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The Uncivil Servant: Looking in on Western Literature

Mitchell Abidor
January 22, 2018


Discussed in this essay: Essays on World Literature by Ismail Kadare, translated by Ani Kokobobo, Restless Books, 2018, 255 pages; The Wild Book by Juan Villoro, translated by Lawrence Schimel, Restless Books, 2017, 232 pages.


IT SOUNDS like damning with faint praise to call Ismail Kadare the greatest Albanian novelist, since almost no one else from that country has been translated into English. In fact, Kadare is one of the world’s great novelists: He won the first Man Booker Prize In 2005, the Jerusalem Prize in 2015, and numerous other literary prizes, while his novels have been translated into some forty-five languages. These novels at times are positive portraits of communist Albania, and at other times are bitingly critical. Kadare enjoyed great success under Enver Hoxha but has lived in France since 1990. He remains resolutely Albanian, however, and the collection of three essays in Essays on World Literature prove the worth of a different gaze at figures as time-worn as Aeschylus, Dante, and Shakespeare. Kadare’s point of view is eccentric, both in the common sense of the word and the etymological sense: His essays come from outside the center of Western culture, and draw unexpected connections between these three writers and Balkan reality.

This reality, in the Albanian version, has been inextricably tied down through the centuries to the kanun, an oral tradition of Albanian law that was put into print only in the 20th century. Kadare describes it as a “cruel, uniform code, transmitted orally from generation to generation throughout many centuries [that] envelops all of human life and death, carefully determining everything from how coffee Is made, to the rules for serving coffee.” One does not trifle with the kanun, for “a transgression of the rules could lead to mortal enmity, an entire region could even be burned by way of punishment.”

The kanun is greatly concerned with vengeance and hospitality — as it says “Blood is never avenged.” The result of a life lived according to this code, writes Kadare, is that “It is difficult to find a life closer to the Greek theater than that described in Albanian law codes.” Even Hamlet, prince of Danes, is at home in Albania, and “Albanians were Hamletians without knowing of Hamlet’s existence and even without having been to the theater,” for “their code [was] more ruthless than the ghost.” In fact, as he writes, a New York Times article about the country written in 1938 was called “Hamlet Among the People of the Eagle.” And as the Balkans disintegrated into violence in the 1990s, the mounting of a production of Hamlet in Pristina “was not a coincidence; it revealed a program of revenge against the Serbian nation.”

In his excursus through Balkan history Kadare claims it was the bloodthirsty kanun that led the collaborationist Albanian government to ask the Nazis to leave Albania’s few Jews alone, basing the request on the strict requirements of hospitality in their traditional code. Kadare claims that “Hitler’s reaction to this request is . . . not known. What s known is that, although their were very few Jews in Albania to begin with . . . by the end of the war they had increased nearly tenfold.”

Hamlet is thus a Balkan tale of vengeance, while “Aeschylus reminds us all, but more pointedly reminds world leaders, that autocrats and even gods are redeemable.” Dante’s history in Albania is built around the Inferno, and “the inhabitants in this hell surprisingly resemble migrants closely, even those of our time,” many of whom were Albanians and from elsewhere in the Balkans.


KADARE COMMENTS on how Dante was being translated “more fully and masterfully than ever” during the days of Albanian communism, the most severe communist system on the planet. He explains the paradox: “Dante Alighieri was being translated more fully, more naturally, and more lovingly because his translators, like the rest of Albania, were experiencing one of his three states, hell.” That hell, Kadare explains, went as far as cemeteries “that seemed assembled according to the Dantesque model,” for according to Albanian law even dead prisoners had to serve out their sentence, their bodies remaining in prison cemeteries and only turned over to their families after the period of their sentence had expired.

Kadare thus presents us with a fascinating regional proof of the universality of these three geniuses, Aeschylus, Dante, and Shakespeare, of the regional truths that lie within the universality of their writings.

The pages of these essays are littered with attacks on the Albania of Enver Hoxha, but nowhere does Kadare confront his own part in that regime. His novel The Great Winter, about the Albanian role in the Sino-Soviet Split, was condemned by the government when it appeared in Albanian in 1971. Kadare was attacked and banished from Tirana until he rewrote the book in 1978 in a version that presents the Albanian people as being united behind Enver Hoxha, depicted as a great hero. He was punished by the Albanian government on other occasions as well, but also published prolifically. No one who has not lived under a system like that of Albanian communism can freely condemn Kadare for changing the book or for being presented as the face of Albanian literature by a state that constructed a 60-foot statue of Stalin in the center of its capital city, But when he writes about life in hell, his own experience might not have been out of place.

What is out of place is his defense of Ezra Pound, who Kadare claims “was given the slur ‘traitor.’’’ He bewails Pound’s imprisonment and says that after his release he was “chased”’ from the U.S. Pound, of course, was a traitor who broadcast propaganda over enemy radio, was spared prison by a faked diagnosis of psychosis, and, when he climbed aboard the ship taking him willingly to Italy, he gave the fascist salute. Kadare could not have done worse in choosing him as a martyr to liberty.

Restless Books is to be commended for having this volume translated (and quite ably so) by an Albanian translator, Ani Kokobobo. Until now, we have almost exclusively had second-generation translations, with the brilliant French translations by Yusuf Vrioni then translated into English. Several of these books were Englished by David Bellos, a wonderful translator, but even under the best of circumstances, second-generation translations are best avoided. Let us hope Ms. Kokobobo will be given the chance to translate one of Kadare’s novels.


THE LOVELY, WITTY, and inventive young adult novel, The Wild Book, by the Mexican author Juan Villoro, is in an odd way a perfect companion to Kadare’s volume. It, too, is about the ways books impact our lives, about the ways they give our lives meaning as well as how our lives give them meaning.

This is the charming tale of Juan. a boy whose parents have separated and who is sent to stay with his eccentric uncle Tito for summer vacation in the uncle’s book-filled home. He meets and falls in love with a neighborhood girl, but perhaps equally importantly, he discovers a world where books choose their readers, where a great reader not only changes the meaning of a book, but changes the actual content of a book. The two set off in  search of the Wild Book, buried somewhere among the thousands of books in Uncle Tito’s house, one never tamed, never read, and perhaps not yet written.

Juan learns about romantic love, familial love, and a love of the word he would never lose: “From that moment on, I would continue to read books as if I had caught them and they were revealing their words only to me.” But the paradox is that books are intensely private, but need to be aired out, that “books improve if they are surrounded by life.”

The Wild Book is a promising start for Restless Books’ new imprint, Yonder, aimed at “bringing the wealth of great stories from around the globe to English-reading children, middle-graders, and young adults.” 

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.