Monday, March 5, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“THE SUCCESSOR” by Ismail Kadare (first published 2005)

The Orphan Master’s Son is a novel about a totalitarian regime written by somebody who never had to live in such a regime. Reading it, I was inevitably reminded of The Successor, a novel about a totalitarian regime written by one of that regime’s survivors.

Ismail Kadare (born 1936) is an Albanian with an international literary reputation. He won the inaugural Man Brooker International Prize in 2005 and has sometimes been suggested as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yet there is a shadow hanging over his reputation. During the long Communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha in Albania, Kadare was for many years a member of the regime’s rubber-stamp parliament and was one of the few privileged citizens who were allowed to travel abroad freely. He did once fall temporarily out of favour with the regime when he produced a mildly satirical poem. But in the main he personally benefitted from the dictatorship and did not openly dissent from it.

So how seriously can we take his satire The Successor, written when Enver Hoxha had been overthrown?

Despite the facts of Kadare’s own biography, I think we can take it very seriously.

This short novel is a Kafkaesque nightmare. At its centre is an historical fact. Enver Hoxha’s hand-picked successor Mehme Shehu dies suddenly and mysteriously late in Hoxha’s reign. The novel refers to Shehu only as “The Successor” and Hoxha only as “The Guide” (Albanian-speak for The Great Helmsman or The Dear Leader).

There is a sort of whodunnit – did The Successor commit suicide or was he murdered? For those who crave that sort of thing, there is a solution. But Kadare’s main purpose is to take the temperature of a society.

The narrative is a mosaic of different voices and the mood throughout is abject terror.

The Successor’s daughter wonders whether her father was bumped off because she was going to marry somebody too bourgeois, wonders when the secret police will come calling for her, and reflects on past boyfriends driven to impotence by their awareness of her proximity to absolute power.

An architect lies awake at night. He designed and built a home for The Successor more ostentatious than The Guide’s home. Surely The Guide will notice this and have him liquidated.

The pathologist who does the autopsy on The Successor assumes that he will be killed as soon as he files his report. After all, he will know too much and, in a dictatorship, knowing too much is a capital crime.

In a closed, controlled society, nobody is meant to know anything important. Rumour, guesswork and speculation are more reliable than the propaganda-soaked official media, but they’re also furtive. Kadare suggests that under its official atheism, Hoxha’s Albania was an amalgam of tribalism, superstition, feuds and competing-but-suppressed religious faiths. (This impression, by the way, is reinforced by Robert Carver’s The Accursed Mountains, a travel book on post-Hoxha Albania. You can access my comments on it via the index to the right.) Bits of folklore, the Bible, the Koran and even an Albanian version of the story of King Midas find their way into Kadare’s text.

I could take a swipe at Kadare for eventually backing off into high-sounding metaphysics to explain the mess Albania was (and is). “We are but offspring of a great disorder in the universe”, says one of the closing pages. Well, yes indeed, human imperfection and Original Sin can explain a lot; but this evades acknowledging the specific sins of a specific inhumane regime.

I would not want to push such an objection too far, however.

The Successor aims to deliver a sense of the fog and the fear that were everyday life in a tatty Stalinist dictatorship. It does deliver that sense most effectively.

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