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Albania: Ismail Kadare, Novelist From The 'Balkan Fringe,' Receives Top Literary Award

By Ilirjana Bajo Ismail Kadare The Man Booker Prize for Fiction is one of the literary world's most prestigious honors. It is awarded each year for the best novel written in English by a writer from the Commonwealth of Nations, the Republic of Ireland, Pakistan, or South Africa. On 26 June, the first-ever Man Booker International Prize will be awarded to Albanian poet and novelist Ismail Kadare. The new prize seeks to recognize a living author who has made significant contributions to world literature. Kadare will be presented with a trophy and a prize of $110,000 dollars at a ceremony in Edinburgh, Scotland. Kadare spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Ilirjana Bajo about his life and work and the meaning of literature in the modern age.

Prague, 23 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The chairman of the Man Booker judging panel, noted British literary critic John Carey, calls Ismail Kadare a "writer who maps a whole culture -- its history, its passion, its folklore, its politics, its disasters."

The 69-year-old Kadare describes himself as "a writer from the Balkan fringe, a part of Europe which has long been notorious exclusively for news of human wickedness." He said he hopes the prize will help world opinion realize that the region can also be a place for artistic achievement.

Kadare was born in the southern city of Gjirokastra and studied in Tirana and Moscow. He is credited with instilling a sense of freedom and the power of art in an entire generation in Albania -- isolated under the brutal regime of Enver Hoxha. He accomplished this first with poetry and later in novels such as "The General of the Dead Army" and "The Palace of Dreams."

In "The General of the Dead Army," a novel set in post-war Albania, an Italian general returns to Albania long after the end of the conflict to repatriate the remains of his fallen compatriots. As one literary critic has noted, the character of the general "never realizes that he is as dead as the fallen soldiers of past wars."

"The bodies of tens of thousands of soldiers buried beneath the earth had been waiting so many long years for his arrival, and now he was here at last, like a new messiah, copiously provided with maps, with lists, with the infallible directions that would enable him to draw them up out of the mud and restore them to their families. Other generals had led those interminable columns of soldiers into defeat and destruction. But he, he had come to wrest back from oblivion and death the few that remained. He was going to speed on from graveyard to graveyard, searching every field of battle in this country to recover those who had vanished. And in his campaign against the mud he would suffer no reverses; because at his back he had the magic power conferred by statistical exactitude." (From "The General of the Dead Army" )

Kadare's freedom to travel under the communist regimes in Albania led him to apply for political asylum in France in October 1990. He now divides his time between Paris and Tirana.

RFE/RL: You wrote most of your work in communist Albania. What did it mean to be a writer in a communist country?

Kadare:In communist Albania, as in any communist country, there were two kinds of writing. One was real literature, comparable to the great world literature, which has a noble heritage. And the second type of literature is known as socialist realism. The latter was just propaganda, which was very desirable for the communist regime. But at the same time, it was undesirable for the regime to create real literature with real values. To create real literature in Stalinist Albania was something abnormal, bad, and punishable. The state was observing the writer, trying to catch him committing a 'mistake,' and punishing him or her.

RFE/RL: Your works covers the pyramids in Egypt to the Greek dramatist Aeschylus, from the Ottoman Empire and the Second World War to the communist era. What is the perception of history from the writer's point of view?

Kadare:As I have said before, I don't accept so-called "historical literature." I think this terminology makes it easy for superficial critics or for students to study literature at school. History is part of human life. And because human life gives birth to literature, these artworks include historical events. The difference is that literature does not see what we call historical events as such, but as simply events. And to a certain point, anything is history, whether it happened centuries ago or two days ago. The term "historical literature" does not exist for me as a writer. Literature is the art of narration, and anything that is told somehow has happened. I know it is not an easy issue to explain for the public. The question is, "What does history represent for literature?" I believe that history for literature is part of everyday life. Nothing more.

RFE/RL: Both your work and your ethnicity have generated intense discussion, and even personal attacks.

Kadare: Balkan nations had a period of good understanding because of their common misfortune -- the Ottoman occupation. After the Ottoman occupation ended, Balkan nations behaved cruelly to one another and experienced a period that was not honorable. It included a lot of hatred, anger, and resentment. What is known as patriotism -- a healthy feeling -- was pushed to the limit and transformed into nationalism, which turned the Balkan people into enemies. This terrible tradition should be over, although the Balkan people are not, let's say, similar to Scandinavian people, who have unified positions on a lot of issues. The Balkan people are divided and do not have common positions regarding issues of mutual interest.

RFE/RL: What is your opinion about the current relationships among Balkan nations?

Kadare: Balkan nations have an important test ahead. The aspiration of the Balkan people today is European integration, which is the first thing to unite the people of the region since the fight against the Ottoman Empire. It's an aspiration that may unify Balkan nations. I do not see a better alternative than European integration. Fortunately, the region is taking this integration process seriously, and it's up to the European Union to encourage those countries to be successful in this path. At the same time, European integration is a process of emancipation for Balkan countries. These countries should be part of the European family, from which they were tragically separated twice.

RFE/RL: Where does literature fit into discussions of patriotism and nationalism?

Kadare Unfortunately, Balkan nations attacked each other based on ethnic or territorial goals, and in such conditions even literature is not safe. Literature is attacked from each side involved in a conflict. That's what happened to me and my work. It was natural for me as a writer to be on the side of freedom for the people of Kosova, which caused negative reactions from those Balkan politicians and the intellectual elite who had been against Kosovar freedom. They attacked my work. Many Balkan writers have been the victims of such passions. They have tried to crucify my work as a writer. I would like to say that it is not a cause for concern to a writer. If a writer acts based on his integrity and creates real art, he simultaneously protects what is divine. I do not fear such attempts to crucify my work.

(RFE/RL correspondent Grant Podelco contributed to this story.)