A Guide to Ismail Kadare’s Books

Ismail Kadare, the most celebrated Albanian author in a generation, was a prolific writer who often found ways to criticize the country’s totalitarian state, despite the risks involved. Frequently, he veiled his contempt in myth and parable.

As his work was translated, into French and many other languages, Kadare offered the West a glimpse of life in what was for years a very closed society, and the last country in Europe to ditch Communism. He died on Monday in Tirana, Albania’s capital, at 88.

Kadare rose to international fame during one of Albania’s darkest chapters: the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, the Communist tyrant who died in 1985. For decades, Kadare lived in fear. He walked a careful line, alternately criticizing and placating the regime.

Sometimes, he was celebrated. Sometimes, he was banished. In the mid 1980s, he had to smuggle his manuscripts out of the country.

And still, Albanians celebrated him — at home and abroad. “There is hardly an Albanian household without a Kadare book,” David Binder wrote in The New York Times in 1990, shortly after Kadare fled to Paris.

Kadare had been regularly floated for the Nobel Prize. Some have compared him to George Orwell, Franz Kafka, Gabriel García Márquez and Milan Kundera — who also often turned to metaphor, humor and myth to publish stories critical of state power and violent control. In 2005, Kadare received the first Man Booker International Prize (now the International Booker Prize), which was then awarded for an author’s entire body of work.

“The only act of resistance possible in a classic Stalinist regime was to write,” said Kadare, after he won the prize.

His novels, draped in legend, doused in satire and often disguised in metaphor, frequently provided readers with a lucid window into the psychology of oppression.

“Albania has lived isolated, impoverished, overrun almost as an afterthought by the marches and countermarches of the East and West, and obdurately resistant, with an ancient code of retaliatory violence and blood feud,” Richard Eder wrote in The Times in 2008. “Kadare draws us into its strangeness, and we come out strange to ourselves.”

Here are some of the books that best represent Kadare’s work.

A note: Kadare’s works were first published in Albanian, followed frequently by French translations. The dates provided here are for the first English-language editions.

Kadare rose to international fame in 1970, when this haunting novel — first published in Albanian in 1963 — was translated into French. Critics in Europe called it a masterpiece.

The novel, set 20 years after World War II, follows an Italian general who is sent back to Albania to disinter and repatriate thousands of Italian soldiers’ bodies. The countryside is menacing; the Italian is self-important.

But what begins as a seeming allegory about the superiority of the West unravels as the general ignores a priest’s warnings about ancient codes.

In this novel, Kadare examines the violence, logic and constriction of blood feuds. A young man avenges his brother’s death. Then, he has 30 days to hide before the other family’s surviving sons hunt him down, too. In the truce, his fate intersects with that of honeymooners who have come to observe his Albanian mountain village’s customs.

Kadare does not pass judgment on the tit-for-tat murders, which seem to have swept through the village in violent cycles for decades. Instead, he picks through events, like a bard recounting a chilling tale.

This novel, a subversive and damning critique of authoritarianism, came after Kadare was banished to a remote village for a poem excoriating the Politburo.

“Palace,” set during the Ottoman Empire, is a fantasy of a vast bureaucracy devoted to collecting dreams. Kadare gazes out onto a state that combs through its citizens’ sleep for signs of dissidence — and reports the most dangerous.

“The novel occupies itself with these small quotidian observations, lulls us into an uneasy kind of acceptance and then shocks us with abrupt spasms of violence,” David R. Slavitt wrote in The Times in 1993.

Kadare traveled far back in time — to 1377 — to write this slim, dark novel set in another tense time for the Balkans. The narrator, an Albanian monk, watches as Turkey’s armies encroach. As the soldiers get closer and a bridge rises, the suspense mounts and the winds of favor change.

“It is hard to miss the analogy to Central and Eastern Europe today, as the Soviet empire unravels and states once in suspended animation under Communist rule awaken to a new order — and to ancient ethnic hatreds, frozen for a period, but now thawed without any apparent loss of virulence,” Patrick McGrath wrote in The Times’s 1997 review.

This novel, a disorienting whodunit, was the first to come out in the United States after Kadare was awarded the inaugural International Booker Prize. It is set in the years before Hoxha dies and is loosely based on the death, allegedly by suicide, of his presumed successor.

The thriller worms through the conjecture, anguish and uncertainty of what appears to be a Communist cover-up. A rumor inspires terror, and a pointing finger turns. Questions mount as Albanians wait for a final judgment.

“It is a kind of truth; the truth that inheres in the writer’s extraordinary portrait of tyranny,” Eder wrote in The Times in 2005. “By day, knowledge is power; unknowing is the supreme power of the night.”

As Hoxha is breaking away from the U.S.S.R., Boris Pasternak — the author of “Doctor Zhivago” — is announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize. An extensive campaign against him begins across the Soviet Union in 1958, watched by Kadare’s narrator — a student at the Gorky Institute for World Literature in Moscow, where Kadare also once studied.

(He described it as “a factory for fabricating dogmatic hacks of the socialist-realism school.”)

The coming national schism starts to have a physical effect on the unnamed narrator: “All the parts of my body were about to disconnect and reassemble themselves of their own free will in the most unbelievable ways: I might suddenly find I had an eye between my ribs, maybe even both eyes, or my legs attached to my arms, perhaps to make me fly.”

In his most recent book published in English, “A Dictator Calls” — which was translated by John Hodgson and longlisted for the 2024 International Booker Prize — Kadare returns to the themes of dictatorship, power and repression.

He also returns to Pasternak.

Kadare reimagines a 1934 call between Joseph Stalin and Pasternak, about the arrest of the Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam. Kadare weaves together facts and dreams to reconstruct the three-minute-long call, crafting “a gripping story of power and political structures, of the relationship between writers and tyranny,” the Booker Prizes wrote in their citation.

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