In this spellbinding novel, written in Albania and smuggled into France a few pages at a time in the 1980s, Ismail Kadare denounces with rare force the machinery of a dictatorial regime, drawing us back to the ancient roots of tyranny in Western Civilization. During the waning years of Communism, a young worker for the Albanian state-controlled media agency narrates the story of his ill-fated love for the daughter of a high-ranking official. When he witness the ghostly image of Agamemnon-the Ancient Greek king who sacrificed his own daughter for reasons of State-on the reviewing stand during a May Day celebration, he begins to suspect the full catastrophe of his devotion. Also included are "The Blinding Order", a parable of the Ottoman Empire about the uses of terror in authoritarian regimes, and "The Great Wall”, a chilling duet between a Chinese official and a soldier in the invading army of the Tamerlane.
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The title novella in this anthology by Man Booker Prize recipient Ismail Kadare is a reference to the Greek king Agamemnon, who lured his daughter Iphigenia to the altar with promises of marriage to the hero Achilles, only to seize her and sacrifice her to the gods so that his army would be allowed to sail away and attack Troy. The narrator of Kadare’s novella, a broadcast journalist in totalitarian socialist Albania during the early 80s, finds the ancient story of Iphigenia strangely resonant. He is hurting because the woman he loves has recently left him, allegedly because her father did not find their relationship politically expedient. He has also received a last-minute ticket to a grandstand seat at the May Day Parade--a high honor he cannot refuse--and his romantic musings as he walks to claim his unsought “exalted” position are interspersed with paranoid reflections as to the meaning behind the anonymous invitation. Is it really a reward (and if so, for what?), or is it a trap?
“Agamemnon’s Daughter” is Kadare’s no doubt autobiographical mirror of the conditions prevailing in Albania from 1944-1985, under the rule of dictator Enver Hoxa (referred to in the story as the “Supreme Guide”). During that time Albania achieved unprecedented economic and agricultural success; the people were said to be “tax-free”; education (within rigidly prescribed socialist contexts) was available to all and literacy skyrocketed. By the May Day described, it is also a society where personal privacy, independence, family loyalty, and love itself have been sacrificed to absolute political authority. It is all the more chilling for having been drawn from reality.
The second story, “The Blinding Order,” explores the paranoid psychology that grips people when a “witch hunt” is on; in this case, the hunt involves seeking out those who possess the “evil eye.” It was an original approach to a topic that’s been covered many times.
I found the last and shortest story, “The Great Wall,” to be the most interesting. Set in the 14th century, it documents the internal musings of two men, one an engineer called to work on shoring up China’s Great Wall against an attack by Tamarlane’s army; the second man is a scout for that army. It’s not exactly action-packed, but it’s an interesting take on fear, conquest, and psyching out the enemy.
This collection was an unusually literary choice for me; I tend to listen mostly to genre fiction, which these stories definitely are not. If this had been a novel I probably would have found it, well, boring, but the length of these pieces made each of them an intriguing change of pace. I was a little put off by the coarse, even misogynisitic, language Kadare uses when describing women sexually, but aside from those brief instances I found the writing admirable. All in all, a worthy selection, especially for anyone interested in political history.