Wednesday, June 19, 2013

"Then as Farce"

The Successor by Ismail Kadare

"In other words, consciousness is not, strictly speaking, in earnest with moral action: what it really holds to be most desirable, to be the Absolute, is that the highest good be accomplished, and that moral action be superfluous."

"Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

"The events of this novel draw on the infinite well of human memory, whose treasures may be brought to the surface in 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." --Kadare

Marx's memorable mot juste, made in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, referred, of course, to the contrast between uncle (Napoleon I) and nephew (Louis Napoleon), but can be applied, as Marx indicated, to Caesar and Octavian, Robespierre and Louis Blanc, and many other historical odd couples.  Take you pick: tragedy or farce, though one wonders at times at the difference between them, apart from the body count.

The wags among you might apply this Marxist witticism to the Man himself--Hegel as tragic, Marx as farcical.  But then, as Marx was inclined to do, we could turn the mot upside down; after all, nothing could be clearer nowadays than that Hegel's turgid ramblings on history presciently described the farcical times in which we live, while Marx--maligned for crimes he could never have imagined let alone condoned--clearly foresaw the tragedies of our world.  We find ourselves residents of an age of absolutes: God's Will, or Mammon's--one as farcical as the other--squalor amidst ostentation, cynical wealth mocking humane values, a global priesthood (all faiths and none at all) eager, in the style of Robespierre, to destroy those who do not share their particular Apocalypse. 

In his extensive body of work, the great Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare has explored both the tragedy and farce of history--of all history, but in particular of the mostly hidden past of Albania, a country he loves and has courageously stood by despite the risks that his novels and public statements have entailed. The Successor, a novel based on murky Balkan facts, might be read as a Hegelian satire or as a lightly fictionalized version of a tragi-farcical event of the not-too-distant past. Not comic: Kadare is very funny, but never comic. 

Mehmet Shehu, the designated successor to Supreme Power (the caps are required), henchman of the Guide of Albania--the forgettable Enver Hoxa--heir to power that was absolute in the precise sense that Stalin's power was absolute--this unknown Mehmet Shehu died mysteriously on December 17, 1981.  The official story was that Shehu committed suicide, a crime in the Socialist Peoples' Republic, so Shehu was denounced post-mortem as a traitor to the Party and his family was arrested and imprisoned.  Kadare is at his best in describing the alternating apotheosis and demonization of Party hacks--what's the Guide's mood today?  Shall the body be disinterred or allowed to remain "at peace" for a little while?  Hagiography quickly becomes scurrilous condemnation--Kadare memorably portrays the shifting currents of totalitarian mythology. Rumors surfaced that Shehu was an agent of the CIA; another view was that Hoxa had Shehu killed for his role in Albanian maneuvering between alliances with Moscow and with Beijing.  Suspects abound. In any case, Shehu was, like Hoxa, a brutal, hard-line Stalinist, responsible for making Albania the most repressive of Eastern European dictatorships, the last of the Stalinist enclaves.

[For this history in more detail, see Miranda Vickers, Albania: A Modern History (1999).]

I won't make the unavoidable comparisons to Kafka--let's face it, if you write about politics these days, who but Kafka can you invoke?  Albania, about which we know too little, strikes me as aptly comparable in the Hoxa years to North Korea--insular, xenophobic, repressive, paranoid, poor, and rotten with Communist apparatchik kleptomania--a place of tragedy and farce.  Kadare, whose books consistently uncover the mingled terror and absurdity of life in a totalitarian state, has the great gift of indirection--he places his narrative voice in the apparently neutral zone between na├»ve witness and Swiftian satirist.  He seems to be saying throughout The Successor, "Look, I know this is absurd, but what can I do? I'm as baffled by all of this as you are."  The effect is funny and sad and unsettling,  

There are many suspects--at least one man confesses to the murder out of loyalty to the Guide: "On several occasions he came close to writing a letter to the man Himself.  He was prepared to assume responsibility for all possible and imaginable crimes--murder, incitement to self-destruction, etcetera--if that could be of use to the Cause.  The first lines of his letters provided him with a sense of relief, but then he was overcome with a sense of defeat.  He realized with alarm that he had  not known how to interpret His signs. In fact, the Guide had never been very forthcoming, as, for instance, in the Kano Zhbira affair: each time the body was exhumed, the current winners were cut down, until the next unburying brought down their successors too."

What do the signs say? Who is in, and who is out (forever)? Orwellian to be sure, but worse, because all the maneuvers and betrayals and mysteries (we never learn the truth; there is no truth) are pointless--power doesn't even seem to matter as power implies the ability to make changes and Hoxa's Albania never changed, so power could only exist for its own sake, as a kind of chess game locked in endless stalemate. 

It is difficult to overemphasize the power and poetic beauty of Kadare's books, at least as we have them in English.  Unfortunately, Albanian is a language that is not generally known.  The Successor was written in Kadare's native tongue, translated into French, and then rendered into English by David Bellos. (Kadare is fluent in French and lives in Paris for part of each year; I assume he oversees the French translations).

Some years ago I had an Albanian friend, a chess player, a master tactician who would beat me in game after game, a refugee from a country he loved and of which he despaired, who told me that Albanian was the purest of languages, the proto-language of Europe.  Kadare says the same thing in a marvelous Paris Review interview.*  Once again I am defeated by Babel and must take my pleasure in Kadare at third hand. But in any language, The Successor is an engaging and provocative book.

Kadare, born in 1936, has tread a fine line throughout his literary career, cloaking his jabs at the forty-year reign of Hoxa in myth, folklore, and the Beckettian world of the absurd. Kadare is a political writer--"Dictatorship and authentic literature are incompatible... The writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship”--but one of remarkable subtlety.  When I read him I try to think of a comparable figure in our own literature, a writer of great intelligence and wit who nonetheless offers a devastating critique of our own farcical political culture.  The only writer I can think of who manages a Kadarian voice is Philip Roth, whose American Pastoral and The Plot Against America approach Kadare in their uncovering of the tragedy and farce of American history. 

Who did it?  Who murdered the Successor?  Who knows.  Send in the clowns. 

*See the excellent interview with Kadare in The Paris Review, right here:

George Ovitt (6/19/13)

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