This war will go on for a long time,” Ismail Kadare writes near the end of The Siege. “This is only the beginning.” It’s no accident, though, that even a careful reader may not know exactly which war he’s talking about. On the surface, the conflict in question is a fifteenth-century Ottoman siege of an unnamed Albanian castle or, seen more broadly, Balkan resistance to Turkish rule. But in Kadare’s work, the surface doesn’t count for much. Like his other novels set deep in the Albanian past—Elegy for Kosovo (1998) and The Three-Arched Bridge (1978) among them—The Siege is not, as translator David Bellos points out in an afterword, a historical novel. The past is not just the past. Kadare makes only a halfhearted attempt at period verisimilitude. Instead, the quasi-mythic realm of Albania’s feudal antiquity provides the occasion for layer on layer of cryptic allegorical play about the present. In Albania, at least, that could be a dangerous time, so almost everything is symbolic, and for the sake of the author’s safety, every symbol has at least two meanings.
Kadare, the only Albanian novelist whose reputation has reached the West, wrote most of his better-known work under the isolated and paranoid regime of Enver Hoxha, who ruled the country from the end of the World War II until his death in 1985. “Open opposition” to the state “was simply impossible,” Kadare said in an interview in 2005, the year he came to the sudden and surprised attention of the wider Western literary world after winning the first Man Booker International Prize. At that point, Kadare had been living in Paris for fifteen years. Hoxha had been dead for twenty.
The Siege, published in Albania in 1970, is an artifact of a different world. In 1961, the Stalinist Hoxha broke with the Soviet Union. Albania was alone and surrounded, alienated from both the Warsaw Pact nations and the West. After the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Hoxha ordered the construction of up to seven hundred thousand concrete pillbox bunkers. Unseen enemies were everywhere. In a story published in the New Yorker in 2005, Kadare described his homeland at that time as a “country under bitter siege . . . struggling to break through the blockade.”
On the most obvious level, The Siege is a nationalist parable about the stubborn heroism of a besieged people. Its Albanian title, which translates as The Castle, points less to Kafka—a hopeless decadent in the eyes of Hoxha’s censors—than to the fortresslike strength of the embattled fatherland. The sultan’s armies are marching inexorably westward. The Albanians’ Balkan allies have abandoned them, and Albania’s national hero George Castrioti, also called Skanderbeg, is the country’s sole defender. Waging a guerrilla campaign against the Ottomans from his mountain hideout, he is mentioned frequently but never seen. The plot seems to have been inspired by accounts of the Siege of ShkodŽr, which actually took place several years after Skanderbeg’s death.
While the current publisher gamely highlights the Christian-Muslim clash-of-civilizations angle in the jacket copy (“a literary window into the eternal clash between religions and empires . . .”), any Albanian at the time of the book’s publication would have recognized the situation Kadare describes: The Ottoman troops camp outside the ramparts “like a giant octopus which would stretch out one tentacle after another and slowly but surely encircle and suffocate the castle.” The octopus is the Soviet Goliath, the besieged castle the indomitable spirit of the Albanian people, “so resistant to any kind of domination that they rage like tigers at the clouds passing over their heads and spring up to claw at them.” Kadare punches the requisite patriotic buttons, praising the ferocity of Albania’s men, the beauty of its women (“They are like clouds, and like milk”), the immortality of its identity as a nation. “One day or another we’ll take possession of their castles,” the quartermaster of the Ottoman army predicts. “But that won’t be enough.”
With metaphors dutifully in line with Hoxha’s heroic vision of a martyr state, Kadare assured Albanian officialdom it had nothing to fear from him. But it’s easy to tease out the subversion. Kadare hints at a species of nationalism that would have eluded the grasp of Hoxha’s secret police. Skanderbeg, the quartermaster says, is “trying to create a second Albania, outside of anyone’s reach, a kind of immaterial Albania.” Likewise, in an interview published in 1995, Kadare would modestly take credit for a project “to recreate a different Albania, eternal and incantatory, as opposed to the sterile and arid Communist Albania.”
Kadare spends little time, though, with his besieged Albanians. Brief interstitial chapters written in a vague first-person plural (“We were alone and knew that sooner or later they would come”) provide updates on the mood within the fortress. The bulk of the novel takes place within the Ottoman camp, which simultaneously represents the threat of Soviet domination and embodies Albania under Hoxha. Like the dictator, the pasha who commands the siege maintains power through secret police and “by creating imaginary dangers, by launching allegedly secret inquiries . . . by setting up trials and by holding spectacular executions.” He keeps his subordinates engaged in a “velvet-gloved fight” for position, always unsure of where they stand, in constant fear of banishment from power, and worse. The camp astrologer is demoted to grave digging. The engineer’s assistant is torn limb from limb. The pasha’s body double (or is it the pasha himself?) is literally sent underground. He’s sentenced to dig a tunnel beneath the castle’s walls.
Most of the story follows Mevla «elebi, the official chronicler of the campaign, and the source of the novel’s few humorous moments. He’s a contemptible figure. Assigned “to write a thundering chronicle redolent with pitch and blood,” he is at once fearful of power and resentful at his exclusion from its ranks. «elebi is a parody of the socialist-realist hack, and Kadare shows him little mercy. He portrays him struggling with the clumsiest of metaphors, cravenly avoiding any controversial truth. (When the quartermaster reveals a potentially traitorous secret, «elebi fakes a fainting spell: “O Allah! Make me deaf, so I may not hear these abominations!”) Only hidden in the collapsed tunnel does the chronicler feel free to compose verses that may be stained by truth. Emerging from his hiding place, “«elebi felt as if he really had returned from the grave. In it he had buried his only chronicle that was hostile to the State. He took a deep breath, happy to be relieved of it.”
But Kadare is an adept enough dodger himself that it’s hard to laugh too hard with him at «elebi’s expense. He inters his truths as well, in mazes and mirrors if not in actual holes. It would be foolish to fault him—without such subterfuge, he would likely not have been allowed to write at all. He at least hit on some truths worth burying and did not solely serve up polished lies (though he was obliged to do that, too—not all of his works are this complex). The author has frequently made this point himself, and he’s had reason to be defensive. His critics—and that may be too mild a word, given the virulence of their attacks— charge that Kadare did far more to support Hoxha’s regime than the shape-shifting necessary for survival. A perennial candidate for the Nobel, he was denounced in a 1997 Weekly Standard review subtitled “Don’t Give the Nobel to an Albanian Party Hack.”
On literary grounds, at least, these attacks are unfair. Kadare’s best novels—like The Palace of Dreams (1981), which was banned in Albania— create worlds that at once embody the claustrophobia of his homeland and float miraculously above it. The Siege, though, is not among them. It suffers from a strange flatness that can’t be explained by faults in the translation alone. (Most of the English versions of his novels have been translated secondhand from French editions; little of the reputed vibrancy of his prose survives.)
Rather, The Siege effectively traps Kadare in his own game. If in other works he finds the courage and sleight of hand to more definitively stray from the party line, he is not so nimble here, and not so brave. The result is a curiously airless world. Rather than opening a secret space for subversion, The Siege renders all spaces equally closed. The multiple levels of meanings fail to liberate; they just add weight to an already overburdened tale. Like Skanderbeg (who also, it should be said, played both sides, defecting from the Turks to lead a revolt in Albania), Kadare is too busy hiding to truly engage. “He’s trying to oblige us to fight his shadow,” the quartermaster complains. “It’s like trying to hollow out a ravine. It already is hollow!”
Ben Ehrenreich is the author of the novel The Suitors (Harvest Books, 2007).