Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Specters of Narrative: Ismail Kadare's the General of the Dead Army

Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Specters of Narrative: Ismail Kadare's the General of the Dead Army

Article excerpt

The Penates are inner gods, gods of the underworld; the spirit of a people (Athena) is the divinity that knows and wills itself.

- G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Right

The long grey line has never failed us. Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and grey, would rise from their white crosses, thundering those magic words: Duty, honor, country.

- Douglas MacArthur, quoted in Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities

Towards the middle of Ismail Kadare's novel The General of the Dead Army, the general of the title and the priest who has been assigned to accompany him hold a long conversation about the character of the Albanian people, a conversation which shifts to the priest's impertinent speculations on the possible psychological, even pathological, motivations behind the general's attitude towards their mission. The conversation trails off into silence, and as they continue walking, the general is left to his private thoughts:

He didn't want to talk about those things. Better to speak of those dismal days spent in the middle of nowhere, soaked with rain and chilled with wind, of the icy stares of the villagers dressed in their black cloaks, of that night when the priest cried out in terror in his sleep, of that ruined field that was now filled with water from the lake of the hydroelectric plant and the graves had disappeared underneath it and the water looked red for a moment in the dusk, completely red, and, lastly, of that skull [kafkën] that had a mouth full of gold teeth, and, when the workers dug it up, the teeth glinted suddenly in the sun and it seemed as if the skull [kafka] was grinning cynically at the whole business. (141-142)1

Thus does "kafka" - "the skull" - watch over the proceedings of the novel, in a glancing reference that could nevertheless not be more apt.2 Kafka's grinning ghost is but one of the many that haunt contemporary Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare's first major prose work, not only in the gloomy ubiquity of bureaucratic structures, but also and especially in the way the novel becomes a dark parody of its own narrative, to the point where it finally collapses in on itself in its own telling. The startling and ironic title already gives an indication of the difficulties involved. For the general's mission will ultimately be mocked by the very dead he "commands"; but to command an army of the dead is already a grimly comic and paradoxical undertaking - an undertaking not only doomed to defeat, but with defeat as its very premise. And yet at the same time, insofar as the nation depends on narrative and self-performance to constitute itself, this "undertaking" (the pun is intended) is no less than the condition of the recuperation of history in the service of national identity itself.

For Ismail Kadare, writer in a fledgling literary tradition and citizen of one of the most isolated dictatorships in the decades following World War II, such issues are not incidental. Without attempting to take sides in the debate surrounding Kadare's complicity or non-complicity with Albania's former communist regime that continues overwhelmingly to dominate Kadare scholarship, this paper will examine The General of the Dead Army in terms of its ambiguous relationship to national identity and its interrogation of the possibility of national-historical narrative as such. My first claim is that despite the opportunities it offers for a superficially nationalist reading (particularly in the shorter first edition), both the subject matter of Kadare's early novel and the formal strategies and language used to convey it ultimately serve to trouble the possibility of a cohesive narrative, at the very point where a cohesive narrative would be required in order to transform the chaos of recent history into collective mourning and national affirmation. My second, corollary claim is that this troubUng of the possibility of a cohesive narrative not only has implications for the transmission of national history per se; it also reflects cruciaUy on the role of the novelist as chronicler - i. …

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