Ismail Kadare (1936-2024): The writer who outsmarted a dictator

The Albanian novelist used metaphor to critique tyranny, gaining global acclaim.

Published : Jul 01, 2024 17:24 IST - 4 MINS READ

Renowned Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare in Tirana. The Albanian writer and playwright died at the age of 88 on July 1.

Renowned Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare in Tirana. The Albanian writer and playwright died at the age of 88 on July 1. | Photo Credit: GENT SHKULLAKU/AFP

Novelist Ismail Kadare, who has died aged 88, used his pen as a stealth weapon to survive Albania’s paranoid communist dictator Enver Hoxha. His sophisticated storytelling—often likened to that of George Orwell or Franz Kafka—used metaphor and irony to reveal the nature of tyranny under Hoxha, who ruled Albania from 1946 until his death in 1985.

“Dark times bring unpleasant but beautiful surprises,” Kadare once said in an interview. “Literature has often produced magnificent works in dark ages as if it was seeking to remedy the misfortune inflicted on people,” he said.

He was often tipped to win a Nobel Prize for his towering body of work which delved into his country’s myths and history to dissect the mechanisms of totalitarianism. Kadare’s novels, essays, and poems have been translated into more than 40 languages, making him the Balkans’ best-known modern novelist.

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The prolific writer broke ranks with isolated Albania’s communists and fled to Paris a few months before the government collapsed in the early 1990s. He wrote about his disillusionment in his book The Albanian Spring: The Anatomy of Tyranny.

“Albania and Albanians lost their genius of letters, their spiritual emancipator, the Balkans (lost) the poet of its myths, Europe and the world (lost) one of the most renowned representatives of modern literature,” Albanian President Bajram Begaj said in a statement released by his office. Prime Minister Edi Rama paid tribute to Kadare in a message on Facebook, hailing him as a “monument of Albanian culture”.

Demanded his death

Born in Gjirokaster in southern Albania on January 28, 1936, Kadare was inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a child and counted the playwright, as well as Dante and Cervantes, among his heroes. Ironically, the dictator Hoxha hailed from the same mountain town.

Kadare studied languages and literature in Tirana before attending the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow. After returning to Albania in 1960, he initially won acclaim as a poet before publishing his first novel The General of the Dead Army in 1963, a tragicomic tale that was later translated into dozens of other languages.

His second novel, The Monster, about townspeople who live in a permanent state of anxiety and paranoia after a wooden Trojan horse appears outside the town, was banned. His 1977 novel The Great Winter, though somewhat favourable towards the regime, angered Hoxha devotees who deemed it insufficiently laudatory and demanded the “bourgeois” writer’s execution.

Yet while some writers and other artists were imprisoned—or even killed—by the government, Kadare was spared. Hoxha’s widow Nexhmije said in her memoirs that the Albanian leader, who prided himself on a fondness for literature, saved the internationally acclaimed author several times.

Archives from the Hoxha era show that Kadare was often close to being arrested, and after his poem “Red Pashas” was published in 1975 he was banished to a remote village for more than a year. Kadare, for his part, denied any special relationship with the brutal dictator. “Against whom was Enver Hoxha protecting me? Against Enver Hoxha?” Kadare said in 2016.

‘Writers don’t have to bow’

Academics have often pondered whether Kadare was a darling of Hoxha or a brave author risking prison and death? “Both are true,” suggested French publisher Francois Maspero, who raised the question in his book Balkans-Transit. Writing such work under a government in which a single word could be turned against its author “requires, above all, determination and courage”, Maspero wrote.

“My work obeyed only the laws of literature, it obeyed no other law,” Kadare said.

In one of his last interviews in October 2023, when he was clearly frail, Kadare said that writing transformed “the hell of communism... into a life force, a force which helped you survive and hold your head up and win out over dictatorship”. He said: “I am so grateful for literature, because it gives me the chance to overcome the impossible.”

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In 2005 Kadare won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize for his life’s work. Jury member John Carey described him as “a universal writer in a tradition of storytelling that goes back to Homer”. He received numerous international awards, including the Prince of Asturias Prize for the Arts in 2009 and the Jerusalem Prize in 2015.

In 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron awarded him the Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor title during a visit by the French President to the Albanian capital. France had previously also made him a foreign associate of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, as well as Commander of the Legion of Honor.

A father of two, Kadare said he enjoyed seeing his name “mentioned among the candidates” for the Nobel Prize, even if the topic “embarrasses” him. “I am not modest because... during the totalitarian regime, modesty was a call to submission. Writers don’t have to bow their heads.”

He is survived by his wife, the author Helena Kadare, and their two daughters.

(with inputs from AFP, AP, and Reuters)

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