“It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Winston Churchill’s assessment of Russia in 1939 applies equally to the Albania of 1981. The Successor is a dispatch from the heart of a totalitarian regime that is in terminal decline, cut off from the rest of the world, and which no longer even knows itself.
The point of departure for this brilliant and disturbing novel is the unexplained death of Mehmet Shehu, who was the heir apparent to Enver Hoxha, the psychotic communist dictator who ruled the small Balkan nation from 1944 to 1985. In the novel’s suitably Kafkaesque nomenclature, Shehu is the Successor of the title, while Hoxha is referred to throughout as the Guide.
At the time in question, Ismail Kadare, a leading Albanian novelist, had a rare personal insight into the workings of the communist state: one that supplied rich material for his fiction but has led to his ethics being questioned.
Kadare is candid in his statement of fictional aims, and at the same time inscrutable. On the page facing the publisher’s standard disclaimer that the book is a work of fiction and the characters imaginary, the author offers a rather different approach: “The events of this novel draw on the infinite well of human memory, whose treasures may be brought to the surface at any period, including our own. In view of this, any resemblance between the characters and circumstances of this tale and real people and events is inevitable.”
Some of the great novelists of totalitarianism – Kafka, Orwell, Solzhenitsyn – took victims as their central protagonists. Kadare’s concern is almost exclusively with the effects of totalitarian oppression on the state’s rulers and their families. The novel is especially compelling in its depiction of the troubled love-life of the Successor’s daughter, Suzana. She is frustrated to learn that, far from making her an object of desire, being the daughter of a senior figure in the regime makes her distinctly unattractive. “At school dances, boys in her class were as hot as hell when they brushed up against the other girls, but when they had to partner her on the floor, they went stone cold, as if they were bewitched.” It is widely assumed that any lover she has would be unlikely to live longer after mating than a male spider.
The rulers and the people alike, in the absence of any reliable source of information, turn to the myths and superstitions of the pre-Stalinist past. “I’m not at home in the present,” complains one old Albanian. “We used to have other customs, like spells and curses; but now there are rituals I can’t make head or tail of. People talk about concresses, blinums, and what have you. Ay, ay, ay!”
After decades of lies, the rulers are no wiser than the beleaguered populace about what is really happening. We learn that the Guide himself “didn’t know, and never had known, what really went on at the Successor’s residence on that night of December 13.” Perhaps, as the government-run media reported, it was suicide? The Guide neither knows nor cares, since his grip on power is not maintained through the efficiency of his intelligence gathering or through his ability to neutralise potential rivals. His “real secret”, as one character realises, is his ability “to keep people on a string while fast asleep”.
Kadare’s apparent intimacy with the perpetrators of Albania’s torment – The Successor is reportedly based in part on conversations the author had with Shehu’s son – became a matter of public debate last year. Following the announcement that he had been awarded the inaugural Man Booker International Prize, Kadare, who defected to the West in 1990, was accused of having had far too cosy a relationship with Hoxha to be considered a true dissident.
“Kadare is no Solzhenitsyn,” claimed Romanian poet Renata Dumitrascu, pointing to Kadare’s tenure as head of the Albanian Union of Writers and his decision to defect a year after the Berlin Wall came down as evidence. The chairman of the Man Booker Prize committee, John Carey, responded that the “unanimous decision to award the prize to Ismail Kadare was made solely on grounds of literary merit,” an attitude that, as the acerbic English critic John Sutherland observed, could bring cheer to a prolific yet unrecognised Iraqi novelist by the name of Saddam Hussein.
One of the characters in The Successor, the Architect, does agonise over the dilemma confronting the artist in a totalitarian society. Not everyone has the courage, stubbornness or talent to be a martyr. Artists are as susceptible to doubt and fear as anyone else: “I was probably one of the few who asked themselves the fateful question: do I or do I not possess any talent? Was it the age that had turned my hands into clay, or was I so clumsy that I would have vegetated no matter what period I lived in?” It is a question that no doubt many artists who have sold their soul to the government of the day, even in democracies like ours, have secretly pondered.
Even if Kadare was complicit in the Hoxha regime, and there is nothing in this remarkable novel to suggest he was not, it is quite possible that The Successor could not otherwise have been written. As it is, the book asks questions for which, to its credit, it can find no convenient answers.
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