Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Maria Margaronis | Review of Ismail Kadare's Elegy for Kosovo

Review of Ismail Kadare's Elegy for Kosovo
by Maria Margaronis

Ismail Kadare, Elegy for Kosovo. Tri këngë zie për Kosovën (Trianë: Onufri, 1998). Translated from the Albanian by Peter Constantine. (New York: Arcade, 2000).

The Battle of Kosovo, at which the Ottoman forces of Sultan Murad I defeated an assortment of Balkan leaders under the Serb Prince Lazar in 1389, is mostly known in the world through the mythology of Serbian nationalism, which takes it as the holy funeral pyre from which the Serbian phoenix will one day rise again. It was on the 600th anniversary of that battle that Slobodan Milosevic so ominously rallied his supporters in an area inhabited mainly by ethnic Albanians, effectively announcing his intention to tear apart the state of Yugoslavia.

In 1998, the year before the Kosovo crisis dres NATO into the Yugoslav war, the Ablanian novelist Ishmail Kadare published three linked fables that made of Kosovo a countermyth inteded for Western eyes. Elegantly turned and subtly prophetic—for Kadare, like most observers of the region, needed no cyrstal ball to see what was coming next—his short book has won extravagant accolades in France and Britain. In a piece about the French edition published during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavi, the London Review of Books called for the work to be translated "as a matter of urgency," claiming that "almost every sentence offers a deeper understanding of life in the Balkans," and that Kadare "has set Kosovo, the battle, the myth, free from the chains of untruth."

Well, up to a point. Kadare's version of the battle is certainly closer to the few historical facts we have than Milosevic's, which among other embellishments spirits away the Bosnians, Hungarians, Albanians, Wallachians and others who fought there to invent a purely Serbian crucifixion. But Kadare, too, makes imaginative leaps unwarranted by the historical record—about the manner of Murad's death, the composition of the opposing armies and other matters of fact and interpretation. His Elegy is a work of literature, not a rehearsal of events. With its made-up "ordinary" characters, its spotlight on the ruminations of kings and princes and its offstage alarums and excursions, it has something of the flavor of Shakespeare's history plays. Like those plays, it is designed to promote a specific ideological program.

At first glance, Kadare's book looks like a plea for unity against the divisive force of nationalism. His battle gives us a rainbow coalition of Balkan peoples, with their elaborate titles, long names and colorful banners, fighting against the faceless hordes from the East, "obedient, sober, mute, and nameless like mud." But even as the Ottomans rout the Balkan allies, the Albanian and Serb rhapsodies Gjorg and Vladan, hired to turn their masters' exploits into epic song, can't abandon their old refrains: "Rise, O Serbs" The Albanians, to arms! The pernicious Serb is seizing Kosovo!" Banished as refugees to unknown lands, they finally weep together: "Now that they were far away from Kosovo, it was as if they had been set free from its shadow. Now their minds could finally shed their fetters, and after their minds, their spirit." Still the old songs won't let go. Singling for their supper in a castle somewhere in Europe, they come out with the same tired couplets: "Both men were prisoners, tied to each other by ancient chains that they could not and did not want to break."

Setting aside for the moment the aid and comfort given by such passages to the "ancient hatreds" school of Balkan history, the brother sentiments expressed through Gjorg and Vladan seem surprisingly magnanimous in a book first published when Kosov's Albanians were suffering bitterly at the hands of the Serbs. But, as so often with Kadare, there is another agenda. As in a dream, the meaning of the scene shifts subtly, almost imperceptibly. Seeing that the rhapsodies cannot change their songs, a great lady at the castle ("her eyes were fiery, but her face was white and cold") asks them to tell some stories from their homelands. Reluctantly they oblige, and the stories remind her of the Greek tragedies (the connection is an old theme of Kadare's) still, in 1389, mostly lost to the West: "the same diamond dust, the same seed." Uncannily prefiguring Tony Blair (who in 1999 called Kosovo "the doorstep of Europe") and sounding more and more like Madeleine Albright, she has a revelation: "That region, which seemed to be but a distant forecourt of Europe, was in fact its bridal chamber. The roots that had given birth to everything were there. And therefore it should under no circumstances be abandoned.... 'We must not abandon our outer court!' she almost said aloud 'If it falls, we shall all fall!'"

And so what seemed at first to be an appeal for brotherhood between Serb and Albanian turns out to be something quite different: an appeal for intervention from the West. By gesturing at the political context of his book's composition and publication, smiling benevolently all the time, Kadare—look, no hands!—turns the Serbian myth of Kosovo neatly on its head. For if the enemy in 1389 was the Ottoman Empire (and in his last section, "The Royal Prayer," Kadare blames the Sultan's blood left on the battlefield for all the evils that have followed), the barbarians threatening the bridal chamber in 1998—the faceless (read Communist) Eastern hordes—were none other than the Serbs themselves.

Kadare is one of Europe's greatest living novelists, frequently nominated for the Nobel Prize; he has been compared to Solzhenitsyn, García Márquez, Gorky and Grass. His technique of using the past to comment on the present while preserving maximum deniability was honed over many years in Enver Hoxha's Albania: Born in the southern town of Gjirokaster (also Hoxha's birthplace) in 1936, he finally left his native land for Paris in October 1990, when the movement for democratization stirring in Tirana appeared decisively to have failed.

Long established as a Parisian literary lion, Kadare was pushed into the limelight as a political commentator by the war in Kosovo. In the self-righteous climate that prevailed during NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia, few questions were raised about his rather black-and-white version of Balkan history, which sets an eternal European (Greco-Albanian) civilization against incorrigible Eastern (Ottoman-Slav) barbarism. Writing in Le Monde and elsewhere, he described the Serbs' atrocities as a genocide that "recalls the times of Genghis Kahn, Hitler and Stalin...supported by an insane solidarity that sometimes calls itself Orthodox, sometimes Slav, sometimes communist, or all three at once." But to murmur about Albanian nationalism while the Kosovars were being massacred and expelled from their homes seemed worse than bad taste; it seemed tantamount to condoning the ascendant and brutal nationalism of Milosevic's Serbia.

Now, though, the issue of Kadare's view of history seems more urgent than the political question that has dogged him, especially among Albanians, for many years; the nature of his relationship to the most rigid, repressive and paranoid of Europe's Communist regimes. A hint of the matted tangle of interpretation and counterinterpretation involved in that debate surfaced in 1997 in a dazzling but slippery New York Review of Books essay by Noel Malcolm, which, while claiming to free Kadare's reputation from "the crude alternatives of party hack vs. persecuted rebel," still cast enough aspersions to occasion an outranged response from the author himself. Without venturing to say that Kadare was no Vaclav Havel—an idea with which he torments himself, Hamlet-like, in his memoir Albanian Spring. He was a lifelong member of the Albanian Writers' Union and remained close to the regime, attempting to influence it from within, until the moment of his departure for France. As late as May 1990 his old friend Ramiz Alia, then President of Albania (and no Harold Bloom), was about to write, "Your work...carries a well-defined message: it tells of the heroic struggle by the people, the Party, and Enver Hoxha to defend freedom, the independence of our native land and the socialist idea." But, by the same token, Communist Tirana was a far cry from Prague. "Stalin made two mistakes," said one Albanian Central Committee member during the Kurshchev era. "First, he died too early and second, he failed to liquidate the entire present Soviet leadership." The space available in Albania between compliance and the secret police was about the size of a cigarette pack, or perhaps a slim, densely overdetermined, crypto-allegorical novel.

Ramiz Alia's foray into literary criticism may offer one clue as to how Kadare managed eventually to publish so many of his books in his native land, though the novels available in English (eleven out of about eighteen) have no truck with socialist realism and barely touch on the heroic struggles of the party. (The one arguable exception is his simplest and most intimate novel, Chronicle of Stone, a hauntingly affectionate tale about his World War II childhood in Gjirokaster, held in the stony embrace of streets that seem to breathe and shift in their sleep, guiltily loving an Italian plane that nests on the airfield like a giant bird—though here, too, the realism is far more magical than socialist). But Kadare's best defense against the censors was his ability to write parables as smooth and many-layered as onions, and far more difficult to peel apart. It is this whorled economy that gives his work its particular, mesmerizing grip—like Kafka without tedium, or Poe without creaking machinery—on both the intellect and the imagination.

Most of Kadare's novels involve a confrontation between two worlds: the old, irrational world of Balkan folk culture and a new bureaucratic or political or scholarly way of thinking that strives to contain it. In Doruntine, for instance, a medieval provincial officially called Stres tries to come up with a plausible explanation for the events of a spine-chilling Balkan ballad: A young man has returned from the grave to bring his sister home from the distant village where she is married, keeping a promise he gave to his mother. Knowing that his superiors won't buy this ghost story, Stres secures a false confession from a man who says he staged the bizarre events as a cover for his illicit affair with Doruntine. But in a typically Kadarean twist, Stres himself becomes convinced that the supernatural explanation is the true one. The novel could be read as a Christian allegory; as an account of the origins of the Kanun, Albania's traditional honor code; as a justification of Communist Albania's fortresslike isolation; or as an antitotalitarian parable. At the same time, it unsprings the emotion tightly coiled in the old ballad, bringing the reader face to face with the terrible paradox of love that won't be stanched by death.

The encounter between the pre-Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment world is Kadare's obsession: He traces its fault-lines in Albanian culture with the precision of a geologist mapping tectonic collisions. It makes itself felt in odd corners of his writing through the recurring metaphors of water and stone, the shaping elements of his beloved northern Albanian landscape. The stone, in the form of bridges, or cisterns, or towers, or tombstones, or pebble rating underfoot, stoically tries to resist the water, which drips endlessly from the sky, or bursts its banks, or threatens to flood the basement of the house.

Stone also marks the boundary, highly permeable in Kadare's Albania, between the world of the living and the world of the dead. His books, like the folktales of the Balkans, are haunted by revenants and men awaiting death, as if the black earth never quite shuts its gaping mouth, however hard we tamp it down with slabs. Broken April, his most suspenseful novel, narrates the final days in the life of a man who has committed a murder in one of the centuries long vendettas that still simmer in the Albanian highlands, and who will be killed in turn at the expiration of the thirty-day ritual truce granted by the Kanun. Elsewhere in his work men are walled up in towers or immured in bridges; a pharaoh plans his pyramid; epic fragments "climb out of the grave where the bard's body has been rotting away for years, claw their way through the earth, and come alive in another's song."

In some ways, these liminal figures are Kadare himself—an insider-outsider in his own land, an expert at moral levitation who appears to hover about both sides of the questions his books pile up. Like an anxious double agent tapping out his codes, Kadare peppers his writing with so many red herrings wrapped in symbolism and irony that a whole army of commissars schooled in Derridean deconstruction would be hard pressed to track them down. But the constant stream that runs through his work, implicity in the novels, more explicitly in his nonfiction writing, is his view of the origins and destiny of the Albanian nation. Dipped in its water, the myths and folktales that give his novels such resonance take on a darker, more programmatic tinge.

In a nutshell, Kadare's version of his country's history goes like this: The Albanians, ancient inhabitants of the Balkan peninsula, developed alongside the Greeks and shared their role as founders of Eukropean civilization, which is based on the discoveries, expressed in the Iliad, of guilt at the suffering of one's enemy. The laws of the Kanun and the old songs of the rhapsodies who forged epic out of history are remnants of the Homeric tradition, fractured by the violent incursions of Slav peoples into the Balkan peninsula from the seventh to the ninth centuries, which gave rise to the hatreds that still surface today. The ottoman conquest, which brought about the conversion of large numbers of Albanians to Islam, drove an even deeper wedge between Albania and Europe, leading to the tragedy of Kosovo's subjection to the Slavs and the disaster of Communist dictatorship. Albania's hope now lies in a return to Christianity (this part is not popular with the 70 percent of Albanians who, before Hoxha's compulsory atheism, identified as Muslim) and to the arms of Europe, which owes it the recognition due one of its own. This scenario is most wryly (and therefore sympathetically) expressed in Kadare's novel The File of H, a brilliant, slightly Tintinesque romp through 1930s Albania in the company of Bill and Max, an earnest pair of Irish-American classical scholars. Bill and Max have set out (like the American folklorist Albert Lord, whom Kadare once met at a conference in Ankara) to record the voices of the last rhapsodies and to analyze the workings of the "ancient Homeric workshop," which they imagine as a kind of disused tannery on the outskirts of Dublin. The highlands of northern Albania, I believe, are the last place on earth capable of giving birth to epic poetry: "The rest of the planet had passed through the menopause."

Unfortunately, Bill and Max run up against the old rivalry between Serbs and Albanians over whose version of the epics came first—and, therefore, over who can claim precedence in the Balkan peninsula. After a brief discussion with Max about whether this old conflict can be called a "racial war"—"For me that stinks of Nazism"—Bill gives way to the following reverie about the Slavs' arrival at the beginning of the Dark Ages:

The Slav tide, it seemed, would never stop.... It must have been an
unending straggle of women and children moving forward to the muddled
sounds of yelling and squalling, a cohort obeying no orders, leaving no
milestones or monuments, more like a natural disaster than a military in-
vasion. That was the shock that disturbed the Balkans most, he reckoned,
especially the Albanians of yore. All of a sudden they were in the midst
of a Slavic sea: a grey, unending, anonymous Eurasian mass that could easily
destory all the treasures of the land where art had flourished more than
anywhere else on earth. So what had to happen, happened: the people who had
lived here for centuries took up arms and bloodied the shores of the ocean.
And the waves were held back at that precise point, the shores of Kosovo.

Even in this deft and humorous work, the chauvinist side of nationalist mythography quickly makes itself felt. Here are the same faceless Eastern hordes who appear in Elegy for Kosovo and elsewhere, and who represent for Kadare not just the historical enemies of Albania but the force of spiritual and moral evil in an epic struggle between civilization and barbarism.

In his incarnation as semi-dissident novelist under Albania's Communist dictatorship, Kadare used myth as a tool for undermining monolithic officially ways of thinking about history. He sought to become, in effect, his country's last rhapsody, turning the dross of historical events into the gold of literature with such curious skill that the process could never be undone. Now, like Gjorg and Vladan in Elegy for Kosovo, he finds himself in the courts of Europe, singing before a different set of lords. His work has found great favor, but it is already weaving itself into the fabric of a larger epic sung not by Serbs or Albanians but by the Homers of the State Department, to whom small Balkan nations traditionally have more instrumental value.

For if Kadare's Elegy subverts the Serbian myth of Kosovo, it does so by replacing it with a version of the master narrative sketched out in Samuel Huntington's famous 1993 essay "The Class of Civilizations?" itself the latest in a venerable line of legends. Huntington's scheme, you may recall, aimed to fill the foreign policy gap left ty the end of the cold war with a new division, between "Western civilization," on the one hand, and the "Slavic-Orthodox" and Islamic world, on the other. Kadare's identification of Ottomans and Serbs as the enemies of European culture fits in neatly with this attempt to produce a new Manicheism for our times. It also echoes the words of George Kennan, written for the Carnegie Endowment that same year:

What we are up against is the sad fact that developments of those
earlier ages, not only those of the Turkish domination but of
earlier ones as well, had the effect of thrusting into the south-
eastern reaches of the European continent a salient of non-European
civilization which has continued to the present day to preserve many
of its non-European characteristics.

Of course, there is nothing surprising about Kadare's position. As the historian Maria Todorova points out in her excellent book Imagining the Balkans (a kind of Orientalism for southeastern Europe), the people of the peninsula have struggled for centuries to shrug off the negative connotations of their collective label and win favor in the endless game the great powers have played with their lives. Inevitably, they have pushed one another down in the process: Me, me, choose me, I am the most like you! Inevitably, too, they have made use of the political clichés of their day: At the beginning of the last century the Albanian nationalist Christo Dako was promoting his countrymen as "not only an Aryan people, but Eukropean in their national instincts." The masters of this art were probably the Greeks, who found in northern classical romanticism a powerful but double-edged weapon for their independence struggle.

But Kadare, of all writers, was uniquely well placed to express in fiction the contradictions facing his people in the post-cold war world. Instead his has chosen to continue the old game, throwing in his lot with those who see the Balkans as a caldron of atavistic hatreds while claiming favored status for his own tribe. In the long run, this does the Albanians no favors. Barbarism, like civilization, is a quality that belongs not to nations but to individuals and political movements. Nor does it do the Kosovars any good, as they try to rebuild their country with pitiful assistance from the West, to be compared to figures from a Greek tragedy, as they are in Kadare's recently published Kosovo journal, Il a fallu ce deuil pour se retrouver (roughly, "It took this grief to bring us back together"). Myth can be an antidote to politics, but it is never helpful to reduce political events to myth. In his novel The Palace of Dreams, set in an imaginary nineteenth-century Istanbul, Kadare tells the story of Mark-Alem, a young civil servant of Albanian origin whose job is to sift the dreams of the empire's citizens for news of secret plots. His rise through the bureaucracy is meteoric, but to his great dismay a dream that has passed through his hands brings down his illustrious family and causes the death of his beloved uncle. Kadare in Paris has more in common than one might think with his character Mark-Alem, for his work is not caught up in a system of political meanings far beyond his control. The liberal discourse of freedom and human rights has its own systems of dissimulation, its own hidden agendas. A pity that a novelist of Kadare's genius has not come forward to lay them bare. [Maria Margaronis, The Nation]

Copyright (c)2000 by Maria Margaronis

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