Ismail Kadare’s “The Traitor’s Niche” was written between 1974-1976 and with the author having eighteen other books translated into English it is a shock that this work has taken almost 40 years to appear in tranlsation! (It was originally published in 1978).
Kadare has previously won the Man Booker International Prize, in 2005 the inaugural year, back when the award was presented for a body of work. Just have a look at this list of nominees for the 2005 award…Margaret Atwood, Saul Below, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Günter Grass, Milan Kundera, Stanislaw Lem, Doris Lessing, Ian McEwan, Naguib Mahfouz, Tomas Eloy Martinez, Kenzaburō Ōe, Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth, Muriel Spark, Antonio Tabucchi, John Updike and A.B. Yehoshua.
Collecting £60,000, with a further £15,000 he could pass onto a translator of his choice, Kadare said he was “deeply honoured” to win the prize.
“I am a writer from the Balkan Fringe, a part of Europe which has long been notorious exclusively for news of human wickedness,” he said.
“My firm hope is that European and world opinion may henceforth realise this region… can also give rise to other kinds of news and be the home of other kinds of achievement in the field of the arts, literature and civilisation.
“I would like to take the prize as confirmation that my confidence and my hopes have not been misplaced.” (BBC News 2 June 2005)
The chair of the judges, Professor John Carey, commenting that Kadare is “a universal writer in the tradition of storytelling that goes back to Homer”.
I have previously reviewed Kadare’s 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlisted work “The Fall of the Stone City” (translated by John Hodgson) which lost out that year to Gerbrand Bakker’s “The Detour” (translated by David Colmer), and that was a tale of the plight of Albania during the second World War. Here Albania is still the centre player, this time under Ottoman rule;
Albania did not want just any kind of love. The love she demanded was special, self-effacing, urgent, aching, a love to the death. (pp 118)
The novel opens “At The Centre Of The Empire”, where the traitor’s niche is explained, a niche in the square of the city’s capital where the severed heads of traitor’s are displayed. The first two players we are introduced to are Abdulla, carer of the heads, and the doctor who comes to inspect them, checking for decay;
They tried to find some pretext to accuse the doctor and the keeper of not complying with the Regulations for the Care of Heads, and asked devious questions about the unnaturally yellow tinge of the vizier’s face and the lack of eye colour. Abdulla had been struck speechless, but the doctor courageously defended himself, and said that the vizier’s complexion, even in life, had been sallow, as is typical of men with rebellion and treason in their blood. As for the lack of colour in the eyes (which had in fact obviously begun to decompose), the doctor quoted the old saying that the eyes are a window to the soul: it would be useless to look for colour in the eyes of a man who had never had a soul. The doctor’s explanations were hardly convincing, not to say vacuous, but for this very reason they were hard to argue with. The inspectors were obliged to withdraw their remarks and the matter concluded with a mere reprimand and a warning of dismissal for Abdulla.
Although a simple tale, following the fortunes of Abdulla, the head keeper, the evil Tundj Hata, the collector and deliverer of heads and a couple of rebellious characters located in Albania who are awaiting their headless fate, it is the masterful storytelling that brings this work to life. With both Albania and the lifeless heads taking on protagonist style roles the depth to the work is stunning;
Albania had rebelled many times since the death of Scanderbeg, may he never rest in peace, but never like this. This was an extended rebellion that came in waves like the shocks of an earthquake, sometimes overtly, sometimes in secret. It had been started long ago by the old Bushatli family in the north and continued by Ali Pasha Tepelena in the south, and was shaking the foundations of the historic empire. (pp21)
And the heads;
The head was establishing its rapport with the crowd. Its glassy eyes sought human eyes. Death hung in the air, transparently visible. As the cold tightened its grip, the spectators felt drawn closer to the frontier of death, almost touching it. In a few moments the crowd and death would congeal in a waxen, translucent unity. (pp60)
This novel is also a social commentary on the plight of marginalised groups, of course with an Albanian focus, using surreal, bleak imagery, with events such as scarecrows being carried into battle or Centres recording dreams to keep rebellion at bay, it is both dark and moving.
The partial or full erasure of the national identity of peoples, which was the main task of the Central Archive, was carried out according to the old secret doctrine of Caw-caw and passed through five principal stages: first, the physical crushing of rebellion; second, the extirpation of any idea of rebellion; third, the destruction of culture, art and tradition; fourth, the eradication or impoverishment of the language; and fifth, the extinction or enfeeblement of the national memory. (pp149)
This section, although referring to older times, and written over 40 years ago rang true for me for local indigenous issues, but also current political situations worldwide. Yes we need to remain vigilant.
Can this win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? Absolutely, even though it is one of Kadare’s older works it balances a simple storyline with a sharp political edge, a bleak dystopian effort from the pen of a master. Why it may not win is not just the age of the work, the lack of detailed characterisation is, at times, a little frustrating. Personally the fate of Abdulla, the head keeper, seemed a little rushed, a thread that needed tying. Overall a very enjoyable time spent with a wonderful writer.