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Ismail Kadare, Albanian literary giant, dies at 88
Ismail Kadare, pictured in 2005. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Ismail Kadare, the renowned Albanian writer known for his exploration of Balkan history and culture through poetry and fiction for over six decades, has passed away at the age of 88, according to his publisher.

Bujar Hudhri, Kadare’s editor at the Tirana-based publishing house Onufri, revealed that Kadare died on Monday after being rushed to the hospital. Reuters reported the writer had suffered a cardiac arrest.

Kadare wrote under the oppressive regime of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha. He delved into contemporary society using allegory and myth in his novels such as “The General of the Dead Army,” “The Siege,” and “The Palace of Dreams.” After fleeing Albania for Paris just months before the communist government fell in 1990, Kadare continued to focus on the region in his works, translated into over 40 languages, earning him accolades like the Man Booker International prize.

Born in 1936 in Gjirokastër, near the Greek border, Kadare grew up on the street where Hoxha had lived years before. He published his first poetry collection at 17. After studying at Tirana University, he received a government scholarship to study literature at the Gorky Institute in Moscow. He returned to Tirana in 1960 with a novel about two students reinventing a lost Albanian text. The novel was promptly banned after he published an excerpt.

“It was a good thing this happened,” Kadare told the Guardian in 2005. “In the early 60s, life in Albania was pleasant and well-organized. A writer would not have known he should not write about the falsification of history.”

Three years later, he managed to get past the censors with “The General of the Dead Army,” a novel about an Italian general traveling across Albania in the 1960s to recover the remains of Italian soldiers who died during World War II. The general questions the point of his mission: “When all is said and done, can a pile of bones still have a name?”

Though Albanian critics attacked the novel for not aligning with the socialist realism of Hoxha’s regime, the book caused a sensation when published in France in 1970. Le Monde described it as “astonishing and full of charm.”

While his international profile offered some protection, Kadare spent the next 20 years balancing artistic expression and survival. After his political poem “The Red Pashas” was banned in 1975, he wrote a flattering portrayal of Hoxha in the 1977 novel “The Great Winter.” In 1981, he published “The Palace of Dreams,” an allegorical criticism of totalitarianism, which was banned within hours. Despite these setbacks, Kadare became a prominent figure in the Albanian writers’ union and served as a delegate in the People’s Assembly. He also managed to publish and travel abroad.

When Hoxha died in 1986, the new president, Ramiz Alia, began tentative reforms. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and by 1990 Kadare decided that fleeing Albania would better serve the country than any domestic action. He cited a list of 100 intellectuals targeted by the secret police, the Sigurimi, and sought political asylum in France.

“The final thrust,” he told the New York Times, “was the direct or indirect threats from the Sigurimi, which wanted to settle old scores. The Sigurimi would have used the first signs of unrest to settle those scores.”

Safely in Paris, Kadare began to confront totalitarianism more directly in his work. His novella “The Blinding Order” explores an Ottoman sultan who decrees that subjects with “the evil eye” must be made blind, while “The Pyramid” portrays the construction of the Pyramid of Giza as a tool of control by a megalomaniac pharaoh.

As his fame grew, Kadare received the Légion d’Honneur and the inaugural Man Booker International prize in 2005. However, his career faced scrutiny, with Romanian writer Renata Dumitrascu claiming that Kadare was no dissident but rather a conformist masquerading as a rebel to excite Western audiences.

Kadare rejected these accusations, focusing on his work instead. “I have never claimed to be a ‘dissident’ in the proper meaning of the term,” he told the Jerusalem Post. “Open opposition to Hoxha’s regime, like open opposition to Stalin during Stalin’s reign in Russia, was simply impossible. Dissidence was a position no one could occupy, even for a few days, without facing the firing squad. On the other hand, my books themselves constitute a very obvious form of resistance to the regime.”

As Kadare continued to write his subtle fiction, the controversy began to fade. His 2008 novel about an Albanian fortress resisting the Ottoman Turkish army gained favorable reviews, with the LA Times calling it “a significant work by an important, fascinating author.” Kadare maintained he was not a political writer but rather that “true literature” transcended political regimes.

Returning to Tirana in 2019 to mark the opening of a museum at his former apartment, Kadare told France 24 that his work “obeyed only the laws of literature, it obeyed no other law.”

“The people who lived through this period were unhappy,” he said, “but art is above all that. Art is neither unhappy nor happy under a regime.”

Source: The Guardian