20 June 2011

Monday Book Review

I'm back in the saddle with a new book to expound upon.  I just finished reading Ismail Kadare's The Siege.  It was recommended to me by a friend who is far more educated, well-read, and cultured than I may ever hope to be.  And by recommended, I mean very urgently recommended.  He told me to drop whatever I was doing and read this book.  However, I was in the middle of another book and had to wait for it to be mailed to me because I bought it used online.  My thought at the time was, "It better be good because I spent $5 and will have to lug it around when I move."  And it was!

The book is about 300 pages long and not a tiny 12 point font paperback novel, so it's easy to read at the beach (if one were inclined to do so).  I read the book with absolutely no knowledge of its significance or any background on Kadare.  I just let the book speak for itself.  It took me about 100 pages to get really into it, partially because I struggled with how to pronounce the Albanian words.  Dalkiliç?  Tavxha?  The x's really threw me.  I'm sorry, but I like to properly pronounce foreign words in my head.  A trivial point, but it somewhat mattered to me.  The basic outline of the story is a Turkish general (Pasha) on a campaign to capture an Albanian citadel for the Great Padishah of the Ottoman Empire.  The story is written in two forms: the Turkish narrative is in omniscient while the Albanian narrative is in first person.  The majority of the novel is the Turkish narrative with the Albanian narrative interspersed and written from a chronicler's point of view.  The use of these two opposite narratives was artfully done and embellished the story to its fullest extent.

This book must be understood on two levels: superficial and contextual.  The superficial is the story itself.  Since the narrative leaned so heavily on the besiegers, the story explained far more about the society expecting to dominate than those who were supposed to be annihilated.  There are not many novels that take the side of the aggressors since the romance of a losing battle is very difficult to resist.  What I found most fascinating in the last 100 pages of the book was that Turkish characters began to explain the Albanians' behavior and strategem.  The Turkish empire wishes to dominate the Albanians, but then there is the grand question: what do we allow them to retain after we've conquered?  Do we take away their language? their religion?  The queries go further to ask if the Albanian people can ever really be conquered in spirit.  The Quartermaster artfully states that Skanderberg is creating an Albania that transcends space and time and becomes truly unconquerable.  These are major Turkish officers putting forth these questions and they clearly wish to know the Other in order to fully conquer them.  This practice was imperative to truly conquering because it gave the power to dismantle and reassemble identity.  While the Turkish narrative expanded fully into matters trivial and important to battle, the Albanian chronicler dealt exclusively with the battle before them.  The Albanian narrative was fully focused on the people's relation to the attack.  It did not address their own day to day experiences and was never more than two pages long.  It refracted the Turkish narrative without providing any foil or opposition in the storytelling.

The second level, contextual, is closely intertwined with the superficial.  Kadare, who is Albanian, wrote this novel as an anti-Soviet allegory.  He did not write it as historical fiction, which he said doesn't exist (as stated in the afterword), but rather as a critical story.  Like most intellectuals of his time, he was none to pleased with the Soviet domination of his homeland and wrote this as a veiled criticism.  The superficial story was the pretext for what he would have written in more favorable conditions.  The fate of Albania in this story is historically inaccurate, meaning there is far more to this story than a reimagining of past events.  With this in mind, why does he write from the conqueror's point of view? And why did the Albanian narrative relate fully to the Turkish narrative without a separate narrative of its own?  These are questions which I can only suppose to answer from my own point of view.

I understood the Albanian narrative to be a reflection of Albanian society under Soviet siege; their struggle was wholly in relation to the USSR and identity became hinged on opposition to this occupier.  As stated earlier, the Turkish officer's want and need to understand their foe were critical to dismantling and reassembling identity in order to create a fully integrated empire.  The insight that Albania became a space and time transcendent entity speaks so fully to the historical and cultural landscape of Europe even prior to Soviet influence.  The Poles certainly could attest to the unconquerable idea of a nation since Poland did not truly exist until after 1989; it lived on as a binding idea without any defined borders to sustain it.  This point really stuck out in the novel because it speaks to a universal problem.  Nations have changing borders, demographics, and to some extent, language.  In the age of diminished borders, the transcendent nation is necessary to cling to this identity.  It must be beyond the reaches of temporal change in order to survive an invasion of any kind.  While Kadare wrote this with Soviet occupation in mind, the ramifications extend past that situation.  Works of art should extend through time and context to speak to the questions of existence.  Kadare's work rings true and stands the test of time.