Deep in a remote corner of the vast and sprawling Ottoman Empire, rebellion has broken out. Ali Tepelena, eighty-year-old vizier of much of Albania and known to his masters as ‘Black Ali’, has risen against the sultan. Unfortunately, the sultan’s reputation as a cruel despot deters the local population from rallying to Black Ali’s side. They know from legend and experience that the vengeance of the sultan is extreme.
Trapped in his remote Albanian citadel by the sultan’s army, under the command of a young and ambitious general recently sent from Istanbul to replace his ageing predecessor, Ali roams the grim corridors and dungeons of his fortress, his young wife in tow, fantasising about the ‘free nation’ he will create. But his fate is sealed; unlike his predecessor, Albanian national hero Scanderbeg, whom he seeks to emulate, if not outshine, he will not succeed in defeating the sultan.
Meanwhile, back in the heart of the empire’s capital, crowds are gathering in the central square, waiting for the latest offering to be placed in the carved stone niche at the main entrance to the square. This is where the severed heads of traitors, renegades, failed generals and incompetent bureaucrats are displayed, mounted in dishes of honey. Who will provide the next example to shock, intimidate and delight the crowd? Even as they wait, an imperial courier named Tundj Hata, taxed with transporting the grisly trophies, is hastening towards the capital with his latest head. From time to time he stops to display his carefully preserved cargo to groups of benighted villagers, whose only entertainment throughout the year is the prospect of his visit.
Like so much of Ismail Kadare’s fiction, The Traitor’s Niche is a satirical reflection on the nature of tyranny, particularly as it relates to his home country, Albania, under the forty-year rule of its paranoid and ruthless dictator Enver Hoxha. Nobody conveys the creation of states of fear and their consequences on a population better, though Kadare does so with a sense of irony and a dark humour that often rise to the heights of absurdity, even when describing the most extreme situations.
The Traitor’s Niche is often referred to as one of a ‘trilogy’ of books, along with The Three-Arched Bridge and The Palace of Dreams. All were written between 1978 and 1981 and examine different aspects of the Ottoman Empire. The second of these, considered by many to be Kadare’s masterpiece, is set largely within the claustrophobic confines of the Tabir Saray, where a vast and secretive hierarchy of bureaucrats monitors the dreams of the population of the Ottoman Empire, searching for the ‘master dream’ that will reveal the empire’s fate. Hapless sleepers whose dreams offend are imprisoned and tortured in cells deep within the palace. The Three-Arched Bridge operates on the smaller canvas of a remote village, ‘retelling’ an ancient Albanian legend that sees the body of a man immured in the central arch of a bridge being built to span the river that separates east and west. He is the sacrifice to appease the gods of the river, who each night mysteriously destroy the work of the bridge builders.
The Traitor’s Niche, published for the first time in the UK in a superb translation by John Hodgson, encompasses the whole of Albania and sweeps through the Ottoman landscape, offering a damning indictment of the nature of empire and its effects on subjugated peoples. The banning of language and culture; the loss of personality and autonomy; the obliteration of memory; the denigration of native myths and legends: these things will be familiar to many colonised peoples. Kadare captures all this and more in his unique style, here encapsulated in the story of a mad poet, which suffuses absurdity and tragedy:
One morning, a peasant of Province Six was found face down on the rush matting of his own hut, his clothes shredded, his hair torn out, and wounds on his face from his own fingernails … The man tried to explain how he had grappled with the words of the language. They had been heavy and so stubborn, and he had wanted to dislodge them from their old masonry to realign them in a new order, but this had been difficult, so difficult … ‘Oh, it was impossible, they almost strangled me,’ he said, showing the marks on his throat. People listened and shrugged their shoulders and went away with bowed heads. There was no way they could understand that this person, for the first time since the last of their ballads had disappeared almost two hundred years ago, had been trying to compose a new one.
Unlike many of Kadare’s books, The Traitor’s Niche is based on historical events and characters. Black Ali, a friend of both Napoleon and the British in the early 19th century, whom Byron visited and commemorated as the ‘wild Albanian’ in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, was ultimately defeated and humiliated by the Turks. Albania does not honour him with the affection they still feel for Scanderbeg, whose citadel was rebuilt in the 1980s and is now a much-visited museum. Ali’s citadel lies in ruins, perched on a steep and isolated gorge overlooking the Drin river.
Despite winning the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005 and many other honours and awards, Kadare is less well known in the UK than he deserves to be. Harvill Secker are to be congratulated for adding one more of his novels to its growing collection of his work in translation. Kadare, who is now eighty, has been nominated many times for the Nobel Prize. Could this be the year in which one of the finest writers of our generation is recognised at last?