A Girl in Exile

Ismail Kadare

Harvill Secker, £16.99

Review by Richard Strachan

In his 1985 novella The Prague Orgy, Philip Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman travels to communist Czechoslovakia to hunt down some short stories by a dissident Yiddish writer, a favour to the writer’s son. As Zuckerman complains about the trivialising effects of literary success in the United States, Roth implicitly exalts the inherent dangers of being a writer in a politically repressive society. For the western writer, limitlessly free, the rewards for literary success may be great but the risks are non-existent. In the communist bloc, though, as Ismail Kadare is perfectly aware, to write was to genuinely take your life into your hands.

Kadare’s extremely uneasy relationship with Enver Hoxha’s Albanian regime, a blending of pragmatic accommodation and sincere defiance, produced a number of celebrated texts; oblique, allegorical works that in and of themselves were a form of resistance to the state, and that offered a compelling portrait of the free thinker in a closed system. Despite the collapse of Albiania’s regime, and of the Soviet bloc more generally, the position of the writer within a totalitarian society continues to form the imaginative environment of Kadare’s fiction. In this vague and unconvincing novel, though, it offers no real cohering framework for a narrative that never fulfils an initially fascinating premise.

The novel follows the playwright Rudian Stefa, in a state of professional stasis after his previous work has been shelved by the authorities and his current play hangs in the limbo of government assessment. After a fight with his mistress Migena, Rudian is summoned to the offices of the Party Committee. Assuming that Migena has denounced him, Rudian is instead told about a young woman, Linda B, a member of a dissident family sentenced to internal exile, who has committed suicide. Found amongst Linda’s things was a copy of one of Rudian’s books, personally autographed by the playwright. For the rest of the novel, as Rudian tries not to make himself too conspicious to the authorities, he is tormented by Migena’s disappearance and by his obsessive need to find the truth about why Linda killed herself. Wandering in a preoccupied daze through the Tirana streets, the playwright drifts into strange reveries of classical myth, positioning himself as an Orpheus to Linda’s Eurydice, or, as an allegory of the arbitrary nature of power, imagining the Greek gods bickering amongst themselves as they consider Orpheus’s radical addition of two extra strings to his lyre. The artist in such a regime, Kadare suggests, will always be subject to bad-tempered and irrational suspicions, and to the kind of vulgar indulgence on the part of the authorities that is almost as disturbing as straight persecution.

Kadare’s prose, or its English rendering, is strangely mannered throughout this, and is frequently derailed by avoidable cliches ("like a lamb to the slaughter"). There’s also something tremendously off-putting about his unquestioning valorisation of the figure of ‘the writer’, a political hero and sexual swashbuckler combined. It’s with a sense of crushing inevitability that we realise Rudian’s mistress is preternaturally beautiful, for example, or that the persecuted Linda B would find Rudian not just a symbol of intellectual freedom but of sexual freedom as well. Casting off her inconvenient virginity with her gym teacher, Linda’s guiding purpose is not simply to escape the confines of internment, but to give herself unquestioningly to a playwright she has never met, a compulsive desire that leads to an unintentionally hilarious flashback scene where she tremblingly "caresses" (a word used nowhere outside of cheap romantic fiction) Migena’s breasts in order to feel closer to Rudian. Without irony, the investigator assigned to Rudain’s case frustratedly complains that, ‘You artists and writers are lucky with women. In fact, I sometimes think that these occasional outbursts of resentment against writers come from envy, or more exactly, envy of your success with women.’ Rather than a normal response to the supposed virility and magnetism of the character, they read a little too much like the words of an author rationalising a bad review.

Despite this, there are flashes of and gestures towards the more interesting novel this might have been. The figure of the curiously morose investigator is well defined for such a minor character, and the idea that Linda yearned for terminal cancer as a route to freedom is a stark and troubling indictment of the repressive system she lived under. Albania’s coarse and uncharismatic ‘Leader’ receiving psychiatric reports from across the country, a more reliable measure of the state of the nation than the reports of his secret police, is a concept so brilliant that it deserves a novel in itself. Kadare’s work in general is defined as Kafkaesque (the inevitable comparison) by how successfully it represents the banal machinery of repression. "Everything," Rudian thinks, "was fraught with meaning and at the same time meaningless." This is a genuine insight into the conditions of post-war eastern Europe, but taken in the round A Girl in Exile is a minor work from a justly celebrated writer. Kadare has taken the least interesting aspect of his story and built a frail scaffolding of familiar obsessions around it, one that is in constant danger of collapse.