Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The Siege (2008) | By Ismail Kadare

Text by Gjergj Erebara   
The Siege by Ismail Kadare was published recently in English, almost 40 years after it came out in Albania. The historical novel, written during Albania’s isolation imposed by the communist regime, is a fascinating allegory of this part of the Balkans in the 1970s– a reality which no Albanian writer was allowed to describe in a more direct way at the time.

Kadare, the country’s most renowned writer, is somewhat of a contradictory figure. After pursuing philology and literature at the University in Tirana and later in Moscow, he managed to give an entertaining twist to Albania’s dismal Social Realist literature. There is a disagreement about whether the writer conformed with or opposed the socialist regime, but the fact remains that, in 1990, shortly before its collapse, Kadare sought asylum in France, stating that “dictatorship and authentic literature are incompatible... The writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship.”

The novels Kadare wrote under Enver Hoxha's dictatorship were mainly historical, as using allegories of the distant past was a way to address and discuss the present more safely. The Siege, set in the fifteenth century, when the Ottoman Empire began its long campaign to occupy Albania, makes no exception.

Kadare tells the story of an Albanian fortress under Ottoman siege. The main events occur in a Turkish command centre while the events from the inside of the fortress are contained only on a few pages. The defenders are not individualised and do not differ from each other. They have no names, apart from the superhero, Skanderbeg, who is Albania’s national hero.

In the book, the Ottoman pasha leads a vast army towards Albania, where a lone fortress stands. When his first attack fails, great cannons are cast to smash the walls. The pasha tries tunnelling under the wall, tipping cages of diseased rats over the railings, and then cutting off the water supply, but to no avail. Finally, he hurls his men at the castle in serial assaults, where they break like waves on the stone.

The Albanians' mysterious leader, Skanderbeg, appears to be invincible. The army is recalled, the despairing pasha kills himself, and the survivors fend their way back to Constantinople through the autumn rain.

In Kadare’s allegoric tale, cannons had become so great that they risks annihilating humanity (a reference to the atomic bomb), and trade cooperation between two religiously antagonistic big powers - Venice and Ottoman Empire, is easily transferable to the 1960s’ peaceful coexistence between the Soviet Union and the USA.

Finally, it is interesting to trace the location where the story takes place. In the book, the fortress under siege is Kruja, which stands 15 kilometres north of Tirana and used to be Albania’s medieval centre and Skanderbeg’s stronghold. The Ottomans failed to conquer it three times and it was almost totally destroyed in 1530 after an uprising. What remains of Kruja today are the seventeenth-century Ottoman fortifications, which are not very inspirational for a book setting.

If you visit the Kruja Fortress today with The Siege in hand, it will be impossible to see any similarity between what remains of the structure and how Kadare describes in his novel. He writes of three defence walls and a very strange entry with a narrow and inner garden, where the Ottoman soldiers died.

That depiction fits the Shkodra Fortress perfectly, which still stands as it is described in the book. Located about 90 kilometres north of Tirana, it is one of the biggest and best preserved fortresses on the Balkans, with three defence walls and the rat-trap gate where the Ottoman soldiers lost their mind and honour, as Kadare describes.

Another reason that seems to suggest that the setting of the book is in fact the Shkodra Fortress is that it is present in several historical accounts. The Siege of Shkodra – a sixteenth-century book in Latin, has been known to inspire contemporary Albanian writers. It describes in detail the 1579 Great Siege of Shkodra, in which Venetians fought and lost against the Turks. In addition, one of the greatest paintings of Paolo Veronese, on the façade of Ducal Palace of Venice, depicts the battle of Shkodra. Meanwhile, the Kruja Fortress is hardly present in any historical records.




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