Eternal Albania : One of Europe's Finest Writers Shows Us How to Awake from the Nightmare of History

By Congdon, Lee | The World and I, October 2003 | Go to article overview
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Eternal Albania : One of Europe's Finest Writers Shows Us How to Awake from the Nightmare of History

Congdon, Lee, The World and I

Lee Congdon writes regularly on modern literature. He teaches eastern European history at James Madison University.


Ismail Kadare

Translated by David Bellos

Publisher:New York: Arcade Publishing, 2002

182 pp., $23.95

Civilization, Ismail Kadare reminds us in his new and demanding novel, began with robberies. Attentive student of mythology that he is, he refers to the daring jobs pulled off by Tantalus and Prometheus. The former, the son of Zeus, is perhaps best known for his punishment: the water in Hades in which he was immersed receded when he leaned forward to drink, the fruits suspended above his head withdrew when he reached to eat. What fascinates Kadare even more than those "tantalizations" is his crime, at least according to some versions of the myth--his theft of the secrets and privileged immortality of the gods.

For his theft of both fire and knowledge of the arts, Prometheus, son of the Titan Iapetus, also suffered: Zeus had him bound to a mountain with chains and sent an eagle to tear out and devour his liver. Each night the liver grew back, and each day the eagle returned. "Look at me then," Aeschylus has Prometheus say, "a god who failed, the enemy of Zeus, whom all gods hate, all that go in and out of Zeus' hall. The reason is that I loved men too well." In Albanian Spring, a volume of political reflections and letters (an exchange with Ramiz Alia, then the Albanian strongman) that he assembled shortly after leaving his native Albania for France in 1990, Kadare wrote that "it is to the liberation of man from his masters that we have dedicated one of our most sublime myths: the myth of Prometheus." By "masters," Kadare meant tyrants in all times and places, but he had before his eyes those "gods" who have attempted to crush the human spirit in his homeland.

There were, to begin with, the Ottoman Turks who, despite the initial and successful resistance put up by Skanderbeg (George Kastriota, 1405--68), conquered Albania in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries and maintained a measure of authority until 1912; the Albanians were the last, Kadare admits, "to free themselves of the Turkish yoke." For a proud people, descendants of the ancient Illyrians, this was a difficult pill to swallow. They have been quick to tell the world, therefore, that it was only after Skanderbeg's death that they were overrun, and the world has acknowledged the fact. Skanderbeg has been the hero of three operas (including one by Antonio Vivaldi), a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and many historical studies. Moreover, the Turks never gained complete control of Albania; thanks in part to the famous Kanun, the canon or customary code of Lek Dukagjin, the Albanians maintained much of their traditional way of life in the northern, mountainous regions.

Dukagjin (1410--81) remains a shadowy figure, but he was a prince and ally of Skanderbeg in the long struggle against the Turks. Whether or not Dukagjin actually compiled the Kanun matters little to Kadare; it is the preservation of Albanian identity that moves him. He is aware that the code explicitly sanctions vendettas and relegates women to a subordinate role in society, but he points out that it also upholds an inviolable principle of honor and promotes a kind of primitive democracy. Even its insistence upon vengeance, in Kadare's view, is divorced from hatred, "one of the foundations upon which dictatorship was based."

Kadare lived for most of his life under a regime that was driven by hatred. Born in the southern city of Gjirokast'r in 1936, he was still a boy when the communists seized power in Albania at the end of World War II. Led by the French-educated but unhinged Enver Hoxha (1908--85), they erected a system infamous for the rigidity of its orthodoxy. Rather than tolerate any departure from Stalinist principles, they eventually broke with all of their sponsors--first Yugoslavia, then the Soviet Union, and finally China.

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Eternal Albania : One of Europe's Finest Writers Shows Us How to Awake from the Nightmare of History


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