Review: The Traitor’s Niche, Ismail Kadare, Harvill Secker, 2017.
Although newly translated by John Hodgson, The Traitor’s Niche was written between 1974 and 1976 and published in Albania in 1978: which is to say, in the cold, dead winter at the height of Enver Hoxha’s totalitarian rule. Indeed, while engaged with this cruel, absurd, terrifying vision of political horror, Kadare was also commissioned to write a glowing portrait of Albania’s tyrannical head of state – probably the only national leader to have condemned Stalin and Mao for their lily-livered leniency – entitled appropriately enough, The Great Winter. Could he have refused? Only if he was prepared to face imprisonment, exile or, most likely, the firing squad. As Kadare has wearily explained to Western journalists, there was no such thing as a ‘dissident writer’ in Albania: enemies of the people were swiftly tortured and then killed. Still, the relationship between Kadare and Hoxha is teasingly ambiguous, and not entirely dissimilar to that which existed between Stalin and Bulgakov in the Soviet Union. Hoxha privately adored Kadare’s work, even while censors, the critics, and party officials publicly attacked it. What then would Hoxha have made of The Traitor’s Niche, which concerns an all-powerful imperial state (the Ottoman Empire in the novel) which places the heads of its enemies on display in a special plinth in the capital city, marinated in honey with their eyes prised open? The knee-jerk reading is to interpret the book as a direct indictment of authoritarian power; from Hoxha’s point of view though, you might well say that the book demonstrates that absolute power only functions through absolute fear – and the irrationality and absurdity of the horror only serves to make the fear universal.
Everybody in Kadare’s novel is in fear of losing their head – from the guardian of the niche, to the doctor who tends to the decaying tufts, to the courier who transports them, to the warriors who behead the ‘traitors’ in the first place. They dream about heads, fantasise about heads, imagine their own heads drifting free from their torsos, fall in love with heads, display heads, hide heads, check their own necks and throats obsessively. Who knows which mug will wind up on a dish of honey next? The Department of Psst-Psst sweep up rumours and muttered asides, the Palace of Dreams (the subject of another Kadare novel) classifies a nation’s nocturnal fantasies, and the secret police are everywhere: little wonder Kadare’s characters are always rubbing their necks, pulling down on their hats, clearing their throats. Bodies in the novel come apart as easily as the scarecrows with which the Sultan’s army march into conflict: the fear that one of these days you’re going to forget your head is here elevated to a universal principle. Failure is punished by beheading, but so is standing out: in Kadare’s annihilating vision (and here we might again think of him writing his book about Hoxha) there’s nowhere to lay your hat.
Of course the narrative could also be spun as a tale of plucky Albania threatened by an evil empire – Hoxha had, after all, fallen out with China, Yugoslavia, and Russia by now, his paranoid realm ringed by great stone bunkers, its school children taught to carry guns. The larger empire exterminates the smaller by eliminating its language, folklore, and memory; some of the most surreal passages in the book describe the nameless frontier lands where colours have been banned, words have decayed into grunts, the people reduced to cattle. The ugliness, the cold, the nothingness: Kadare’s vision is so bleak as to constantly tip over into absurdity, but the humour brings no relief: every new block of madness or horror adds to Kadare’s edifice, but there’s little sense of it crumbling: in Albania’s dead of winter, evil always wins. Hoxha, you get the impression, would have approved.