The Traitor’s Niche

Ismail Kadare

Vintage, £14.99

Review by Lesley McDowell

KADARE’S historical novel about tyrannical power was first published in 1978, when his native Albania had been independent for 60 years and was enjoying a period of relative calm. It was almost as though he wanted to remind his homeland of the fight for that independence, and to make sure his readers didn’t forget the hold that the Ottoman Empire once had over it.

Because he clearly felt that there was a danger amnesia might prevail. This novel came 15 years into Kadare’s publishing career which began with The General of the Dead Army in 1963, a contemporaneous novel about an Italian general in Albania trying to find the remains of his fellow soldiers who fought there in the Second World War. There’s a human need not to forget, that novel says, too.

But remembering isn’t just about burying bones. It’s about telling stories, speaking your own language, maintaining traditions. In The Traitor’s Niche, the Ottoman Empire has done an excellent job suppressing all three of these in the many territories it has conquered. But one state, Albania, is holding out for independence, and Hurshid Pasha, the commander-in-chief and favourite of the Emperor, has been charged with putting an end to its ambitions. He must capture and kill Ali Pasha Tepelena, the governor of Albania, and return his head to ‘Traitor’s Niche’, the specially carved space in the main square of Constantinople, for display to the public.

Kadare begins his story from the viewpoint of an ordinary man, 31-year-old Abdulla, who is the keeper of Traitor’s Niche. He must keep watch over whatever head has been placed there, together with the doctor who tends to its condition every day. But Abdulla’s concerns are more everyday; he worries about his forthcoming wedding, losing his job, the fate of his brother who is away fighting the Albanian rebels.

It’s another ordinary man, Tundj Hata, who is charged with the collecting of a leader’s severed head whenever a battle is won. He’s soon on his way to collect the latest, that of Ali Tepelena, who has finally been defeated. Once he has it, he will make his way back through villages and towns, charging the folk there a price to view the head and then Abdulla will look after it. Kadare hints at the vagaries of the Emperor, though: Hurshid Pasha knew it would be his head in the ‘niche’ if he failed to capture Ali Tepelena, just as befell the previous commander who tried to kill the rebel leader. That constant fear of things turning around, the constant anxiety of treading a fine line between life and death, affects all who gaze upon the severed heads. Nobody can be sure of his or her place in this kind of world, either politically or personally: Ali’s young wife will be exiled when her husband is killed, whilst Abdulla will find he cannot sexually satisfy his new bride the way he must.

Kadare moves back and forth in time through this novel, without explicitly highlighting the passing of time, so that we know Ali is dead long before we meet him, and before his final days and his life with his young wife, Vasiliqia, are relayed to us. That makes one particular moment all the more poignant, when Vasiliqa privately recalls the visit paid to herself and her husband by a young English lord and poet. It’s Byron, and when he leaves them, carrying on to Greece where he will attempt to assist in freeing the country from the grip of the Turks, she “sat miserably by one of the south-facing windows and caught herself thinking about the poet. Oh God, look after him, she said to herself. He was so young and good-looking, and his poetry made him appear almost transparent whereas down south, where he was headed, there were so many coarse, bearded men sunk in bloody crime. Her husband found her like this, with eyes fixed on the distance.”

Ali Tepelena is no hero of liberation: he takes his young wife down to the dungeons of his castle where he tortures those who disagree with him, a kind of Bluebeard gesture that sickens her. He tortures and betrays, and that is why his fellow Albanians refuse to rise up against the Ottoman Empire when he calls on them. Yet Vasiliqia still respects him, still wants to know her husband better, and she genuinely mourns when he is killed in front of her, his head separated from his body so that he will never be whole, even in death.

Kadare’s novel tells us history is shaped by men, who want power beyond their abilities. Who want to deny people the right to wear what they want and speak words that they know. Who seek the crudest methods to shore up their power, and invent entire systems of oppression to do so. It’s an extraordinary and complex novel whose time has come, perhaps, almost 40 years after its initial publication.