Ismail Kadare is Albania's greatest living writer. His success and fame at home was considerable even during the communist regime, which published and translated his works and allowed him to travel to the West. In 1990, he decided to stay in the West and watched from afar as communist rule collapsed and his homeland descended into anarchy. Kadare now divides his time between Paris and Tirana, where RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele sat down with him.
Tirana, 9 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In contrast to leading writers elsewhere in Eastern Europe in the final decades of communist rule, Albania's foremost writer, Ismail Kadare, was no dissident.
In Albania, that would have meant, at the very least, banishment into internal exile and reporting regularly to the police; at worst, imprisonment or even death. Albania's communist regime had no tolerance for dissenters.
So while the writings of many authors across communist Eastern Europe went no farther than their desk drawers, or else were disseminated through samizdat and published abroad, Kadare wrote for state-owned publishing houses that translated and published his works in major foreign languages.
"The whole secret lies behind something that usually goes unexplained. When a writer lives in a dictatorial system, this means that a normal human being is living in an abnormal system," he says. "The whole secret is whether the writer loses or preserves his inner freedom. The inner freedom has nothing to do with the external freedom. A writer can be free in an enslaved world, or he can be enslaved in a free country. Here stands the magnificent part of literature or its misery. Here is where it lives or dies."
Kadare -- best known for historical novels such as "The General of the Dead Army," "Broken April," and "Chronicle in Stone" -- says he had the good fortune to be able to preserve his "inner freedom." He says the proof of this is that the recognition he has attracted in Western countries has been mainly focused on the works he wrote under the communist regime: "I became known while I was living here [in Albania] by the words I wrote and published here in this prison and not for what I later wrote in freedom. This testifies that I trusted literature, and I only took Albania's dictatorial regime half-seriously. My bosses were not the bosses of communist Albania. My bosses were the bosses of world literature: Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Kafka. Their presence made the regime's pressure on me relative. Every writer, if he preserves a vision, tries to belong to another kingdom. He doesn't look at the kingdom in which he lives quite so seriously, and he is safe."
Kadare echoes the words he used when he addressed the Academie Francaise: "We Albanian writers living in Albania tried to feed our people with some spiritual nourishment so as not to live without. So we cooked up what I can term 'prison bread,' a very pure yet complicated bread. Then we found out that this 'prison bread' was also much-liked in free countries. This has been, for me, the greatest satisfaction of my whole life. You who have been living in the world of freedom know me by this 'prison bread,' not through the bread of the luxuries of freedom."
On contemporary Albanian politics, Kadare is unusually outspoken in criticizing the leaders of the two main political parties as "dinosaurs" -- the Socialists' Fatos Nano and the Democrats' Sali Berisha.
"Absolutely, the worst quality of the Albanian political class is the tribal division, which is in total contradiction with Albanian civilization. The entire Albanian people dislike this, and I believe they will overcome it. This discord between the two dinosaurs, between the two radical branches of Albanian politics, is a shame for contemporary Albania."
Kadare also spoke on the issue of the nearly three-decade-old standardization of the Albanian language, in which Albanian language experts approved a standard form of literary Albanian, largely giving preference to the southern Tosk dialect over the northern Gheg variant.
Kadare says there has been "too much hairsplitting political speculation" about the standardization of Albanian and the influence of dictator Enver Hoxha. Both Hoxha and Kadare were born in the southern, Tosk city of Gjirokastra. Rather, he says, the true standardization dates back to the 19th-century Albanian national revival.
"The standardization made in the 1970s has nothing to do with Enver Hoxha or the communist regime. It is an old aspiration of Albanian culture. But it is absolutely true that dogmatic Albanian linguists, some of whom were working in the highest circles of the regime, made a servile and unfair attempt to give the language a more Tosk character, to bring the language closer to the Tosk variant. But these [attempts] were superficial. The standardization was essentially right. The Gheg dialect was treated unfairly, but not to the extent to destroy this standardization and begin another."
Standardized Albanian takes as its model the dialect spoken in the vicinity of the central city of Elbasan on the Shkumbin River, which forms the linguistic boundary between Gheg in the north and Tosk in the south.
Kadare says the standardized language is just as distant from the spoken language of Gjirokastra as it is from the version spoken in the northern city of Shkodra or Peja in Kosovo. In his words: "I don't know why in Albania there exists this colonialist idea that seeks to divide something that has been bringing Albanians together for 150 years."
On the matter of 20th-century literature, Kadare says he has been inspired by a variety of Albanian writers, many of them largely unknown outside of the Albanian-speaking world. Three whose work he says he "loves and appreciates" are the poets Lazgush Poradeci and Gjergj Millosh Nikolla, the latter writing under the pseudonym Migjeni, and Ernest Koliqi, whom he describes as a modern Albanian writer who collaborated with the fascists "and so shares the same fate as all other writers in Europe who engaged in this controversy."
"When I was young, I had a more capricious opinion of Albanian literature than I do now. But I've come to the conclusion that Albanian literature does contain fundamental values."
Asked if there are any living Albanian writers he admires, Kadare is more circumspect: "There are young writers whom I appreciate, and I'm confident they will push Albanian literature forward.
When pressed, Kadare declines to name anyone specifically. Rather, he points to an Albanian literary journal, "Alev," which he says "represents the beautiful avant-garde of Albanian literature" and which features "a group of very good young writers and translators who are moving forward."