dissentA socialist realist painting from the National Gallery of Art in Tirana, Albania

In 2002 I was fresh out of university, wide-eyed and intent on traveling.  This led to, among other things, two weeks of volunteer work in the rural Albanian village of Gorre, where I joined a team of Western Europeans and Americans in turning a former collective farm into an evangelical community center. The conversion of a farm into a church is ripe for critique, but it was also a small-scale expression of wider structural shifts taking place a decade after the collapse of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania. Recently abandoned factories were a feature of the landscape, and in Gorre the male population was virtually non-existent as men between the ages of 18 and 40 left the village to find work (legal or otherwise) in Greece and Germany. In the wake of forty years of brutal dictatorship, Albania was in transition, and this transition was both problematic and bleak.

Soon after my visit, I picked up a copy of Ismail Kadare’s Spring Flowers, Spring Frost (2002) – a novel set in turn-of-the-millennium rural Albania in which the central character, Mark Gurabardhi, struggles to come to terms with a traumatic past while also contemplating an uncertain future. My first encounter with Kadare was as a writer of transition, an Albanian transition, one in which I had just experienced an insignificant but personally ambivalent moment.

Kadare’s Toolkit

Although awarded the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005, Kadare remains both a controversial and under-recognised figure in the English-speaking world. His obscurity is partly due to peculiar fact that English editions of his novels are often translations of French translations of the Albanian original. This disconnect of ‘double translation,’ in which the original is always elusive and twice removed, serves as a useful entry point into thinking of Kadare’s work as ‘doubling.’ The concept of doubling is not only a key tool in his writing, but also applicable to his wider career, one of simultaneous complicity and subversion.

Born in 1936, Kadare’s formative years as a writer occurred during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. During his forty years of rule Hoxha established a Stalinist state that systematically isolated Albania from Yugoslavia, the USSR, China and the West. Albania became a sort of European North Korea. Writing from within the regime, Kadare occupied a difficult, doubled position: he was an active member of the Albanian Worker’s Party while also being subject to censorship; he balanced affirmation of the regime with veiled criticism, combined patriotism with survival and took up certain privileges (such as foreign travel) while also living in fear of arrest and death.

Kadare has denied ever positioning himself as a dissident, if only because such positions were impossible in Hoxha’s Albania. He was no Václav Havel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Ai Weiwei. Yet, while not explicitly taking up contrary political positions, he had a literary toolkit that allowed him to scrutinize totalitarian power and the tensions that simmered beneath it. In what follows I rummage through this toolkit in search of the Balkan oral traditions of story telling, folklore and mythic recitation, which in Kadare’s novels become dynamic instruments for dealing with the dictatorship and the transitions that followed.


‘Doubling’ is a narrative doppelgänger, both elusive and shadowy. As a tool it’s deployed across Kadare’s work—his 1970 novel, The Siege, offers a good starting point. Set in 15th century Albania, it centers on a fortified castle under siege by an Ottoman army. Amid scenes of bloody battle and assault, the conversations between the chronicler, Mevla Çelebi, and the Quarter-Master become essential. The Quarter-Master begins by undermining the foundational narrative of the Ottoman presence in the Balkans by offering a counter-narrative of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo. He suggests that the victorious Sultan Murad I did not die at the hands of a Balkan assassin, but was instead murdered by his youngest son who then assumed power. A similarly alternative retelling takes place in Kadare’s later work Agamemnon’s Daughter (1985) as the central character suggests that upon Sultan Murad’s death Ottoman officials hacked to death his oldest son so that the youngest son could assume power without a struggle.

These counter-narratives appeal to a sense of Albanian nationalism as they serve to de-legitimise the legacy of Ottoman rule. However, they also take on a more contemporary relevance as the latter narrative in particular is a nod to the mysterious ‘suicide’ of Mehmet Shehu in 1981. Shehu was the one-time Chairman of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania and heir apparent to Enver Hoxha. Following his death, in a typically Stalinist set of actions, Hoxha declared Shehu to be a traitor, arresting his family and erasing his name from the history books. Kadare also alludes to this event in Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, as Mark Gurabardhi is told of a secret deep-storage archive in the mountains nearby his town. Rumour has it that upon assuming power, Hoxha’s successor made a clandestine, late-night visit to the archive only to emerge at 3 am, pale and visibly shaken by the crimes and bloodshed he had uncovered.

Here the narrative of Spring Flowers, Spring Frost takes the form of an urban legend, a sort of plausible but unverifiable story exchanged among non-elites to make sense of wider social situations. These counter-narratives—the revised oral history of The Siege and Agamemnon’s Daughter and the urban legend of Spring Flowers, Spring Frost—cut across Kadare’s work with a common theme: that political power begins with crime, a mongrel crime that is part actual, part mythical. In these counter-narratives Freud’s murder of the primeval father meets the bloodshed of totalitarian politics.

 Enver Hoxha stands before the doubled images of himself and Stalin

Albanian Alternatives: From Skanderbeg to the Kanun

‘Doubling’ also takes on another form in The Siege, as the Quarter-Master and Mevla Çelebi discuss George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, an Albanian national hero who led a sustained rebellion against the Ottomans in the 15th century. Although he does not directly feature in the novel, his shadow hangs over it. ‘Everything about him is double,’ the Quarter-Master tells Çelebi, including his double-barrelled name, his two-horned helmet and the two-headed eagle on his crest (which would later become the Albanian flag). According to the Quarter-Master, Skanderbeg has established a spectral double of himself and it no longer matters whether he is dead or alive, present or absent. When a rumour spreads among the Ottoman camp that Skanderbeg is poised to attack, a panic and self-inflicted massacre ensues.

But the spectral double extends beyond Skanderbeg to Albania itself. ‘He knows full well that he’ll lose the war in the end,’ the Quarter-Master reveals, but he’s ‘trying to create a second Albania, outside anyone’s reach, a kind of immaterial Albania.’ The Albanian nationalism runs thick here, yet, as is typical with Kadare, all is not what it seems. David Bellos’ comments in the Afterword of the 2008 English edition of the book are valuable as he links the narrative to Kadare’s contemporary situation: Kadare penned the work in 1969, a year after the USSR had invaded Czechoslovakia. There was at that time a siege mentality in Albania. It was no friend of the USSR or the USA and paranoia over a possible invasion by ‘Soviet Revisionists’ or ‘American Imperialists’ was rife—the 500,000 military bunkers that still pockmark the Albanian countryside are testament to this.

Is The Siege an affirmation of the Albanian state, with the castle as the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania and Skanderbeg as Hoxha? Or can Hoxha’s regime be cast as the Ottoman army with the castle suggesting an alternative, albeit indistinct, idea of Albania? Kadare is elusive here. The fact that the novel escaped censorship in Albania suggests the former, but Kadare also establishes some analogies between Hoxha and the Ottoman army. For instance, with each successive failure to take the castle, the Ottoman army turns in on itself with a purge of suspected traitors and spies—a violent paranoia reflecting the practices of Hoxha’s regime.

Under certain readings, then, The Siege can open the possibility of an alternative Albania, beyond the regime. However, if this vision is hopeful, other alternatives offered in Kadare’s later work are less so. For instance, in Broken April (1982) Kadare addresses the kanun, an ancient code of oral laws that governed the northern regions of Albania. Scholars have traced the kanun back to Bronze Age ethical codes that address kinship, hospitality and death. But the kanun also includes the blood feud—the sanctioned honor-killing of male members of opposing families. As a practice, the blood feud could easily slide into pan-generational violence and wipe out the male population of a family.

Set in inter-war Albania during the brief reign of King Zog I, Broken April follows a writer, Bessian, and his wife as they honeymoon in the remote northern mountains. Bessian is fascinated by the kanun and its tragic code of ethics. He tells his wife Diana that the kanun has continued to operate throughout Ottoman, Serbian and Austrian occupations, as well as during the new monarchy. In this respect, the novel recognises the kanun as an alternate social authority. However, Bessian and Diana’s initial exoticism towards the kanun turns to dread and regret as they eventually confront the dark brutality of the blood feud.

Although Hoxha suppressed the kanun through a heavy-handed use of the state apparatus, Kadare sees it as a re-emergent force in post-communist Albania. Spring Flowers, Spring Frost opens with two children unearthing a hibernating snake, which Mark Gurabardhi takes as a metaphor for the return of unwanted social practices in the political vacuum of the present. One of these is the kanun. After living through the last years of the regime, Mark regards his relationship with a younger girlfriend as an opportunity to break with the past and link to the future. However, his girlfriend tells him that an uncle will soon visit her family and inform them whether or not they are involved in a pre-regime blood feud. With this specter of violence hanging over her family, Mark’s girlfriend is no longer a guide to the future, but is herself ‘held back by an ancient rusty hook.’

Beyond the kanun, Kadare identifies another potent, and potentially violent, social force in The Palace of Dreams (1980). The novel is set in a fictionalised 19th century Ottoman Empire and focuses on Mark-Alem Quprili, an ethnic Albanian whose family has long-standing ties with the imperial administration. Perhaps Kadare’s most accomplished work, it can sit alongside Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Orwell’s 1984 as an incisive critique of totalitarianism. The novel follows Mark-Alem as he takes up work in the Palace of Dreams – a government ministry responsible for the collection, selection and interpretation of the population’s dreams.

Whereas Orwell’s Oceania maintained power through torture, surveillance and the control of language, Kadare’s state invades and occupies the collective subconscious. But the real importance of the novel rests in Mark-Alem’s growing awareness of his Albanian identity. This culminates in a violent scene as a family home is raided by imperial troops and his uncle is arrested after organizing a performance of the Quprili family ballad by Albanian rhapsodists. Following the confrontation, Mark-Alem returns to work the next day and finds himself promoted to Deputy Minister of the Palace of Dreams. Although his family was the target of a state purge, the Quprilis have orchestrated a counter-strike within the state apparatus and managed to install an Albanian at the top of the most powerful government ministry. Mark-Alem is left with the rather foreboding realization that deep-rooted ethnic forces are at work within the Empire, something to which he is inextricably bound.

Ethnic tensions simmer beneath the surface, and in The Palace of Dreams the totalitarian state is not ready to crumble, but to explode. In this respect the novel prefigures the violence that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia as well as more recent sectarian bloodshed in post-Hussein Iraq and Assad’s Syria. If The Siege offered a glimpse of hope beyond the regime, the more concrete visions in Broken April and The Palace of Dreams point to alternative social forces that carry their own forms of violence. In light of these, any sense of hope is less than fleeting.

A Hoxha-era poster promising to liberate women from the kanun

Myth and the May Day Parade

If counter-narratives and their coiled, doubled meanings become explanatory tools for past and present Albania, so too do myth and folktale. In Kadare’s writing mythic recitation is a dynamic and malleable tradition that adapts to the problems of the present, and his characters tell and retell myths until they take on contemporary meanings. Myth is essential to his novella Agamemnon’s Daughter, which was among a collection of texts smuggled into France in 1985. The narrative focuses on an unnamed journalist who receives an unexpected invitation to sit among the party elite during the May Day parade. As he makes his way through the Tirana streets, he begins to reflect on his recent break-up with his girlfriend. The daughter of a high-ranking official who is rumoured to be Hoxha’s successor, she can no longer risk her father’s reputation on a trivial love affair.

The narrator begins to recite the myth of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia. According to the myth, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to the goddess Artemis so that the Greek fleet could sail to Troy. In the narrator’s recitation, Iphigenia is figured as his girlfriend, who has made her own sacrifices on account of her father’s rise to power. Although he approaches the myth from multiple angles, including the possibility that Agamemnon concocted the story to boost the morale of the battle-ready Greeks, he settles on a particularly twisted but astute version: Agamemnon did not sacrifice Iphigenia to appease Artemis, but rather to consolidate his power. By killing his daughter he could demand similar sacrifices of his subjects.

Kadare conflates this reading of Agamemnon’s story with Stalin’s sacrifice of his son Yakov in World War II. Stalin had refused to negotiate with the Germans after his son was captured, leaving him to die in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In Kadare’s reading, Stalin did so in order to extend his sacrifice to the Soviet people as a whole—it became a sort of justification for gulags, summary executions and imprisonment. This not only returns the reader to the theme that all political power begins with crime, but also extends the crime of power politics to everyday citizens. The acquaintances Kadare’s narrator meets on his way to the May Day parade all wear their mask of supplication, from his friend who has had his writing banned, to his sycophantic colleague and hated uncle. They have had to compromise themselves in order to merely survive under the regime.

Kadare links this compromise to a folk tale in which a man accidently falls into an abyss. His only escape is to be carried by an eagle that would need fresh meat for the flight. Finding some meat, the man is carried up by the eagle only to realise that he does not have enough for the journey. He then cuts into his own flesh to feed the bird, and when he finally reaches the surface only his skeleton remains. The people on the Tirana street in Agamemnon’s Daughter were similar husks: they had offered the flesh of others through denunciations and informing, or had offered their own flesh through supplication and personal compromise. The quasi-mythical crimes of the political elite are filtered down and saturate everyday life. The narrator is left with an uneasy feeling as he makes his way to the parade, invitation in hand—it’s a reminder of the compromises he’s expected to make. As such Kadare’s re-telling of myth and folklore serve to expose the patterns of domination and control in regime-era politics.

Myth and Transition

 This wider entanglement of myth and crime is taken up again in Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, albeit in the post-regime era. Mark Guragardhi’s life is cleft in two by the trauma of a past that continues to inform his present. The structure of the novel reflects this, as each chapter concerning his day-to-day life is punctuated with a counter-chapter that delves into myth, folklore and hallucination. Mark hopes these mythic recitations will allow him to come to terms with the present and liberate him from the fear of his past.

Searching for the ‘right’ myth, he begins with the folktale of the girl forced to marry a snake so that her family can atone for some unknown crime. However, her initial horror turns to joy as each night the snake transforms into a handsome, dutiful husband before returning to snake form in the morning. Eventually, frustrated that she can’t live a full public life with her husband, she burns his snake skin as he sleeps, destroying both his reptilian and human form. The story initially allows Mark to negotiate the split between his regime-era existence and an open future, yet just as the girl is unable to resolve her situation, Mark’s hopes for the future are slowly foreclosed as the novel progresses.

Mark then tracks back to Kadare’s familiar territory of myth and crime, eventually turning to the figure of Oedipus, the paradigm of political crime:

On the very day that a tyrant seizes the crown, those crimes are transferred from the future, from what is yet to come, to the past, to its furthest reaches, as far as the surest haven of rest, the mother’s womb.

In his search to reconcile his past and future, Mark sees myth and reality collapse in on themselves, and he is unable to liberate himself from his residual fears.  In the final scene, he finds himself on a mountainside, alongside the chief of police, waiting for a gang of bank robbers to enter the deep-storage archive. But as they wait, the chief falls asleep and Mark Gurabardhi sees a different sort of ‘gang’ approach: the tyrants of the Eastern Bloc—Enver Hoxha, Walter Ulbricht and Leonid Brezhnev. The once very real but now long dead leaders are followed by the blind and infirm King Oedipus, each making their way to the archive to confront their mongrel crimes, mythic and real, rumoured and actual.

This scene is significant, as is Spring Flowers, Spring Frost more widely, if only because it exposes the limits of Kadare’s toolkit. Counter-narratives, myths and folktales can inform the present by recycling historic and fictional pasts, but they do not resolve the issues of the present. Myth illuminates the labyrinth we find ourselves in, but it does not offer a way out. For Kadare a literature of transition stirs up the debris of the past, but it struggles to do more than shed light. It’s a Janus-head, looking in both directions at once, but the face looking forward is wounded and myopic, relying on the face turned back for its sense of direction.

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