- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2008

Twenty years after the end of World War II, an unnamed Italian general is assigned the task of returning to Albania to find the unmarked graves of the soldiers who fought and died in the invasion of Albania, and to bring back their remains to their still grieving families.

The general, accompanied by a laconic priest and assisted by a crew of hostile Albanian workers, spends two years searching for this deceased army. He has lists of names, dog tags, dental records, sites of battles where the dead were quickly buried, sites that now are ravines in the mountains, football stadiums, fields and beaches.

In The General of the Dead Army (Arcade, $24.95, 264 pages), the general sees his task as a “holy and sublime” mission of mercy, “a monotonous chronicle of recurring details. Rain, mud, lists, reports, a variety of figures and calculations, a whole dismal technology of exhumation.” The Albanian peasants he encounters in the villages still see him as the enemy. The search is long and arduous in bitter cold, snow, rain and mud.

Faced with the cold nights in a miserable tent, and the hard-eyed peasants who carry guns on their shoulders wherever they go, for “[a]ll through their history the Albanians have gone everywhere with weapons slung over their shoulders,” the general is overcome with a sense of oppression and depression. In the end, both general and priest “were quite exhausted; they felt they were being crushed into the ground by their task. Neither the wind nor the rain would tell them where to look for the soldiers they were seeking.”

“In war it is always difficult to say exactly what is tragic and what is grotesque, what is heroic and what is worrying.” So too in peace, as the anecdotes recounted by Mr. Kadare indicate, be it the needless death of a gravedigger from a simple infection, or the haunting tale of a military brothel and the prostitute who died there and was buried with the soldiers.

Ismail Kadare is considered Albania’s greatest living poet and novelist. He divides his time between Tirana and Paris, where he sought asylum in 1990. His Albania is beautiful and treacherous, described with dread and affection. “The General of the Dead Army” is a quasi-allegorical tale: It could be any invader in any century seeking to reclaim its dead, an elegy for the sorrows and ultimate futility of war.

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In this, her 37th novel, Joyce Carol Oates fires her arsenal of razor-sharp wit, humor and satire, without losing sight of the fragility of the human condition. Like much of her work, (Ecco, $25.95, 576 pages), does not lack for the macabre, the gothic and the bizarre.

The novel is based on the murder of little beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey. Miss Oates transforms the Ramseys into the Rampike family: Philandering father Bix; ambitious mother Betsey; Bliss (nee Edna Louise), the 6-year-old exploited skating star; and her pathetic, neglected older brother, Skyler. Beauty pageants become ice-skating competitions

As in the real murder case, the little girl is a pretty blonde who has won several titles, murdered in the basement of her home at Christmastime. Her brother, three years older, is a suspect; the mother nourishes her own ambition by pushing her daughter, and she dies before her time; the father is a successful businessman. The rest of “My Sister, My Love” is pure fiction.

The story is told by Skyler, sometimes as a 9-year-old, and sometimes 10 years later, as the 10th anniversary of Bliss’ death approaches. Throughout, Skyler addresses the reader directly with funny/sad footnotes that explain his thoughts. He describes himself as “a nineteen-year old junkie in self-imposed exile in a rooming house on Pitts Street, New Brunswick, grimily barefoot in grungy underwear embarked upon a quixotic - ‘hopeless’ mission to write the only true account of his sister’s life/murder/aftermath of/etcetera.”

The Rampikes live in upper- class splendor in New Jersey, where Bix spends his time between bedding various attractive women and successfully working his way up the corporate ladder. He bullies his family, forcing his terrified young son to attempt various sports. In the course of a gymnastics exercise, Skyler falls and breaks his leg, leaving him with a limp for the rest of his life.

Skyler fears, loves, loathes his father. He longs for “Mummy’s” approval and for affection and recognition from both his parents. Only with his little sister, Bliss, is there an exchange of tenderness. After her murder, he cannot escape her voice calling to him: “Skyler where are you. Skyler please help me.”

Betsey is obsessed with turning her daughter into a star. She bleaches her hair, makes up her face, exposes the timid child to media interviews and home-schools her instead of letting her go to school. The result: The 6-year old reverts to babyhood, wets her bed and is unable to concentrate long enough even to recite the alphabet. After the murder, the family falls apart. Parents divorce; Betsey further exploits her dead daughter by writing books and designing cosmetics as the grieving mother. Skyler, friendless, goes off the deep end, spending the next 10 years in psychiatric hospitals and special boarding schools, where the teenager temporarily finds love with Heidi, a girl as alienated and emotionally fragile as he is. (Miss Oates cleverly brings in another famous murder case through Heidi, as the daughter of a former professional athlete acquitted of killing his ex-wife and her lover.)

“My Sister, My Love” is a long novel, repetitive at times, but Miss Oates’ mordant satire of suburban life and her terrifying vision of the effects of neglect and despair are fascinating.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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