On writing

What is Ismail Kadare like in Albanian?

Translator John Hodgson looks at the subtleties of language in the work of Ismail Kadare, whose new novel, A Girl In Exile, was published this month

In 1889 the writer Sami Frashëri, a leading light of the Albanian national revival, produced a little book entitled Albania, What It Was, Is, and Shall Be. He envisioned a European future for the country, which had been part of the Ottoman Empire since the fifteenth century. He coined new words to replace borrowings from Turkish and to equip the language for a modern world. Some of these have stuck, such as dritare for window, but others have not.  For ‘university’, he proposed gjithëmësime, but the Albanians have settled for universitet.

Albanian is one of Europe’s oldest languages, but it only became standardised as a literary language in the course of the twentieth century. Still today, the language is in ferment, and the niceties of its grammar and vocabulary are hotly disputed.

Ismail Kadare has lent life and diversity of expression to this new-minted language, has given it his personal stamp, and has also implicitly, by example, tried to point it in the right direction for the future.

During the communist years, Kadare wrote under the constant pressure of censorship, but he aimed to provide his public with something more interesting to read than sagas of muddy collective farms. He set his novels in Moscow, Istanbul, and New York, and enabled the Albanians, confined within the borders of their small country, to travel in their imaginations. Kadare’s patriotic spirit and his reworking of popular legends also gave heart to a nation wounded in its self-esteem, and won him an especially devoted readership among Albanians in Kosovo. The Tirana intelligentsia enjoyed his encrypted satire of the Stalinist regime, which escaped the censor’s eye. (One is reminded of Karl Kraus’s dictum: ‘Satire that the censor understands is rightly forbidden.’)

Much of this satire is found in Kadare’s historical novels, notably The Palace of Dreams. The Ottoman Empire in Kadare’s work is partly a historical recreation, and it reflects the ambiguous, unsettled relationship that Albanian culture as a whole still has with its Ottoman heritage. The Ottomans are the invaders, who robbed Albania of its rightful place in the heart of Europe (halfway between Athens and Rome). On the other hand, the evocation of the Ottoman past, which is both repellent and attractive, inspires some of Kadare’s most seductive prose. There are also curious, studied anachronisms, because he is often not writing about the past at all, but creating a fantastical world that parallels the totalitarian present.

With the fall of communism, Kadare’s relationship with the reading public necessarily changed. Kadare had never inhabited the badlands of socialist realism (whose stereotyped partisan fighters and norm-exceeding copper miners are lampooned in A Girl in Exile), but in his post-communist writing he has given Albanian readers new settings and has explored unfamiliar and hitherto forbidden subjects. Albania remains a poor country, but Kadare sets a large part of The Accident in luxury hotels. Both in this novel and in A Girl in Exile he explores hidden metaphysical dimensions and mysteries of love and sex: taboo themes under Enver Hoxha’s grimly atheistic and prudish regime.

Kadare’s prose style has changed too, and indeed he has reissued several of his earlier works in revised editions. In the past, Kadare deployed Turkish loan-words to devastating effect, conjuring up an Ottoman atmosphere rather as a writer in English might veer towards Saxon or Latinate vocabulary for special effect. But now Kadare’s lexicon is increasingly being purged of Turkish words. In Albanian, many everyday household items have names of Turkish origin. A pillow is a jastëk. But Kadare has revived the old word nënkresë (literally, ‘under-head’). Increasingly, he rejects even European borrowings: unusual words with Albanian roots replace, for instance, ordinary international words such as fasad – ‘facade’ – and teleskop.

The result is a fastidious, slightly elevated, but deeply Albanian style that feels a little remote from everyday reality, but conveys a sense of what the Albanian language might become, once it emerges from the shadows of the Ottoman Empire and of Stalinist Newspeak, and also resists the temptations of internet English. A sentence by Kadare is instantly recognisable as his personal idiom. Will his innovations stick? Probably, like Sami Frashëri’s, some will and some will not.


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