Ismail Kadar
Ismail Kadar; drawing by David Levine


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 Successor and the Guide, the reptilian supreme leader whom the protagonist, like everyone else in his country, must serve. (It is quite clear that the Guide is modeled on Enver Hoxha, the man who ruled Communist Albania for some four decades, and we can infer that the Successor is based on Mehmet Shehu, the country’s prime minister, who died in 1981 under circumstances quite close to those described in the novel.) The Guide and the Successor were discussing the recent collapse of their country’s alliance with China:

We’d got on to the falling out with China when, taking a deep breath, he blurted out that it was rumored that Lin Biao, Mao’s successor, hadn’t been a traitor and certainly hadn’t burned to a crisp in the airplane in which he was trying to escape—but that Mao had had him to dinner and then had him killed when the meal was over.

I have no idea how long I stood there like a statue! All I know is that each split second that passed seemed unbearable, because of all the dangerous conversation topics we could have touched on, that was by far the worst. Unthinkingly I came out with a “You never know…” Just to make matters worse, I went on to say that I didn’t believe he was guilty any more than I thought him innocent.

Forget the finely balanced paradox of that last remark. In retrospect, the Successor muses, this may have been the trigger for the Guide’s lethal paranoia—“my own suspicion of treason on the part of the Chinese successor could amount to an unwitting confession of a similar sentiment buried deep inside my unconscious mind.” In this respect, then, it was the Successor himself who initiated the chain of events that led to his own death; the Guide, he muses, “had come to the conclusion I had knowingly signed my own death warrant.”


So perhaps it was indeed suicide, in some deeper sense beyond conventional moral codes or legal liability. Or perhaps not. Perhaps a final answer can be sought from the dictator himself, the man who clearly desired and instigated the death of his deputy. But we are not likely to find much enlightenment here, either. The Guide, like tyrants since time immemorial, prefers to avoid issuing direct orders, resorting instead to sibylline hints that he expects his cronies to interpret in the desired sense.1 “What he was asking Hasobeu to do was not very clear.” Adrian Hasobeu is the head of the Guide’s secret police, a man particularly qualified to observe that “the wall of inscrutability” around the Guide has intensified in recent years. The Guide’s “increasingly poor eyesight seemed to give him perceptions that no one else could fathom. Such impenetrable fog that nobody knew what to believe.”

The Guide himself muses that he has built his power on a foundation of precisely this kind of calculated ambiguity: “Terror was constructed backwards, like dreams, which is to say, starting from the end.” The conventional wisdom would have us believe that knowledge is power. The dictator, however, knows that it’s never that simple:

Knowing the secrets of everybody around you was indisputably a blessing, but not knowing them was close to being sublime…. He didn’t know, and never had known, what had really happened at the Successor’s residence on that night of December 13 [when he was killed]. And since even he didn’t know, it could take a thousand years for anyone else to find out.

Small wonder, then, that the answers cannot be produced even by access to the other world. As the Successor concludes:

…My puzzle, or rather, the double enigma of the Guide and myself, remains unresolved. Nothing has helped to solve it: the opening of the archives, the belated autopsies, the identification of my remains, clairvoyants from Alaska, the Kremlin, and the Accursed Mountains, even Mossad—no thing or person has made a dent in the shield that protects our secret.

All the more reason, then, for the Successor to yearn for a chance to speak with a colleague, the Chinese general whose fate predicted his own with such eerie accuracy. But Lin Biao doesn’t return the Successor’s greeting; perhaps the chance for a heart-to-heart will come again at some point “in the next two or twelve thousand years.” Even among the dead, it would seem, connection is elusive.


That Ismail Kadare should have found his grand subject in the study of absolute power is entirely logical. He was born in 1936 in the southern Albanian city of Gjirokastër, in a period when his country was still under the rule of the fantastically named King Zog. As a child he watched the arrival and departure of occupying armies—Italian, German, partisan—and witnessed evidence of the irregular campaigns conducted against the Italians and Germans by homegrown partisans, of both Communist and nationalist stripes. The various Albanian guerrilla groups often ended up fighting each other, too, of course. Their civil war ultimately resulted in victory for the Reds, and the subsequent course of Albania’s foreign policy would provide plenty of material to a writer intrigued by dictatorial caprice. Under Hoxha, who also hailed from Kadare’s hometown, the Communist regime at first allied itself with Tito’s Yugoslavia, then with the Soviet Union against Tito, then, after the Sino-Soviet split of the early 1960s, with Mao’s China against the USSR. After Hoxha’s death in 1985, socialism held sway well into the early 1990s. The final collapse of the system resulted in a kind of democracy, but also in riotous chaos that soon had many Albanians longing for the sureties of the old regime—a bewildering and farcical moment Kadare strives to capture in Spring Flowers, Spring Frost.

Indeed, if one theme emerges from Kadare’s explorations of the essence of absolutist politics, it is that power is never static. Power, in fact, can only be known in its ebb and flow. Its nature is so ineffable that it can often only be summoned up by a kind of totemic invocation, gestures designed to convince people that it exists. In The Pyramid, the pharaoh Cheops assumes control of the Egyptian empire, and soon discovers, despite his initial reluctance, that building a giant new tomb is the only way to legitimize his rule. As advisers explain, “The pyramid is the pillar that holds power aloft. If it wavers, everything collapses.” Similarly, in The Three-Arched Bridge, set in medieval Albania around the time of the Battle of Kosovo, the construction of a bridge over a river sets off a struggle between the forces of the old (a shadowy consortium that once monopolized the local ferry service) and “the new order” (the modernizers behind the building of the bridge). Meanwhile, Turkish forces are nearing, portending an even more radical shift in the balance of power.


In The Palace of Dreams, the Ottoman sultans try to enlist the forces of the supernatural to shore up their regime, using a feared secret bureaucracy that monitors their subjects’ unconsciousness by analyzing their dreams. Yet their esoteric privilege doesn’t save the bureaucrats from their own demise. As his higher-ups are felled by intrigue, a young newcomer finds himself rising to the top of the dream-analysis department with bewildering alacrity—even while the powers that be decimate his own clan in a bloody purge. His uncle notes, along the way, that a rival “has great power at his disposal, and power not founded on facts.” In Kadare’s world, paradoxically enough, that can be the most powerful kind of all.

Just take Mao Zedong (who, if power is measured by the number of subjects ruled and the extent of the power exercised over them, was the most powerful man who ever lived). Kadare’s novel The Concert revolves around the moment when the Sino-Albanian love affair finally collapses—an event replete with tragicomic miscommunication, spooky parallels, and startling mythological resonances. In China, fresh from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, Mao is descending into infirmity and madness while the leaders around him prepare for the fresh power struggle that will invariably break out upon his soon-to-be-expected death. When we first see Mao, he is living in a cave—an “old habit” that he has recently resumed: “perhaps he himself didn’t know quite why.” He eagerly reads analyses of his own move from sources in and out of China and “fully expected to read the explanation in the reports.” Kadare continues:

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.”


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.

This Issue

May 25, 2006