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‘Agamemnon’s Daughter’ January 2, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Books Life.

‘Agamemnon’s Daughter’ by Ismail Kadare > Winner of the 2005 Man Booker international prize

Ismail Kadare is customarily hailed as Albania’s greatest writer. This is probably true, but since few other writers from that isolated nation are even known to the rest of the world, it’s not all that much of a compliment.

Perhaps it would be more apt to point out that Kadare won the 2005 Man Booker International Prize and that he is one of Europe’s most consistently interesting and powerful contemporary novelists, a writer whose stark, memorable prose imprints itself on the reader’s consciousness.

But whose prose is it that we are reading? Since few readers and even fewer critics know Albanian, we know Kadare through his translators. And the word indeed has to be doubly plural here since David Bellos has translated into English the novella and two stories that make up “Agamemnon’s Daughter” not from the original Albanian but from translations into French by two different hands. Translation is always a vexed topic, how literal should it be? Is fidelity to the original phraseology more important than belletristic style?, but double the translations, and the problems become redoubled. As the first translator alters the text from which he is working, so will the next. So, all you followers of the auteur theory, who gets the credit line here?

Certainly the English-language prose on these pages flows easily and thoughts, images and perceptions are acutely rendered, and in the end it is to them that the reader will gravitate, grateful in this case that he has been enabled to glimpse into a closed society and beyond that into some eternal human verities. Much of Kadare’s earlier work focused upon the clash in his native land between ancient feudal customs and the harsh modernizing scrubbing brush of Communist ideology and practice. It was sometimes hard to tell where his sympathies lay. Indeed, how do you choose between a ruthless totalitarian autocracy on the one hand and a system based on endlessly simmering tribal feuds and endless cycles of vengeance and revenge? A good artist goes where his heart and mind take him and in all three parts of “Agamemnon’s Daughter,” you see a writer who consistently affirms the humane and humanistic and champions the individual over a system that is inimical to his core values and desires, whatever that system may be.

Albania may be a tiny nation that was cut off from much of the outside world during the Cold War and more isolated than most of Europe throughout its history, but it sits at the crossroads of many great civilizations. The three works that make up this book each reflect one of these. The title story takes place in a gray, faceless, totalitarian society dominated by a Leader, but it is imbued throughout its pages with the ancient Greek myths of the huge empire that once dominated it. “Half dreaming, I took out a book I had just read, and flicked through the pages again,” the narrator says as he muses on the topic of sacrifice. “It was ‘The Greek Myths’ by Robert Graves…. Why had the parallel occurred to me? Because Suzana had used the same word? Because her father, like Iphigenia’s, was a high dignitary of the state? Or simply because Graves’s book had kept me buried in the world of myth for several days?”

An Albanian writer evokes an English one to raise their shared heritage of Greek myth: a truly European moment, a cross-cultural exercise of significant fecundity.

The second piece in the book, “The Blinding Order,” looks at the Ottoman Empire, which, long after the Greek, held sway in this corner of the world. The sophistication and the elegant cruelty that were hallmarks of that particular civilization are chillingly evoked by Kadare in a 19th century conversation between a man, Gjon, and his wife, about using sunlight to blind as a means of torture.

” ‘Neat work, you can’t deny it,’ Gjon said. ‘No blood, no branding iron, none of those barbaric devices … ‘

” ‘Well, I think it’s the cruelest way of doing it,’ Gjon’s wife said. ‘To be basking in the light of the sky and the sea, and then to be suddenly deprived of both!’

” ‘Would you prefer the opposite means, being blindfolded and locked in a cell for three months?’ Gjon asked.

” ‘I think it might be less painful overall,’ she replied. ‘It would give you time to get used to darkness.’ ”

This is life in such a society then and, in some places, now: Which form of torture is the more palatable?

Kadare’s final story, “The Great Wall,” deals with yet another clash of civilizations that took place when Tamerlane, the Central Asian conqueror of the 14th century who famously rode in triumph through Persepolis and went on toward China, burst upon the world. In this tale Kadare gives everything he’s got in his arsenal, which in his case is a lot. Life, death, the afterlife, heaven, hell, the shade world, even Jesus Christ. Conquerors come and go, people live and die, the Great Wall stonily endures.

The magnificent achievement of all three parts of “Agamemnon’s Daughter” is to evoke so much in the way of myth and historical inevitability and still leave the reader more than ever convinced of the unquenchable resilience of the human spirit.



1. Ismail Kadare « Albanian News - January 7, 2007

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