Ismail Kadare is a lapidary artist who carves meaning and pattern from the rockily intractable mysteries of his native Albania. Born, like his frenemy the communist dictator Enver Hoxha, amid the blank-faced mansions and feuding clans of the ‘stone city’ of Gjirokastër, the novelist has always framed the terror, secrecy and confusion of the Hoxha regime and its aftermath as a family affair.
Comparisons with Kafka and Orwell underplay the sheer gut-twisting intimacy of politics and power in works such as The Pyramid (a political allegory set in ancient Egypt), The Successor (on the mysterious death of Hoxha’s handpicked successor, Mehmet Shehu) and Broken April (on blood feuds in the Albanian highlands). Hence the bafflement of outsiders who want to label Kadare either a brave dissident or a complicit stooge. Ideology be damned: this is, and always was, strictly personal. The Doll even wonders whether ‘tyranny is a real thing or something one projects oneself. The same goes for enslavement.’
Having portrayed Albania’s body politic over many books as a sort of dysfunctional household, Kadare, now 84, reverses the flow of the metaphor. The Doll is an autobiographical story, with Kadare’s beloved, fragile and inscrutable mother at its heart. Sensitive and elegant under her kabuki-like panstick mask, she brings some wealth but little prestige from her own Dobi clan when, in 1933, she marries into the grand but down-at-heel Kadares. Centuries of pride and grudge have seeped into the stones of their Gjirokastër mansion, with its hidden chambers and ‘famous dungeon’. For Kadare, as a nation becomes a (damaged) family, so here a secretive dynasty becomes a country: ‘The state had laws, and so did the house. In short, each took care of its own.’
Laconic, sinister and drily funny, Kadare imagines the ‘covert diplomacy’ between the households. He dramatizes the isolation of the ‘Doll’ as she enters the rival castle and the bizarre ‘trials’ (his father, a court official, came from a legal tribe) that set wife against mother-in-law. When little ‘Smajl’ begins to cultivate his literary talents, the family that strikes the deepest chord with him are the Macbeths (a long-standing Kadare touchstone), with Hamlet’s and Oedipus’s folks not far behind. Gjirokastër itself haunts him ‘like the ghost of a murdered king’. When the family moves to Tirana, the capital of Albania, and his mother — a pale, papery presence, but uncrushable — enjoys ‘the appeal of the chic’, the forsaken mansion still obsesses them. They even mourn the loss (into a ravine) of a ‘big baklava tray’, its disappearance mentioned ‘softly and gently, as if it were an old lady who had died in not-very-clear circumstances’.
Miss this fatalistic, deadpan wit — well served here in John Hodgson’s translation — and you miss something essential in Kadare. It shades his experiences as a writing student in Moscow before 1961, when Hoxha broke ties with the Soviet Union. In Moscow, party hacks denounce the ‘Joyce-Kafka-Proust trio’, and the young Albanian prodigy feels like ‘a soldier of a death squad’ recruited to slaughter literature. Back in Tirana, reflecting on ‘the grotesque mock-epic of my adolescence’, he understands how his mother’s apparent weakness has enabled his strength, so that ‘everything that had harmed the Doll in life became useful to me in my art’.
The dependence of Kadare’s tough, sly and resilient voice on his mother’s lifelong loneliness and vulnerability lays a clinching and moving capstone on this book. At the end, on a return visit to the renovated mansion, he and his wife Helena discover a ‘secret entrance’ to the house. The Doll delicately opens some secret doors of its own. But ‘the perplexity of long ago’ remains.
Boyd Tonkin is a critic and the author of The 100 Best Novels in Translation (Galileo). In 2001, he founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This article is in The Spectator’s February 2020 US edition.