Ismail Kadare dies at 88; novels brought Albania's plight to the world

Ismail Kadare, the Albanian novelist and poet who single-handedly put his isolated Balkan country on the map of world literature by often composing dark, allegorical works that implicitly criticized the country's totalitarian state, died on Monday in the Albanian capital, Tirana. He was 88.

His death was confirmed by Bujar Hudari, head of the Onufri Publishing House, which was his editor and publisher in Albania. He said Mr Kadare suffered a heart attack at his home and died in hospital.

In his literary career spanning half a century, Mr. Kadare (pronounced kah-da-ray) wrote numerous books, including novels and collections of poetry, short stories and essays. He gained international fame in 1970 when his first novel, “The General of the Dead Army,” was translated into French. European critics praised it as a masterpiece.

Mr Kadare was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature but never received the honour. In 2005, he received the first Man Booker International Prize (now the International Booker Prize), awarded to a living writer of any nationality for overall achievement in fiction. The finalists included literary giants such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Philip Roth.

In presenting the award, British critic John Carey, chairman of the panel, called Mr. Kadar “a universal writer in a tradition of storytelling that goes back to Homer.”

Critics often compared Mr. Kadare to others such as Kafka, Kundera and Orwell. During the first three decades of his career, he lived and wrote in Albania, which was then occupied by Enver Hoxha, one of the Eastern Bloc's most brutal and eccentric dictators.

To escape persecution in a country where more than 6,000 dissidents have been executed and about 168,000 Albanians have been sent to prison or labor camps, Mr. Kadare took a politically difficult path. He served for 12 years as a deputy in Albania's People's Assembly, and was a member of the regime's Writers Union. One of Mr. Kadare's novels, “The Great Winter,” was a favorable portrayal of the dictator. Mr. Kadare later said he wrote it to curry favor.

On the contrary, many of his best works, including “The Palace of Dreams” (1981), launched a subversive attack on the dictatorship, circumventing censorship through allegory, satire, myth and legend.

“Mr. Kadare is a supreme fictional interpreter of the psychology and anatomy of oppression,” Richard Eder wrote in The New York Times in 2002.

Ismail Kadare was born on January 28, 1936, in the southern Albanian city of Gjirokaster. His father, Halit Kadare, was a civil servant; his mother, Hatice Dobi, who ran the household, was from a wealthy family.

When Hoxha's communists took over Albania in 1944, Ismail was 8 years old and already immersed in world literature. “At the age of 11 I read 'Macbeth,' which struck me like lightning, and the Greek classics, after which nothing made such an impression on my soul,” he recalled in a 1998 interview with The Paris Review.

Still, he was drawn to communism as a teenager. “There was an idealistic side to it,” he said. “You thought some aspects of communism were good in theory, but you could see that in practice it was very bad.”

After studying at the University of Tirana, Mr. Kadare was sent for postgraduate studies at the Gorky World Literature Institute in Moscow, which he later described as “a factory producing dogmatic hacks of the socialist-realism school.”

In 1963, about two years after returning from Moscow, “The General of the Dead Army” was published in Albania. The novel is about an Italian general who returns to the mountains of Albania 20 years after World War II to dig up the bodies of his soldiers and bring them back. It is a story in which the advanced West intrudes on a strange land ruled by an ancient code of blood feud.

Pro-government critics denounced the novel as too cosmopolitan and not showing enough hatred of the Italian general, but it made Mr. Kadare a national celebrity. In 1965, authorities banned his second novel, “The Monster,” shortly after it was published in a magazine.

In 1970, when the French translation of “The General of the Dead Army” was published, it “took literary Paris by storm,” wrote The Paris Review.

Mr. Kadare's sudden fame attracted the dictator's surveillance. To placate the regime, Mr. Kadare wrote “The Great Winter” (1977), a novel celebrating Hoxha's break with the Soviet Union in 1961. Mr. Kadare said he had three choices: “to conform to my own beliefs, which meant death; complete silence, which meant another kind of death; or pay tribute, a bribe.” He said he chose the third solution by writing “The Great Winter.”

In 1975, when he wrote a poem called “The Red Pashas” criticizing members of the Politburo, Mr. Kadare was exiled to a remote village and his publishing was banned for a time.

His response came in 1981, when he published “The Palace of Dreams,” denouncing the regime. Set during the Ottoman Empire, it depicts a vast bureaucracy dedicated to collecting the dreams of its citizens and looking for signs of dissent. In The Times, Mr. Ader described it as “a moonlit parable about the madness of power — at the same time murderous and suicidal.” The novel was banned in Albania, but not before it sold out.

Mr. Kadar's success abroad gave him some security at home. Still, he said, he had to live with the fear that the regime “could kill me and say it was suicide.”

To protect his work from manipulation in the event of his death, Mr. Kadare smuggled the manuscripts out of Albania in 1986 and submitted them to his French publisher, Claude Durand. The publisher in turn used his trips to Tirana to smuggle additional writings.

This cat-and-mouse game in which the regime alternately published and banned Mr. Kadare’s works continued after Hoxha’s death in 1985, until Mr. Kadare fled to Paris in 1990. After the regime’s fall, Mr. Kadare became the target of anti-communist critics in both Albania and the West, who portrayed him as a beneficiary and even an active supporter of the Stalinist state. In 1997, when his name was being mentioned for the Nobel, an article in the conservative Weekly Standard urged the committee not to give him the prize because of his “conscious collaboration” with the Hoxha regime.

Apparently to protect himself from such criticism, Mr. Kadare published several autobiographical books in the 1990s in which he explained that he had opposed the regime both spiritually and artistically through his literature.

“Every time I wrote a book, I felt like I was stabbing a dictatorship in the face,” he said in a 1998 interview.

Writing in The New York Review of Books in 1997, the Oxford historian Noel Malcolm praised the “atmospheric density” and “poetic austerity” of Mr. Kader's writing but criticised his defensive attitude in the face of critics.

“The author is protesting too much,” Mr. Malcolm wrote, warning that Mr. Kadare’s “omissions and omissions” in his “self-promoting volumes” could do more harm to his reputation than the attacks of his critics. Mr. Kadare’s most important works, he wrote, “were at once more human and more mythic, unlike any other kind of conceptual art.”

In his sarcastic response, Mr. Kadare accused Mr. Malcolm of displaying cultural arrogance against a writer from a small country.

“To take such liberties with an author just because he comes from a small country reflects a colonial mentality,” he wrote in a letter to The New York Review of Books.

Mr. Kadare’s survivors include his wife, Elena Kadare, also a writer, and their two daughters: Besiana Kadare, a former Albanian ambassador to the United Nations, and Greca Kadare.

After the fall of communism, Mr. Kadare continued his novels amid the suspicion and terror of the Hoxha regime. Some, however, depicted Albanians living in 21st-century Europe but still haunted by their country's blood feuds, legends and myths. His best-known works include “Chronicle in Stone” (1971); “The Three-Arched Bridge” (1978); “Agamemnon's Daughter” (1985); its sequel, “The Successor” (2003); and “The Accident” (2010).

Charles McGrath wrote in The Times in 2010 that all his works had a common strength: Mr. Kadar “seems incapable of writing a book that is not interesting.”

In 2005, after winning the Booker International Prize, Mr. Kadare said, “The only possible act of resistance in the classic Stalinist regime was writing.”

Amelia Nirenberg Contributed reporting.

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