For well over thirty years, Mehmet Shehu was right-hand man to the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, twenty-seven of which (1954–81) were spent as his Prime Minister. Respected and feared, he was Hoxha’s obvious and presumed successor. Then Hoxha changed his mind, preferring a younger man, Ramiz Alia. At first Hoxha wanted Shehu to renounce the successorship himself, and when he didn’t, organised his denunciation by the Politburo. His offence – the marriage of his son to the daughter of a family with ‘six or seven war criminals’ in it. A nervous crisis following this led Shehu to shoot himself, or so the Albanian news announced on 18 December 1981. But soon, and predictably, his death was seen as murder. Both possibilities were convenient tools for the ailing Hoxha’s hold on the country; he vilified his former friend, in speech and print, as a foreign agent – for the Yugoslavs, the CIA, the KGB – and had him expunged from official Albanian history. Only after Hoxha’s death (in 1985) and the country’s long and difficult journey into democracy has Shehu returned to public consciousness, not least through the efforts of his son Bashkim, an expatriate writer, with whom Ismail Kadare has had many conversations.
Kadare was himself living and writing in Albania during the events covered by his mesmerising novel, at the beginning of which he inverts the normal authorial disclaimer, saying: ‘any resemblance between the characters and circumstances of this tale and real people and events is inevitable.’ Though he changes the actual