AGAMEMNON’S DAUGHTER: A NOVEL AND STORIES
By Ismail Kadare
Translated from the French
of Tedi Papvrami and Jusuf Vrioni by David Bellos
Arcade, $24.00, 226 pages
Before getting to the three tales that comprise Ismail Kadare’s “Agamemnon’s Daughter: A Novella and Stories,” readers must traverse two sections that amount to an extended preface.
From the “Translator’s Note” readers learn that the three stories, “Agamemnon’s Daughter,” “The Blinding Order” and “The Great Wall,” were written at different times, set in different historical periods and have been translated from the Albanian by two different people — Tedi Paparvrami and Jusuf Vrioni — who wrote their translations in French. David Bellos has translated the French into English for the current volume.
From the section cited as being “Adapted from the publisher’s preface to the French,” readers hear from the Man Booker International Prize-winning author’s French publisher, Claude Durand, that Mr. Kadare smuggled several of his writings from Albania into France bit by bit with passages disguised to make it look “like an Albanian translation written in the West.”
The publisher adds, “The manuscripts were deposited in a safe at the Banque de la Cite in Paris. With the Bank’s approval Kadare entrusted me with the key to the safe and gave me authority to open if and when I thought it necessary.
“At that time Ismail Kadare had no greater inkling than anyone else that Albanian Communism would collapse.”
In other words, before one even reaches the fierce and elegant stories that make up this book, one is pummeled with the enormity of the undertaking. It turns out, however, that the hardship of even getting the works to print is consistent with the many deprivations described in the art itself. From the title story onward, the pages move to a beat that hammers out the cold corners of tyranny and oppression. These are doleful tales that, nearly without relief, capture the dehumanizing machinations of totalitarianism.
“Agamemnon’s Daughter,” the title piece and the longest story included here, came into being via the smuggled route Mr. Durand describes in his preface. Readers learn that “it was written in Tirana around the time of the death of Enver Hoxha, who ruled Albania for forty years. The action is placed in the real Tirana of the early 1980s [before Communism’s end in 1992], but its narrative takes us back to the classical roots of Western civilization — and of tyranny.”
“The Blinding Order,” written in 1984, also relies on historical themes, these lifted from the “reform” period of the Ottoman Empire. “The Great Wall” was written in 1993, shortly after Mr. Kadare settled in Paris.
Of the three stories included here, “Agamemnon’s Daughter” is the most accessible. In it, the author depicts the machinery of a dictatorial regime by setting it against thwarted love. The imagery comes straight from ancient myths, where the earliest manifestations of despotism were recorded.
The action of story is set during the waning years of Communism. A young, unnamed narrator lives in a country run by a ruthless tyrant. Suzana, the narrator’s lover, is the daughter of a man known as the Successor, who will take over when the despot dies.
When the Successor learns about his daughter’s relationship with the narrator, a young worker for the Albanian state-controlled media agency, he orders her to end the affair. Her attempts to do so, and the slow realization by the narrator during a May Day celebration of what is about to happen makes for a wrenching story.
Classical references and parables abound, most chillingly with the use of an eagle that torments the narrator as he recalls the ancient tale of “Bald Man Falling.”
The narrator thinks of the story as he recalls the fate of a colleague, G.Z. He relates the story this way: “One night as he was walking in the dark, Bald Man fell into a hole and kept on falling and falling right down to the netherworld … I had known G.Z. since the time he was employed at our TV station, and I’d never thought very much of him.
“His complexion was gray, but more sickly than pale … and with his constant harping on his orphan status at meetings (Comrades, I never had a father or a mother. No! The Party is my only family.), which itself provided an inexhaustible supply of emotion for delegates but never failed to exasperate one of our colleagues [to] no end …
“One night Bald Man fell all the way down to the netherworld… . After his fall Bald Man strove with all his might to find the way and the means to clamber back to the upper world. He wore himself out searching every corner, until an old man whispered the solution in his ear. There was an eagle that could fly all the way up by the sheer strength of his wings — but on one condition. Throughout the flight, the raptor would need to consume raw meat. Bald man didn’t think that would be a problem … ”
Of course, it was.
In the narrator’s recollection, G.Z., whose fate is interchangeable with that of the Bald Man, runs afoul of the Party and is ultimately devoured by the eagle.
Eagles, it turns out figure prominently in Albanian culture. A black double-headed eagle adorns the Albanian flag and there can be no mistaking the fact that this disturbing story within a disturbing story is a contemplation of the State’s tyrannical grip.
More to the point of “Agamemnon’s Daughter” is the fact that the narrator’s thoughts take him from G.Z.’s fate to the realization that Suzana’s sacrifice of their love for her father’s success recalls that of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia. And no less than for their ancient predecessor, the narrator comes to realize that there will be devastating consequences.
As the narrator makes his way along the parade and toward the story’s denouement, he notices “the placards of activists as they moved off in all directions. Revolutionize Life Ever More! Learning, Labor, and Military Training …
“How many years of such a drought would it take to reduce life to a stony waste? And why? Only because when life is withered and stunted, it is also easier to control.”
And so it goes for the narrator and for the protagonists in “The Blinding Order,” in which Mr. Kadare offers a parable of the Ottoman Empire concerned with the uses of terror in authoritarian regimes focusing on persecution of those possessed of the “evil eye.” And in “The Great Wall,” the author fashions a chilling confrontation between a Chinese official and a soldier in the invading army of Tamerlane.
Cold gruel here. Of portraying the utter absence of humanity in a nation’s cruelest hours, Mr. Kadare has few peers. Kafka, maybe.