March 2006

Arts & Letters

Ismail Kadare’s ‘The Successor’

By Simon Caterson

“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.

Simon Caterson

Simon Caterson is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and the author of Hoax Nation: Australian Fakes and Frauds from Plato to Norma Khouri.

From the front page

Image of fans taking a selfie with a photo of tennis star Novak Djokovic ahead of first round matches at the Australian Open in Melbourne. Image © Hamish Blair / AP Photo

‘Health and good order’

If Novak Djokovic is “a talisman of anti-vaccination sentiment”, what does that make George Christensen?

Image of Kim Philby (left) and Phillip Knightley

On Her Majesty’s secret disservice

The reporter who uncovered the truth about Kim Philby, the 20th century’s most infamous spy, and his warnings for democratic society

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Echidna poo has changed our understanding of human evolution

Citizen science is not only helping echidna conservation, but changing how we think about evolution

Image of sculpture by Jane Bamford

The artist making sculpture for penguins

How creating sculpture for animals is transforming wildlife conservation and the art world

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.


Television programming

Channel 7; Channel 9; Channel 10
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The joy of sport

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Malcolm Fraser & Galarrwuy Yunupingu

More in Arts & Letters

Still from ‘No Time To Die’

The Bond market: ‘Dune’ and ‘No Time To Die’

Blockbuster season begins with a middling 007 and a must-see sci-fi epic

Abbotsford I

New poetry, after lockdowns

Bing Crosby and David Bowie on Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, circa 1977.

Oh, carols!

The music of Christmas, from the manger to the chimney

Image of Gerald Murnane

Final sentence: Gerald Murnane’s ‘Last Letter to a Reader’

The essay anthology that will be the final book from one of Australia’s most idiosyncratic authors

More in Books

Image of Gerald Murnane

Final sentence: Gerald Murnane’s ‘Last Letter to a Reader’

The essay anthology that will be the final book from one of Australia’s most idiosyncratic authors

Image of Olga Tokarczuk

Speaking in tongues: ‘The Books of Jacob’

Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk’s latest novel in translation turns on the nature of language itself

Image of police at The Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne, September 22, 2021

A tightening knot: ‘On Freedom’

Maggie Nelson’s essay collection argues against the false binary of freedom and obligation

Detail from cover of Sally Rooney’s ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’

The meanings of production: ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’

Novelist Sally Rooney returns to the dystopia of contemporary life while reflecting on her own fame

Online exclusives

Still from ‘The Worst Person in the World’, showing Anders Danielsen Lie as Aksel and Renate Reinsve as Julie. Image courtesy Everett Collection.

‘The Worst Person in the World’

Renate Reinsve is exceptional in Joachim Trier’s satisfying Nordic rom-com

Image of WA Premier Mark McGowan earlier this week announcing the state will reopen its border to the rest of the country on February 5, after almost two years of border closures. Image © Richard Wainwright / AAP Images

Family’s grief compounded by WA’s hard border

The awful predicament of a Melbourne family unable to bring home their son’s body shows the callousness of WA’s border policy

Image of Liliane Amuat and Henriette Confurius in Ramon and Sylvan Zürcher’s film The Girl and the Spider. Image supplied

The best of 2021 on screen

This year may have been difficult to live through, but it produced an extraordinary crop of films

Image of Rob Collins as Tyson in ‘Firebite’. Image supplied

Raising the stakes: ‘Firebite’

Warwick Thornton’s magnificently pulpy Indigenous vampire-hunter drama leads the pack of December streaming highlights