June 08, 2008

Kadare's The Siege

Ismail Kadare's novel The Siege is a fantastically observed book: it is a study of a siege of an unidentified Albanian town by the Ottomans in the fifteenth century, just before the fall of Constantinople. Kadare tells the story of the siege from both inside the fortress, with what appears as a translation of brief extracts of a chronicler's account, and through following a series of characters- the Pasha, astrologer, poet, quartermaster general, engineer- outside the fort, attempting to conquer it. Thus the book is like a series of musical movements, with each long Muslim wail of frustration being answered by a Christian interlude, just as over the walls the cross confronts the crescent and the Turk confronts the Balkan. Like a spectre haunting the field is Skanderberg, the medieval Albanian hero, who at this time formed a guerrilla resistance against the Turks and of course even farther off but no less important, the magical palace of the Porte is yet another character- whose vicious luxury dominates the thoughts of all the Turkish commanders.

The book draws further back even from this. Kadare, as the afterword informs us, meant the novel as a kind of analysis of resistance- to the pressure of foreign nations on Maoist Albania in the sixties and I detect in this, as in many of his other works about the Ottoman empire that this work is a way for Kadare to express his concerns about the totalitarian present, within a portrait of the imperial past. The atmosphere of the camp outside the town is well drawn, particularly the way that everything tends to viciousness. The Pasha's viciousness is predicated upon his own uncertain position- like a politburo minister in his uncertainty he lashes out at those below. But those below learn that viciousness is that which the system demands and brutally destroy others whose mistakes doom them to death. As the stakes are raised, so is human brutality. There is not much heroism here- what Kadare shows is that dire situations lead not so much to great deeds as to dire deeds, as human beings find that they can only be preserved, or only seek satiety in their scared condition, by brutal torture and spectacle. The best way to cure war weariness, the Pasha resignedly meditates, is to find a scapegoat and give the troops some blood.
Dire situations dominate the book- but the dread permeates inside and outside the walls. Everyone on either side plays a deadly game and knows that they probably won't survive- one thing that Kadare really captures is that in war human life is cheap. But something else he gets is that the dread is a separating device. There is no real clash of civilisations here- the crescent and the cross are irrelevant to the fears of death and pain that dominate the soldier's lives- but both sides think there is a clash of civilisations because both sides are dominated by dread. Dread of what the other side might do, dread of what might happen should they lose, dread of the future and guilt for the past. The protagonists have no idea that the fear that grips the stomach of a young Christian and Muslim are the same: perhaps this is most aptly symbolised when a rumour swells in the Turkish camp that the Christians have attacked during the night- so such thing has happened- but the Turks start attacking each other, running in chaos from a nameless darkness that consumes them. This nameless darkness is what they fight throughout the film- people who are reduced to caricatures and to generalisations- the problem of war is that the Christians and Muslims fear each other in the same ways, but it still happens.

Pessimism shrouds this book. Ultimately the task of the historian here, and we have one, is to be a panygerist. To sing of the glories of soldiers and to sing of the wonders of warfare, when he can't fight and furthermore knows that those glories are illusions, the stories fakes and the wonders tawdry. The sultan was assacinated not by a Christian agent but by his own men. Expeditions to dispoil lead to mass rapes and the life of the army is about sitting in the dry season waiting to run out of food. War is not a matter of heroism here but a matter of technique- of dry technique, waiting till the enemy runs out of water, of food or of lives to throw into the meat mixer. Waiting for autumn- waiting for God.

If so then Kadare in this novel achieves a rare thing- he writes a novel which is anti-historical. As you'll be aware, I consider history to be the discovery of distance and difference- what Kadare does is to reduce distance and difference and pay attention to the bleak reality of life as opposed to its gilded frippery. Something he gets entirely right is the distinction between what happened and what is left- between fact and fiction. But there is more here- this novel is a political act- this is an attempt to do what has largely died out in the liberal west, perhaps because it is the art of tyranny, allegory. The allegorical structure is like a never unfolding Russian doll, meaning after meaning can be tracked through its layers and you can never stop. What Kadare invites us to do here is to understand the perpetual notion of human suffering- the way it will never stop and can never be assuaged. The way that brutality of politics is that politics is the place where personalities no longer matter- where your life is a statistic and your death a passing reference. History too deals in such matters- but imparts through romance a gilding- Kadare does not want us to concentrate on the gilding but to concentrate on the way that politics munches and destroys. The way that the wave after wave of soldiers going over the top of the wall are brilliant and glorious from far off, but near to become a wave of young men pitched on pikes, rolling in the moat with arrows in their sides and blasted through with shot and shell. Their deaths create our meta realities- but those realities are still outside reality- death is death and war results in death. The personal is political because the political results in personal tragedy.

There is a sadness, a desperation to Kadare's writing- some of these scenes will stay with me for a long time- they are easy to read and difficult to forget- just like the deaths on the fortress wall were easy to discard, difficult to explain.


jams o donnell said...

Thanks for this. Kadare is one of those writers I have in mind but have never gotten around actually to reading. I must rectify this.

Gracchi said...

He is a glorious writer! All I can say is get going...

Eralda LT said...

Great review! I particularly like your take on Kadare's historical perspective, and how it is in fact, anti-historical. There is no progression in totalitarian system. The political terror is the weapon that is endlessly passed around. The Pyramid is just as good, and much more direct.

Gracchi said...

Yes there is something anti-historical about the moment of terror- history is about the unique, the moment which we can never recapture and should recover- terror in a way is never unique- in that its always similar.