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The General of the Dead Army by Ismail Kadare

Pub Date:

 

The General of the Dead Army
Ismail Kadare

Arcade
8-22-08
Trade Paperback/264 pages
ISBN: 978-1-55970-790-9
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". . .[a] mystical and tragic story . . ."

As one of the few Americans who have visited once-isolated Albania since its borders fully opened in 1989, I fell intimately and quickly into the mystical and tragic story woven by Ismail Kadare in this prize-winning novel, The General of the Dead Army. Kadare, who as a child witnessed Mussolini and Hitler invasions of his county, melds his past images of planes dropping bombs with a tale about an Italian general who returns twenty years later to recover fallen soldiers’ remains.

Diaries left behind and stories from villagers amplify initial misgivings by “the General” about disturbing the dead. “What is this loathsome task we have been burdened with?” asks the General, whose name is never used. All the while, his traveling companion, a priest, constantly maligns Albanians as a rough and backward people. The Albanians he says are born with a gun in their cradle “so that it shall become an integral part of their existence.”

. These perceptions are contradicted as the story unfolds by Kadare’s style, which allows them to simmer. He then proceeds systematically to debunk misguided insights about this exotic place in the Balkans. Albania was dominated by the Ottomans for several centuries. After World War II, ultra-hard-line communists locked it up under the paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha. By the end of the story, the characters and the reader begin to gain a different understanding of Albania’s rich culture and centuries of suffering.

Although a fast read, the book has many complex plots. In Kadare’s dark poetic prose, he challenges our ethical and moral viewpoints. His vivid scenes are riveting, such as the night the General is drawn toward the music of a wedding celebration. Uninvited, he attends anyway and in Albanian tradition everyone is welcomed. But an old woman with wartime memories is insulted by his presence. In a frenzy she leaves, returns and drops a bag of bones at the General’s feet. Stunned, he leaves, gets lost and stumbles into the cold wet night carrying the bones and their story of murder and rape.

It is no surprise that in 2006 Kadare was the first recipient of the Man Booker International Prize for this novel published in Albanian in 1963 and then translated into French and then English in 1970. The shortcoming of this newest translated version is the typographical and grammatical errors. But few people are able to clearly translate Albanian literature into English.

Reviewer: Kate Padilla