Ismail Kadare is Albania’s best-known author and poet, and while my goal with this world literature challenge is to read less popular books , the release of Kadare’s newest work, A Girl in Exile, was too timely to ignore. That it deals so intimately with the culture and land of Albania is a major plus for this endeavor.
Kadare is famous for writing novels with messages so subtle as to pass underneath the notice of the former communist party that ruled Albania, and A Girl in Exile attempts to portray a playwright that essentially does the same. I’ve become a little tired of the trope of casting a writer as the main character in a novel. I understand that authors are supposed to write what they know, but it feels both arrogant and a little lazy to create in such a way. This comes through in A Girl in Exile, and I could not divorce the author from his main character, despite the excellent writing and intriguing plot, and even found myself envisioning the man whose photo graces the dust jacket as protagonist Rudian Stefa.
The story of A Girl in Exile is one set before the founding of the Albanian Republic in 1991, at a time when the Communist Party was still very much in control of Albania, and fear of crossing the tyranny of its regime ran deep in its people. This fear comes through within the first few pages as Rudian Stefa, the novel’s playwright protagonist, is summoned to the Party Committee Building to interview with authorities about the suicide of a young ex-bourgeois woman who was exiled to the back-country and who has recently killed herself. Rudian’s name is plastered all over her journal, and through a few hundred pages of stream-of-conscious-style writing mixed with historical expository, we learn why this girl who Rudian had never met is so vital to his life. I was at times fascinated and at other times bewildered by this journey. Kadare’s prose can be lovely, but his ability to tell a clear and vivid story is at times muddled.
What I enjoyed most about Kadare’s novel is his ability to humanize the many facets of a conflicted nation. The characters of this book, namely Rudian, Linda, and Megina, all exist in different spheres within the Communist Party: Rudian manages to subvert it from within with his writing, Megina is able to cross the threshhold of Linda’s world and Rudian’s, And Linda herself lives in isolation, removed from the Party but slave to it. They are a Venn diagram of possibility. “Here, at the end of the twentieth century, was a young girl who’d thought of an unfavorable breast scan as her last chance, almost her salvation,” Rudian says to himself at one point, illustrating the plight of Linda, who once would have been among the wealthy elite and thus worthy of scorn to most of Albania. Kadare makes her a human being, not only disallowing scorn, but causing a reader to feel Linda’s sorrow despite Rudian never even meeting the girl. We also feel her increasing madness as the novel progresses, to the point where she sees death as worth the cost of visiting Tirana, Albania’s capital city and Rudian’s home. Despite what pity we must feel for Linda, it is also hard to shake that fact that had this novel been set before the rise of Communism, she would have likely been the oppressor, subjecting men and woman like Rudian and Megina to the same harsh world that the Party has given her.
I did have some issues with A Girl in Exile. The stream-of-consciousness style of writing that Kadare often employs can be difficult to make sense of. There is some excuse in this given the frail ego and psyche of Rudian Stefa, but Kadare’s weaving in of Greek and Roman mythology/history, his wildly differing forms of conveying dialogue, and the intersperses of some of Rudian’s play outlines all make for a mess from a comprehension standpoint. This may be a book that would benefit from a re-read, and it is short enough to allow that, but first-time readers may find it jarring.
Despite my criticisms, I am intrigued by Ismail Kadare. I would like to read more of his work and see how his other protagonists compare. I did not much like Rudian Stefa, who comes off as arrogant and misogynistic much of the time, and insane for the rest, but there is room in the world of literature for flawed men. The immersion into a Communist nation, with all of the emotion and turmoil that such an existence entails, is one to which I would like to return.