The Siege, by Ismail Kadare, translated by David Bellos from the French of Jusuf Vrioni, Doubleday, 328 pages, $32.95
In recent years, the name of Albanian writer Ismail Kadare has been whispered every October, as the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature approaches.
Like some of the other authors rumoured to be front-runners, Kadare suffered through political repression, under the communist regime of Enver Hoxha. But he was accused of not being dissident enough after penning The Great Winter (1977), an attempt at flattery after the regime had forbidden him to publish for three years because of a satirical poem.
The Siege is one of Kadare's earliest novels, published in Albania in 1970 as Kështjella. As David Bellos explains in the afterword, his English version comes from the 1994 French translation by Jusuf Vrioni of an extensive revision by Kadare. (Although The Siege comes to us third-tongued, Bellos's connection with the author's work is long and much esteemed; he was awarded the 2005 Man International Booker Prize along with Kadare for his translations of seven of the writer's works.)
This novel is Kadare's reimagining of the mid-15th-century battle between Tursun Pasha's Ottoman army and the forces of George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, who had defected from the Ottoman side in 1443 and become a defender of Albania against his old masters. Craftily - among the book's doppelgangers and shadows, and the double-crossing Skanderbeg, his seal a two-headed eagle - Kadare presents a scribe who is a stand-in for himself, though he's not an Albanian.
Our guide is Mevla Çelebi, a Turkish chronicler already self-censoring. Çelebi wanders through the army camp outside the Albanian citadel, noting the unheroic details that war historians before him never described and that he doesn't dare include. "Olça Karaduman's sty, the Mufti's asthma, Uç Kurtogmuz's extra tooth, the chilblains of his namesake, Uç Tunxhkurt, and the humped backs, short necks, scarecrow arms and sciatic shoulders of many others, and especially the coarse hairs sticking out of Kurdisxhi's nose."
Çelebi not only feels besieged by the unspoken pressure to glorify the Turkish campaign, even as it falters, he tries to ignore the Quartermaster General's talk of present dissent and a past coup within the ranks. The army superior even proposes that the Albanians, once defeated, should be integrated into the Ottoman Empire because they are such remarkable enemies.
So Kadare's clever deployment of his narrative framework launches this history into allegory, allowing him to show the pressure on a writer in a repressive regime while noting the heroism of a past Albania and commenting on the threat of a nearby empire in his own time; he wrote The Siege soon after Soviet tanks rumbled into Czechoslovakia. (Albania had already been occupied during Kadare's childhood by fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.)
The modern-day analogies can sometimes be too bald, as when an engineer's worries about cannon-building obviously echo the nuclear-arms struggle: "If we make them even bigger … then the cannon will become a terrible scourge that will decimate the human race." Certain terms are jarringly anachronistic: The Ottomans surely did not have an "epidemiologist" and "historiographer." In phrases such as "contrary to all known principles of modern war," the prose is stiff and academic-sounding.
The women, brutally ill-used in battle, are not treated much better by the story. Kadare keeps returning to soldiers' strange preoccupation with women's "bird nests," as they are called during the novel's more decorous insights into these un-gentle men. When members of the Pasha's harem are given their own voices in two short chapters, their sense of themselves is little deeper than the men's, and too narrow a perspective in this kaleidoscopic work.
Usually the writing is lean, dressed sparingly with some vivid metaphors. Strategists talk and argue. The citadel, its voices united in a chorus out of Greek tragedy, worries and watches the invaders' camp beneath their walls. When Skanderbeg strikes back one night, wonder turns to panic among the Turks; the Albanian side seems a mystical foe. After the weight of anxiety and anticipation, Kadare catches us up in the rush, panic and horror of battle.
The Turkish camp is peopled with colourful characters, from the hermaphrodite engineer Gaiour, whose words come in a toneless trickle, to an observant poet who is blinded by hot pitch in battle. But Kadare keeps this colour in check, never allowing it to out-flash the swords and guns, the blood and suffering. Mythic elements are balanced by mundane preparations and practical decisions.
The Siege avoids the bloat of a bad epic, offering instead a fairly taut history with some novel moments. The Quartermaster General warns Çelebi that the hardest foe to fight is story itself, so if Skanderbeg becomes a legend, it will be like battling a ghost. Chronicler Kadare knows, too, that a well-told tale withstands any attack on it, and The Siege, outlasting Hoxha's Albania, lives on for good reason.
Brian Gibson is a professor at Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia, where he teaches English literature and film. His PhD dissertation included a study of Balkan stereotypes in British writing.