Author: Ismail Kadare
Translator: Derek Coltman
Publisher: Arcade Publishing
Publishing Date: 2008
Number of Pages: 264 pages
Genre: Novel, Historical Fiction
During World War II, first Mussolini’s army, then Hitler’s, invaded and occupied Albania, a tiny country that through the ages had been conquered and overrun time and time again. in the mid-1960s, yielding to the pressure of the families whose sons had never returned, an Italian general – equipped with measurements, dental records, and maps – scours the countryside for the remains of his countrymen who had fallen in battle. Accompanied by a laconic priest and Albanian laborers, the general grimly digs up battlefields that now are unmarked graveyards, checking teeth and dog tags, assembling an army of the dead into pine boxes.
Fighting endless sleet and snow, and the growing antipathy of the locals, the general sees his task as a mission of mercy – while they see it more and more as an opportunity to avenge themselves and humiliate their former conquerors. Then, in a terrible crescendo, he is made to answer for the crimes of his country and all countries that have invaded this land of eagles, seeking to enslave or destroy its people. But mothing he can do or say can alter the past or make amends.
Skeletons of the Past
Amongst his fellow Albanians, Ismail Kadare is a prominent figure. However, his reputation wanes in the international stage as he remained largely unknown for most of his writing career. The tides turned towards his favor when the English translation of his first novel, The General of the Dead Army won the first The Man Booker International Prize in 2006. This opened the doors for him as more of his works got translated into English. It was first published in 1963 but was only published in English in 1991, nearly three decades after its initial publication.
How does one nation and its residents really get over the evils of war? In his debut work, Kadare boldy explores this enigmatic theme. The General of the Dead Army contains an interesting and excellent premise; promising even.
Twenty-years after the Second World War, an Italian colonel is sent to Albania. He has one mission, and daunting at that: to locate and retrieve the remains of his countrymen who were killed because of Mussolini’s disastrous attempt to invade Albania. They are return the remains to Italy for proper burial. In his company is a priest, an expert and a crew of diggers. Armed with only a list of names and dentures, they set out to scour every nook and cranny of the Albanian countryside.
The colonel’s widely publicized mission has aroused nationalistic spirit. However, it didn’t take long for the colonel’s pride to start waning. With a paltry party tasked to perform grueling tasks from dealing with locals to identifying bones and dental records, the task at hand was more complicated than it initially seemed. Will they be able to accomplish the task they set out to do?
The General of the Dead Army is more than just a quest. In one his greatest literary works, Ismail Kadare drew a rough sketch of his Albania. He introduces us to the mystique that shrouds this tiny Adriatic country. He makes the reader experience walking down one its tiny alleys, exploring its nooks and crannies, and winding down its coarse and mountainous terrain. More importantly, Kadare drew out the contours of a country that is still trying to pick itself up from the ashes of the Second World War.
Although the general and the priest didn’t experience direct hostility while they were trying to accomplish their macabre task, they nevertheless felt the penetrating gazes and stares of the locals. The highest point and the subtlest one happened when they attended a wedding night. What was supposed to be a diplomatic and warm welcome was dominated by the screeching shrieks of a grieving mother whose daughter was one of the many victims of the war. In a perfectly orchestrated scene, it was this “raving stark mad” mother who delivered to the general one of his unlisted missions.
Whilst moving on can easily be done but forgiving the sins of the past is a perplexing dilemma, especially if it once involved bloodshed and violence. Kadare, personally didn’t believe that the bitterness of the past was totally forgotten nor forgiven. Even though they were accompanied by an expert, the general and the priest were not warmly welcomed by the local farmers and peasants.
Reading The General of the Dead Army is comparable to watching a black and white film. The story, the premises, the characters are all out there to play a role. It is meant to arouse nostalgia and presentiments, of both the present but more importantly, of the past. Is it really that easy making amends of the past? To Albanians who had to bear the violence and the bloodshed, they can only forgive the enmities that has once subjugated them but to totally forget is tantamount to saying that a part of history never happened.
But the novel isn’t entirely black and white as what truly stood out from the start until the end is its appalling pallor. It has streaks of the color gray splashed all over it. From the metal edges of spades digging deeper into the truth to the actual bones, gray is a bearable mirror upon which the grisly past can be viewed from. After all, the business of digging remains is an unpleasant business. Only through these shades of grayness did the crushing realities become more bearable.
Ismail Kadare spun a tale filled with wonderful vignettes. The story builds on very slowly buts gets more bizarre as it develops, culminating in the pivotal wedding scene. The macabre but potentially poignant topic, however, is not a thing that goes well with everyone. Some readers might Kadare’s keen forthrightness and coldblooded approach to the storytelling a little off-putting. But then again, there is nothing fabulous about silvery spades making headway down the earth to recover remains; the bones to be measured and the dentures to be matched to dental records.
In spite of the seemingly callous approach, Kadare crafted a wonderful and powerful narrative. More importantly, the backdrop to the story he painted is amazing. Albania may not ring a bell to most of us but Kadare certainly made it a point of introducing everyone to this “inconsequential” nation often overshadowed by its neighbors. Through powerful words and vivid descriptions, he created a deep impression that is going to last on every reader’s mind. The coarse mountains, the laidback countryside, and the dancing trees all came alive.
85%. To reiterate, it is a powerful narrative. However, it is not for everyone, the blunt storytelling might be distasteful to some.
About the Author
(Photo by Wikipedia) Ismail Kadare was born on January 28, 1936 in Gjirokaster, Albania.
He attended primary and secondary schools in in local Gjirokaster before moving to the Albanian capital, Tirana to study Languages and Literature at the Faculty of History and Philology of the University of Tirana. He also studied at the Moscow’s Maxim Gorky Literature Institute from 1958 to 1960. Before embarking on a literary career, he first worked as a journalist. His literary career didn’t immediately set off as his first short story titled Coffeehouse Days (1962) was banned by authorities.
A year after Coffeehouse Days’ publication in a local magazine, Kadare published his first novel, The General of the Dead Army. Just like his first work, it wasn’t well received in Albania and it was only in 1970, when it was translated and published in French did it gather international attention. Kadare’s rise to literary fame was consolidated when the English translation for the very same work won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005.
Kadare’s second novel, Monster (1965) was also banned. It was only the start of censorship on his works. At one time, the government banned him from publishing any literary works for three years. In 1990, he claimed political asylum in France, stating that “dictatorship and authentic literature are incompatible. The writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship.” Among his other famous works are Broken April (1980), The Palace of Dreams (1981) and The Pyramid (1992).
Kadare was also the recipient of numerous international literary awards such as the 2009 Prince of Asturias Award of Arts, and the 2015 Jerusalem Prize. In 2016, he was a Commandeur de la Legion d’Honneur recipient. Rejecting countless offers to be Albania’s president, he is currently residing in France.