“Ismail Kadare has turned the decline and fall of Albania’s bloodthirsty dictator into a superb thriller, The Successor, says Ian Thomson.”
Review of Kadare’s The Successor (translated by David Bellos), in The Guardian:
Albanians are descended from the most ancient of European races, the Illyrians. For many in the West, though, Albania remains as remote as the fictional Syldavia of the Tintin comics. The country came into existence only in 1912 with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Its first ruler, the fantastically named King Zog, was ousted by Mussolini when he invaded in 1939. Five years later, Mussolini’s troops were expelled in turn by Albanian nationalist Enver Hoxha. Following 50 years of communism under Hoxha, the Balkan nation is now a fledgling democracy. However, it will be many years before Albania shakes off Hoxha’s brutal legacy.
Outwardly a Stalinist, Hoxha was an Ottoman dandy whose politburo was united less by Marxist-Leninism than by the Balkan revenge cult of gjak per gjak (blood for blood). For 40 years, Hoxha terrorised Albania by retaliatory murders and government purges. His dictatorship was inimical to literary expression, yet Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare has produced marvellously subtle critiques of Hoxha even under his censorship. Kadare was never a party member, but he was chairman of a cultural institute run by the dictator’s dangerous wife, Nexhmije Hoxha. As Minister for Propaganda during the early Sixties, she helped run Albania’s feared Sigurimi secret police.
Kadare’s first novel, The General of the Dead Army, nevertheless defied the authorities by refusing to mention the word ‘party’. It told the story of an Italian army officer who returns to Albania at the war’s end to bury his fallen compatriots, and remains a magnificent allegory of life under dictatorship. Kadare was accommodated by the regime until he finally incurred the wrath of the Sigurimi in 1990, and defected to Paris.