Kadare’s ode to ex­iled Al­ba­nian women

How do you bring some­one back from the dead, asks Is­mail Kadare. M Lynx Qua­ley finds his story of state re­pres­sion as dark as the Greek un­der­world

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To save his beloved from death, Or­pheus must en­ter the Greek un­der­world and lead Eury­dice away with­out a back­wards glance. Dur­ing their long walk, Or­pheus is filled with anx­i­ety. When his love calls out to him, the great mu­si­cian can­not help but turn back.

At that mo­ment, his beloved “girl in ex­ile” van­ishes.

Is­mail Kadare’s A Girl in Ex­ile, trans­lated by John Hodg­son, is con­cerned with bring­ing all our lost Eury­dices back into the light. Like much of the nov­el­ist’s world-renowned oeu­vre, this book is set among the bu­reau­cratic ma­chin­ery of Al­ba­nia’s 1945-1991 dic­ta­tor­ship.

As such, it’s a story about state re­pres­sion. But it’s also about art, doubt and how to re­an­i­mate the voices of the dead.

Kadare’s pro­tag­o­nist, the play­wright Ru­dian Stefa, aims to cre­ate chal­leng­ing art in 1980s Al­ba­nia. Stefa knows he’s not the first in such a tricky situation: af­ter all, Zeus was a dic­ta­tor-god, and he al­lowed Or­pheus to cross into the un­der­world. But once Or­pheus/Stefa is there, how can he bring back his love? How can ei­ther move from an un­canny artist’s knowl­edge to some­thing that ex­ists for “real”?

In the open­ing pages of A Girl in Ex­ile, orig­i­nally pub­lished in 2009, Stefa waits to hear whether his new­est play will be ap­proved for pro­duc­tion. Yet cen­sor­ship is not Stefa’s only anx­i­ety. When he’s called in by the Party Com­mit­tee, Stefa is not sure if he’ll be in­ter­ro­gated about his play or about his re­la­tion­ship with a young woman, Megina.

In both cases, Stefa must bring some­one back from the dead. In his play, he at­tempts to chan­nel the voice of a Sec­ond World War par­ti­san who was shot in the back by his com­rades.

Stefa is sure that this sec­tion of his play will be cen­sored, mostly be­cause “so­cial­ist real-

The fam­ily’s sen­tence, handed down be­cause of their roy­al­ist ties, is re­newed ev­ery five years. This means Linda B has seen the Al­ba­nian cap­i­tal only through TV and books. Through this me­dia, Linda B falls in love with Stefa. And through a sort of lit­er­ary alchemy, her love infects her friend Megina, who can travel to the cap­i­tal.

Once he learns of Linda B’s death, the play­wright must un­ravel why. He in­ter­ro­gates both Megina and the Party Com­mit­tee in­ves­ti­ga­tor.

Slowly, in­di­rectly, he learns de­tails of Linda B’s life. But these rev­e­la­tions are never eas­ily won.

Through­out A Girl in Ex­ile, the artist’s truth re­sists a di­rect gaze. When Stefa has a fleet­ing idea for a new play, he looks too hard at the idea, and it crum­bles. Near the end of the novel, the point of view shifts, and Al­ba­nia’s “Leader” ap­pears as an el­e­ment of comic relief, re­view­ing all we’ve heard so far with his staff. The Leader is told that Stefa had asked “whether any coun­try per­mit­ted en­gage­ment … with a dead per­son.”

The Leader’s sec­re­tary sug­gests Stefa’s com­pul­sion was not necrophilia, but some­thing else. The buf­foon­ish Leader tells him: “Go on, but skip those Latin med­i­cal terms.” Kadare is fre­quently men­tioned as a can­di­date for the No­bel, and A Girl in Ex­ile is of that cal­i­bre. The book, ded­i­cated to Al­ba­nian women who grew up in ex­ile, is deeply comic and deeply se­ri­ous, and trans­lated into a lovely clear English.

Megina never grows into a real char­ac­ter, so at first the book seems to lack hu­man warmth. But by the end we feel a deep, frag­ile love for the lost Linda B – though we’re never sure if we can look too closely, or if look­ing might make her van­ish.

M Lynx Qua­ley is a free­lance writer based in Cairo who blogs at arablit.word­press.com.

Three Lions / Getty Images

Ru­ral Al­ba­nia circa 1950. Kadare’s novel is con­cerned with dis­si­dents ex­iled by the Com­mu­nist regime.

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