I’ve been reading Ismail Kadare’s The Siege. I always preface any remarks about a translated novel with the admission that I feel uncomfortable making sweeping claims about prose style when I cannot read the author’s original work; in the case of Kadare, almost all of his work – including this one – is available in English only through translations of Jusuf Vrioni’s French versions. This is literary Chinese whispers, and yet both Vrioni and his English translator David Bellos seem to enjoy excellent reputations, and in a fascinating little essay Bellos has been admirably up front about his own problems with the process. and, of course, it’s the best your monoglot correspondent can manage.
The second most interesting thing about reading The Siege comes in light of Kadare’s own insistence that he is not a political writer. I am dubious about the idea that any writer can avoid politics (indeed, previously Kadare has argued that merely the act of writing made him a dissident in Enver Hoxha’s totalitarian Albania), but Kadare in particular might find it hard to achieve this enviable separation. His position is in part a response to the controversy at the heart of his slow introduction to the Western canon. Heather McRobie asked last month why we need our eastern European writers to be dissidents at all; politics is at the heart of writer’s reception, even if it is not at the heart of his oeuvre.
The Siege is certainly a calculatedly ambiguous and ambivalent novel, and yet it’s hard not to see politics everywhere in it. It is, after all, the story of a siege: war is of course a means of political action. Furthermore, it is a geopolitical tome, with East meeting West in a conflict of arms (first written in 1970, The Siege suffers the strange fate of seeming ever more relevant); not only that, its principal characters are officers and counts, historians and generals. The book exists, then, on the level of politics. What it does, though, is defy easy readings. So the Albanian Christians still worship fairies, whilst the advancing Ottoman horde is multi-ethnic. Indeed, it is the invading Ottomans upon whom the Albanian Kadare turns his focus: the defenders are present only as a vague inter-chapter chorus; the Ottomans have names and personalities, hopes and fears. Bellos writes in his afterword that, “Kadare’s Turks are at one and the same time the epitome of what we are not, and a faithful representation of what we have become.” This gnomic statement begins to explore the novel’s determination to resist allegorical readings.
I’ve written before on the matter of allegory and its essential dishonesty. The Siege is a more complete work due to its refusal to be about anything but a fifteenth century siege of an Albanian city state. It also includes show trials, religious zealotry and ‘the clash of civilisations’. It is relevant without being applicable, and when one of its central characters, the chronicler Melva Çelebi is depicted as something of a coward, unmatched to the task of accurately depicting war in words, the reader begins to discern the complex game being played by the book, which is simultaneously an evocation and refutation both of historical fiction and national myth-making. It depicts war without glorifying it, and maintains conflict without validating it.
Those translation issues aside, The Siege is a beautifully written, delicate but robust piece of work about violence, culture and humanity. Might it also, in that case, be about politics? Undoubtedly, but don’t tell the writer.