The BS column: The writer in his labyrinth

(First published in ‘Speaking Volumes’, Business Standard, June 7, 2005)

It is a naïve confession to make, but until I was in my late teens, it didn’t occur to me that the Nobel Prize in Literature was judged by mere mortals. Most of the relatives and friends whose homes I visited had libraries that shared a strange eclectism.

Amitav Ghosh, examining his uncle’s “odd assortment of books”, defined this: “The principles that guided my uncle’s taste would have been much clearer to me had I ever had an interest in trivia. To the quiz-show adept the link between Grazia Deledda, Gorky, Hamsun, Sholokov, Sienkiewicz and Andric will be clear at once: it is the Nobel Prize for Literature.”

Most of the readers I knew had a Nobel shelf, if not a Nobel bookcase. And most accepted without question the impression that the Nobel Prize carried an authority that went beyond human writ. The idea that the Academy in Stockholm might choose the right author for the wrong reasons or vice versa, smacked of the heretical, even when it was finally admitted into my adolescent mind.

The Nobel Prize for Literature still draws the mantle, however tattered, of secrecy around it, and still functions in the manner of the highest court of the land, its opinion final and beyond appeal. The Man Booker International Prize, in contrast, has been set up in an age that demands at least the appearance of transparency, for an audience of readers who believe that no judgement is so final that it cannot be questioned.

Unlike the Nobel, where a few names leak from the shortlist every year without the actual list ever being announced, the shortlist of 15 authors is up on the Man Booker website. We know the names of this year’s judges-Professor John Carey, Alberto Manguel and Azar Nafisi. Unlike the confusing terms of Alfred Noble’s will, with its controversial directive that the Nobel Prize be awarded to “ideal” literature, the Man Booker is clear: “Worth £60,000 to the winner, the Man Booker International prize will be awarded once every two years to a living author who has published fiction either originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language.”

We know the judges’ struggles, too, the absurd impossibility of picking just 15 writers from a shortlist of 200, and then just one to be declared first among equals. Carey likened the process of judging to Plato’s noble and necessary lie, Manguel drew parallels with the absurd prizegiving in Alice in Wonderland, and Nafisi was keenly aware of the absentees, from Achebe to Ishiguro to Rushdie. She writes: “We had to be thankful that, unlike some political leaders, we as literary judges were neither God, nor even his representatives, but fallible mortals, ready to question and be questioned…”

Unencumbered by the magisterial seal of authority, it’s easier to get past the petty questions: instead of asking why the judges didn’t award Garcia Marquez, or Kenzabura Oe or Muriel Spark, we’re free to look at this year’s winner, Ismail Kadare, and his place in the pantheon.

Kadare grew up during the Second World War in Albania, and saw his country survive several invasions, make a break with Soviet Russia and come under Hoxha’s repressive regime. Kadare discovered an anchor in literature; one of the anecdotes most often told about him is how he was so taken by Macbeth at the age of 11 that he copied the whole play out by hand. In the Greek dramatists, he found a theme that he would explore on and off in his work, the tribulations of “a dissident writer facing a totalitarian state”.

He made his compromises; in an interview with The Paris Review, he recalled: “From 1967 to 1970 I was under the direct surveillance of the dictator himself. Remember that, to the great misfortune of the intellectuals, Hoxha regarded himself as an author and a poet, and therefore a “friend” of writers. ..In such a situation I had three choices: to conform to my own beliefs, which meant death; complete silence, which meant another kind of death; to pay a tribute, a bribe. I chose the third solution by writing The Long Winter….” Hoxha never persecuted Kadare directly, but four of his books were banned by decree; other books were “half-banned”, meaning that they could not be discussed in newspapers or magazines. “It was as though they had never been written,” Kadare says.

When Hoxha’s regime fell, Kadare and his family emigrated to Paris, where he now lives. His books have often been hard to find, and readers in English see his works through the lens of a “double translation”: the English is translated from the French translation of his works, a process that has sometimes muffled his voice. The General of the Dead Army, a first novel written after he had already earned a formidable reputation as a poet, was a dark, moving tale of a general sent to Albania to discover and repatriate the remains of soldiers who died in WWII: “I have an entire army of dead men under my command.” I read the novel years ago, but its protagonist stayed with me, his futile quest a metaphor for those who seek to dig up the bones of history when their own history has been ripped from them.

The Palace of Dreams, a slightly later work, offered one of the most powerful visions of how far tyranny might go: it’s an allegory of a world where dreams are collected from the furthest corners of Empire, as though the true tyrant has a need to own even our most unconscious thoughts.

Kadare has suffered a fate common to many writers in translation, the fate of being simultaneously known and unknown; his name has travelled much further than his books. He is often referred to as Albania’s best-known writer, but the Man Booker International might make us see him as a writer for the world.

It’s like the journey he makes in one of his poems, Longing for Albania, which begins with a description of a very specific homesickness and ends with these lines, applicable to exiles everywhere:

“How far and how beloved you are, my country .
The airport will tremble with the droning,
The mists will hang in suspense over the chasms.
Surely those who invented the jet engine
Must have been far from their country once.”

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