and you could have thought they were only a mirage, but…here was evidence left at the bridge. Blood stained the bridge at its very midpoint.

Obscurely, we are left with the impression that the bridge has opened the way to all the suffering of the centuries to come.


This brief summary, concentrating on the key elements of the story, does little justice to the book’s most striking qualities: its atmospheric density, the setting of explicit symbols against a constantly suggestive background of implicit symbolism, and the poetic tautness of the language (beautifully captured in this translation by John Hodgson, who is one of the few English speakers in this century to have acquired a really fluent and idiomatic knowledge of Albanian).

Both sides, “Boats and Rafts” and the road company, used ancient legend in their savage contest. The former used it to stir up the idea of destroying the bridge, and the latter to plot a murder….

They had come from far away. One side came from the water, and the other from the steppes, to accomplish before our eyes something that, as their collector of customs said, could still not be understood for what it was: a bridge or a crime. For it was still unknown which of the two would survive longer on this earth and which would be eroded by the seasons. Only then would we understand which was the real edifice and which the mere scaffolding that helped in its construction, the pretext that justified it.

At first sight, it seemed that the newcomers had calculated everything, but perhaps that too was only a superficial view. Perhaps they themselves imagined they were building a bridge, but in fact, as if in a delirium, they had obeyed another order, themselves not understanding whence it came. And all of us, as fickle as they, watched it all and were unable to discern what was in front of us: stone arches, plaster, or blood.

Despite the story’s concern to demythologize superstition, the power of myth reverberates here on almost every page. The legend of immurement, or more generally of human sacrifice in the foundations of a building, is a universal motif of folklore: it has been found in Asia, Europe, Africa, and South America. The particular version chosen by Kadare is authentically Balkan. It derives from a Greek ballad about a bridge over the river Arta. (With a touch of cultural nationalism, Kadare presents the bridge version as an imitation of the northern Albanian ballad about the fortress of Shkodër; the true order of priority is the other way around.) The Greek legend spread throughout the Balkan region, generating many different versions: in Romania it was transformed into the legend of Mesterul Manole, about whom the great Romanian composer George Enescu once planned to write an opera. And Kadare is not the only modern writer to have taken up the theme: Ivo Andric/aa included it in his The Bridge over the Drina, and Nikos Kazantzakis made it the subject of a short tragedy, The Master-Builder.1

But Kadare’s is the only treatment to focus on the nature of mythology itself, playing on the tension between symbolic significances and rationalist explanations of events. This means, perhaps, that readers need to be particularly suspicious of any schematic, simple-minded interpretation of the novel. Two such readings are in fact available.

The obvious one is the official, Hoxha-ite explanation: the novel presents Albania as the victim of historic processes (the development of capitalism) and foreign enemies (the Ottoman Turks). Both of these destructive forces have modern counterparts; the motif of the naval base is a transparent reference to Hoxha’s confrontation with the Soviet Union over an Albanian submarine base in 1961. Above all, the story of the immurement means that capitalism is built on the blood and bones of the workers. This is just the message you would expect from a novel written by, in The Weekly Standard’s words, an Albanian party hack.

Against this, Kadare has recently offered his own, radically different, account. Interviewed by the French critic Alain Bosquet, he describes The Three-Arched Bridge as the first in a sequence of works in which he tried “to recreate a different Albania, eternal and incantatory, as opposed to the sterile and arid Communist Albania.” He points out that the choice of a Catholic priest as a humane and basically “positive” narrator figure is unusual, even subversive, given that the Hoxha regime outlawed religion in 1967; and at the end of the book, Kadare has said, he suggests his own personal identification with the narrator.2

A short introduction to this novel by Kadare in the new Albanian-language edition of his works adds another suggestive idea: the priest’s name, Gjon, is intended as a trans-temporal identification with the Catholic priest Gjon Buzuku, whose translation of the Missal (1555) is the earliest surviving book in Albanian.3 In 1990 Kadare’s first public challenge to the regime was his suggestion that a statue of Gjon Buzuku should replace the statue of Stalin which stood in front of the Albanian Academy.

Most importantly, Kadare gives in his interview with Alain Bosquet a very different interpretation of the immurement myth. Sacrifice, he says, was a central theme of Communist propaganda: people were exhorted to sacrifice themselves for the country, for the Party, for Enver Hoxha. Kadare’s real aim, therefore, was to show that such sacrifice is nothing more than a crime, a cynical murder. Some readers may balk at this interpretation, which requires them to take all the overt references to the bridge-builders as capitalists and somehow convert them symbolically into references to communism. And yet there is a striking piece of evidence to bolster Kadare’s claim, all the more striking because he has not mentioned it himself.

At the Fifteenth Plenum of the Party of Labour (i.e., Communist Party) of Albania in 1965, Enver Hoxha devoted his closing speech to the role of literature and the arts in building a Communist society. This was the first time literature had ever been discussed at a Party Plenum; Hoxha’s speech, calling for a type of socialist realism tinged with cultural nationalism, became the basis of all subsequent policy in that field. In one key passage, Hoxha urged creative writers to familiarize themselves with the day-to-day work of “the people”:

Our hydro-power stations, and the draining and irrigation of our land…[have not] been created by our people merely with dreams and imagination. These people…have tramped all over the country, have worked and lived in water and mud, with mosquitoes eating them, others have laid down their lives while working to build the dams, just as in our beautiful legends about when the bridges and castles were being built.4

If Kadare had this passage in mind when he wrote The Three-Arched Bridge, then it is not surprising that he hid his true thoughts under a mass of officially approved references to capitalism, foreign oppressors, the Soviet Union, and so on. One might say that his message was immured in the book, buried under a great weight of stone.

But then, if the “official” structure of symbolic references became strong enough to satisfy the censors, as it clearly did, might one not also say that, just as the bridge in the story later became a crossing point for Turkish soldiers, so too Kadare had built a structure solid enough to serve the purposes of his enemy? The subversive meaning of the book has become available to us only because Kadare, from his post-Communist, Parisian vantage point, has told us about it. Or at least, we have only Kadare’s word for it that this possible reading of the text is the primary, central meaning, against which all others must be judged as mere camouflage devices.

There is, in the end, something just a little too tidy about Kadare’s post-1990 explanations of his work, which set up an entirely unidirectional relationship between a “real” message and an apparent one—both of them ideological in nature. There is also something much too plaintive and insistent about his efforts to explain that everything he did under communism was part of some nonstop dynamic of persecution and resistance. Since the beginning of 1990 he has published no fewer than three defensive autobiographical books, plus two volumes of interviews, all of them traversing more or less the same ground.5 The author doth protest too much; and to a careful reader, the elisions and omissions of these five self-promoting volumes may do more damage to his reputation than any of the direct accusations of his enemies.

To start at the beginning: according to Kadare, his first book, a volume of poems entitled Frymëzimet djaloshare (“Youthful Inspirations”) was published when he was a seventeen-year-old schoolboy. He gives no explanation of this precocious achievement, and readers are left wondering whether it was normal for seventeen-year-olds to be taken on by publishing houses in 1950s Albania. In fact he was eighteen when the book was published (in 1954); he did, however, appear in print at the age of seventeen—which may explain the memory slip—when two of his poems were included in a commemorative book. They were “Lamtumira e fundit” (“The Final Farewell”) and “Pranvera dhe Stalini” (“The Springtime and Stalin”), and the volume, a memorial to Stalin, was called Mësuesit dhe Atit (“To the Teacher and the Father”). Such was the small key that opened the door to a literary career.

Let us not make too much out of this. Those teenage tributes to the great dictator may or may not have been heartfelt, and, even if they were, can hardly be used to “explain” the rest of Kadare’s literary production. It is only the omission of this detail from his memoirs that is telling.

After his studies at Tirana University Kadare was given a place at the Gorky Institute in Moscow, from which he was hastily recalled after the Albanian-Soviet split in 1961. Two years later he published his first book, The General of the Dead Army, which immediately marked him as the most innovative of Albanian writers. The central figure of the novel is an Italian army general on an official mission to dig up the bodies of Italian soldiers who died in Albania during World War II. The atmosphere throughout is gloomy, even sinister, with mud, fog, and rain on almost every page and only the most perfunctory references to communism. Absurdly described by The Weekly Standard’s critic as “a deft execution of the Stalinist genre of socialist realism,” this book was utterly different in spirit from the “socialist realist” novels of the time, with their bright sunshine, cheery peasants, and hydroelectric dams.

Its central theme was a twofold one: the futility of war, and the obsessive, clinging relationship between the living and the dead. As the morose and self-important general tours the Albanian countryside, his attitude toward the bodies he exhumes becomes a grotesque parody of a commander’s pride in his troops. He keeps up the methods and appearance of a military mission: he is a stickler for accuracy, correct etiquette, and the observance of rank. He sees himself as leading an army of fallen heroes back to their homeland. But of course the substance, as opposed to the form, of this mission consists merely of smashed skulls, rotting bones, and sticking clay: it is a parody of an army, just as his command is a parodic inversion of the equally proud and senseless campaign which led the soldiers to their deaths in the first place. And in the final section of the book there is another inversion of values: the most famous of all these fallen heroes, the dashing “Colonel Z.,” whose fate obsesses the general, turns out not to have died on the battlefield but to have been killed by an old woman in an act of revenge, after he brutally raped her daughter.

After The General of the Dead Army, the overall pattern of Kadare’s relationship with the state was fixed. He was respected as a major talent; suspected as an innovator who broke the bounds of the official aesthetic; and required, from time to time, to turn out more orthodox productions—a poem in praise of the Party, a novel about the progress of women’s liberation under communism—to reassure the authorities. (The most important of these was a large-scale novel, The Great Winter, celebrating Hoxha’s break with the Soviet Union.) Not that assurance was required because his other works were thought to be subversively anti-Communist. Rather, it was because his most vital novels took place on a different plane, at once more human and more mythic, from that of any type of ideological art, whether anti-Communist or pro-.

Typical in this respect was Kadare’s Chronicle in Stone (1971), a magically fictionalized version of his childhood autobiography, set in his native town of Gjirokastër during World War II. Everything is seen through the eyes of the six- or seven-year-old boy; his sense of reality, of the rules of cause and effect, of the difference between the animate and inanimate worlds, has not yet become fixed and solidified. A modern, rational understanding of the world is, in any case, doubly hard to come by. First, because so many of the adults themselves are obsessed with witchcraft and the Evil Eye; and secondly, because the wartime intrusion of alien modern forces—sudden attacks by fighter planes and the unpredictable arrivals and departures of foreign armies—makes no apparent sense at all. To a child growing up in these bewildering times it does not seem unreasonable to regard the city itself—Gjirokastër is a steep hill town in southern Albania, with an extraordinary ensemble of stone houses, stone roof tiles, and stone streets—as a single living being, a prehistoric creature slowly stirring underfoot.

Just once in Chronicle in Stone Kadare refers to the fact that Gjirokastër was Enver Hoxha’s home town too. (The Hoxha and Kadare families were geographically close, but not socially intimate; by a nice quirk of topography, the birthplaces of the writer and the politician are just two hundred yards apart, connected by a little street called the Alleyway of the Madmen.) But although the work makes some nods in the direction of Communist history (an older boy joins the Partisans, and so on), it is essentially a Bildungsroman about a child’s imagination, not a pro-Communist political tract. Conversely, the attempt by one Albanian émigré critic, Arshi Pipa, to interpret it as a subversively anti-Communist work, on the basis of some “degenerate” peripheral characters and hidden pieces of word-play, remains very unconvincing.6

When news of Pipa’s interpretation of this book reached Kadare in Tirana in the early 1980s, he reacted with horror and anger. In particular, Pipa’s claim that he had surreptitiously alluded to Enver Hoxha’s homosexuality (the ultimate taboo topic) made him fear, he now says, for his life. In return, he has waged a ceaseless vendetta against Pipa, issuing coarse insults—in one recent work he compares “Pipa” to “pipi,” i.e., piss—which do him little credit.7 And yet, ironically, Ismail Kadare is now committed to a version of his own past very similar to Pipa’s account of his early literary works: the author as heretic, plotting a strategy of resistance. It is a version that can be rendered credible only by omissions and mystifications.

The biggest mystery about Kadare concerns his poem “The Red Pashas.” From his various recent accounts we learn that he submitted this one-hundred-line poem for publication in Tirana in 1975; that it depicted members of the Central Committee going by night to exhume class enemies executed in the revolution, taking their cloaks, and putting them on their own shoulders; that he was accused of “inciting armed insurrection”; and that he was “virtually deported” to a village in central Albania and forbidden to publish for three years. The text of the poem has never been printed: Kadare claims not to possess any version of it and to remember only a few lines. (One of his fiercest Albanian critics, the novelist Kapllan Resuli, says the poem never existed at all.)8

Without a text it is obviously impossible to judge “The Red Pashas”; but, given that all-out self-destruction has never been Kadare’s modus operandi, it is hard to believe that the poem was intended as such a frontal assault on the entire Communist hierarchy. Possibly it was aimed at some disgraced former CC members, or at the Soviet Central Committee instead. The punishment Kadare received would have been absurdly mild had the poem really been seen as a direct attack on the regime; and in fact it was Kadare himself who suggested, at a “self-criticism” session organized by the Union of Writers, that he go to live among “the people” in a village—something that dozens of writers were doing anyway, not as a punishment but in emulation of Maoist China. Nor, finally, does his claim about a three-year ban on publication from 1975 square with the issuing of no fewer than four books by him in 1976-1977.

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.

The danger today, however, is that Kadare is determined not only to re-write his past to fit this scheme, but also to compose his new novels in accordance with it. The Pyramid, his first novel to be completed after the fall of communism, turns into a thinly didactic parable of anti-totalitarianism, positively preachy in its final pages. Set in ancient Egypt, it takes the building of the Pyramid of Cheops as an example of how rulers with absolute power impose huge and unnecessary labors and suffering on their people—the ultimate purpose, in every case, being not the glorification of the ruler but the humiliation of his subjects. The message of the book would be transparent enough, even to Western readers unaware that the Enver Hoxha Memorial Museum in the center of Tirana (designed by Hoxha’s daughter and opened in 1988, three years after his death) was in the form of a pyramid. This novel lacks much of the density and mystery of Kadare’s earlier meditation on the totalitarian state, The Palace of Dreams, published in 1981.

No one who reads The Palace of Dreams, one of Kadare’s greatest works, could possibly accept the dismissive judgment of him as a party hack. It is set in a fantastical version of nineteenth-century Istanbul, and its central invention is the ultimate instrument of state control: a huge bureaucracy devoted to analyzing the dreams of the Ottoman Empire’s subjects. The hero, a nervous young man who goes to work there, is a member of a famous Albanian family of Ottoman servants, the Köprülüs, whose name comes from the Turkish for “bridge.” Pointedly, Kadare links this book with The Three-Arched Bridge, claiming (in the text) that the original Köprülü was none other than the narrator-priest, Gjon.

This link is highly suggestive. Both Gjon and the hero of the later book are tainted by a sense of unwilled complicity in crime. (In The Palace of Dreams, it is the hero’s own processing of one of the dream-reports sent to him for analysis that forms the vital link in a chain of events leading to the arbitrary execution of an innocent man, suspected—on dream-evidence alone—of treason.) In both cases, too, we can sense an identification between Kadare and his creation. The employee of the Palace of Dreams serves the Ottoman state, but retains in his heart another loyalty—to his distant homeland, and the songs and legends that celebrate it. Ismail Kadare, likewise, had his own complex loyalties to an inner, mythic world, while never ceasing to be an employee of the Palace of Nightmares that was Enver Hoxha’s Albania.

This Issue

November 6, 1997