Albanian writer reflects on winning the inaugural Man Booker International Prize for Fiction.
By Shkelqim Beqari
Albanian poet and novelist Ismail Kadare has won the first Man Booker International Prize for Fiction, which will be awarded every two years to a living novelist who writes in English or whose work has been translated into English. Unlike the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, this prize is awarded to an author for a body of distinguished work rather than a single volume. Kadare beat out a formidable lineup for the $115,000 prize, including Gunther Grass, Naguib Mahfouz, and Milan Kundera. He will accept the award in Edinburgh on June 27, 2005.
Born in 1936 in the Albanian mountain town of Gjirokaster near the Greek border, Kadare specializes in historical novels whose tales of ancient love and barbarism serve as allegories for modern authoritarianism. His best-known works include “The Palace of Dreams,” “The Concert,” and “The Three-Arched Bridge.” One of the judges, John Carey, cited Kadare for the ambitious range of his work and his perseverance under political oppression.
Shkelqim Beqari and Bill Marx telephoned Kadare at his home in Paris on the day the award was announced. Here’s an edited version of the interview translated by Shkelqim Beqari:
Q: Were you surprised to win this prize?
Kadare: I wasn’t all that surprised, but I was not really expecting it either. I did’t think I was going to win because of the fierce competition from the others on the shortlist. Yet the moment I heard I had won, it seemed quite normal.
Q: How well do you think your writing has been understood in the West?
Kadare: It has been very well understood. This appreciation shows that, regardless of the differences among nations, due to history, geography, political systems, etc, there is a point of commonality. Literature reveals this great truth.
Q: In accepting the award, you said you hoped it would bring attention to the other literary offerings from the region. What does that literature offer to the West?
Kadare: The Balkan Peninsula has produced distinguished, powerful literature, not only during antiquity but during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Unfortunately, the people of the Balkans have the reputation, especially in Europe, of being militaristic and harsh. After the recent turmoil in the region, that image has become even more stained. I believe exposure to Balkan art will improve the region’s image in Europe, which the Balkans want to be a part of.
We have to understand ourselves as well as rectify ourselves in the eyes of the world. And culture is an essential factor in renewing human consciousness. The Balkans need this kind of renewal. Literature alone can not change perceptions, but it may initiate the creation of trust between other peoples, especially the cultural elites. Also, the Balkans need to be understood by Europe because, if the latter’s biases become entrenched, they may play a negative role in the evolution of the region.
Q: Were you a dissident?
Kadare: In its classical meaning, a dissident is an individual who carries on open political activity against a regime and can possibly end up in jail. In that sense, I have not been a dissident. I don’t think there have been any dissident Albanian writers who came out openly against the Communist regime. It was so cruel you would be executed instantly for it. Everyone around you would think rebelling would be simply insane: a wasted sacrifice.
In Albania, there was only one kind of genuine resistance — a silent resistance through literature and arts. This meant writing your books as if the regime did not exist, as if you were in a free world that was not influenced by the dogmas of socialist realism. Even a novel about love, written in a free way, was a kind of rebellion against the omnipresent propaganda.
Q: But didn’t some Albanian writers find fault with the government?
Kadare: Yes, there are examples of Albanian literature that appeared to criticize the regime, but the crux of such books did not attack the regime directly. Ironically, they ended up whitewashing it, because the crimes of party functionaries were represented as simply the mistakes of na? people who had good hearts. Fortunately, I never fell in that trap.
It was really difficult, but I did not shy away from the responsibility of a writer in a dictatorial regime. I tried to search for the essence of a dictatorship, its primal crime against humanity. I have written about bloody hands, crimes, executions, imprisonments, about terrible and gloomy circumstances that suffocated people. These were the words that got me in trouble but I was very lucky — other writers ended up in jail or dead just for writing a couple of verses or for having a conversation at a cafe?
Q: You left for Paris a few months before the collapse of communism in Albania. Why did you leave your homeland?
Kadare: I explained the reason very clearly then. I lived in Albania during its darkest years, when my life was at risk. When I left, I was not in danger. I left because the Albanian communists, in a hypocritical way, claimed they would make changes but in fact had decided to make no changes at all. Something had to be done to expose their hypocrisy, to tear away their mask, and put pressure on the government. But it was hard to express those views in Albania back then. The only practical way to make this urgent appeal was to leave the country and, through the media, tell the regime it should give up its power.
Q: Are you contributing to the process of democratization in Albania now?
Kadare: My work still plays an indirect role. I do not belong to any political party or creed, but I believe that Albanians are not yet free. I have been lobbying to unseal the secret archives of the regime because their existence is still a heavy burden on Albania’s conscience.
Q: Of the books you have written, which are your favorites?
Kadare: This is a difficult question. Sometimes an author’s favorite books are those that have caused him the most trouble. It resembles the special love parents have for kids who have suffered an illness or have had a misfortune. My novel “The Palace of Dreams” is a favorite because it was heavily criticized for its political implications, which was very dangerous in a Stalinist country like Albania. Another novel close to my heart is “The General of the Dead Army” because it brought me lots of luck. A work unknown to the English reader is “The Twilight of the Steppes Gods,” which I wrote when I was a student in Moscow, during the period that Albania and the Soviet Union were breaking off relations.
Q: What are you working on now? And are there books of yours that have not yet been translated that should be?
Kadare: Soon, one of my books, “The Successor,” will be available in English. “The Daughter of Agamemnon,” a collection of novellas will be available as well. As for untranslated works, there are a few. “The Niche of Shame,” for example, would be a good choice for American readers.