Albania: a cerebral tale of war

Hello again!

Can I just express again how thrilled I am to share this journey with you? I may only have an audience of one or two, but my heart is just bursting to share my experience with someone, even if it is just getting my thoughts out in these posts. Not only am I exploring different cultures that I knew little about before, but I am also delving into genres that I had neglected previously as well.

For this installment of Booking Around the World we are going to the country of Albania. This small nation on the Balkan Peninsula has an incredible history, having once been part of both the Roman and Ottoman empires. Modern day Albania as it stands has only existed since 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I did about two hours worth of research on Albanian authors. What I concluded was that Albania seems  to have rich and diverse body of literature. However, only a small fraction of that literature was considered “important” enough to be translated to French. Out of that body of literature, a fraction of that was translated to English. That being said, the availability of translated Albanian literature did increase after the fall of the Soviet Union, which is what led me to make my selection from the works of Ismail Kadare.

Ismail Kadare has been a force in the world of Albanian literature since the 1960’s. He began to gain recognition in Paris due to his novel The General of the Dead Army.  The international community began to realize the subversive themes in his writing, which was bold and brazen during a time of censorship behind the Iron Curtain. Due to the wild popularity of The General of the Dead Army, his subsequent novels started to be translated into French, which led to further recognition in the Francophone community. However, Kadare remained relatively under the radar in the English literary community until he was awarded the inaugural Man Booker International Prize, which, unlike its complement, the Man Booker Prize, awarded a writer for their entire body of works vs. one particular piece. The award has been reconfigured just this year, 2016, to give recognition to both the author and translator, which I think is an exciting and positive improvement, but I digress.

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I quite enjoyed the cover art on this edition I purchased secondhand. The colors are eye-catching and the artwork is intricate but not cluttered.

When someone receives a Man Booker Prize the world notices, and for good reason. The book that I ended up selecting, The Siege (ISBN-13: 978-0802144751), is a retranslation. What does this mean? The novel was first translated from Albanian to French by Jusef Vrioni. Years later, it was then translated from French to English by David Bellos. This was a cause for concern at first: retranslating seemed dangerous. After all, everyone knows the game “telephone”, where one person passes a message to a another person, who passes the message to another. By the time you get to the last person, the message received is about as similar to the original as an elephant is to a tree. I was worried that things would get lost in the double translation. However, after researching a bit more, both translators are world renowned, which eased my tensions a bit more. Then, I found this editorial that David Bellos wrote himself, here, and my concerns were almost completely quelled. He has clearly done a substantial amount of research on the French translations, and in turn came up with a clear plan of attack before he translated Kadare’s novels into English.

The Siege is set in the 15th century during the Ottoman-Albanian War. The story is centered around the Ottoman Army’s attempt to conquer an Albanian Christian citadel through a siege, as the title indicates. I have never been a huge fan of war as entertainment for a myriad of reasons, one being the tendency for war themed literature or film to veer towards violence pornography. However, this book challenged my previous assumptions in so many ways. Kadare’s writing is not verbose or flowery, but he is a magnificent world-builder. The Siege is written from the perspective of the several members of the Ottoman Army, from a lowly historian to the commander-in-chief. Furthermore, in between chapters, there are short narratives from the Albanian perspective. Kadare is clever, too. He wrote from the perspective of enemy: the Ottomans, and was able to critique the communism of the Soviet Union, and on a greater scale, totalitarianism as a whole. His subtlety through allegory was his way of sneakily defying the Soviet censoring laws I suppose, but his message blended seamlessly into the narrative.

For a book centered around war, the story has a surprisingly low amount of action. It is not jam-packed with fighting scenes. Instead, Kadare focuses on tactical aspects of war and dialogue, both internal and interpersonal. Maybe that is why I was able to immerse myself so much in the story. The Siege reveals the brutality of war, not through the actual war scenes but through what happens in between. The self-doubt, the power plays, the anxiety, and so much more. As a fair warning, there is a significant amount of sexually explicit content. However, I found that it was crucial to the plot and revealed another ugly side of a growing empire, which is the degradation and objectification of women. By exploring the journeys of the lowliest janissary soldiers to the commander-in-chief, Kadare crafted a multi-faceted tale that is neither lacking in adventure nor allusion.

Final review: ★★★★☆

After reading The Siege I will definitely try and explore more of his writing, as well as more historical fictions and war literature in general. If my review prompts anyone to read this novel, please share your feedback in the comments below!

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