Thursday, April 05, 2007

The army of the dead

Ready to go home in just over an hour (3 am), could not get to sleep, what better time to review Ismail Kadare's book 'General of the Dead Army'? The title in English may be a literal translation from Albanian, but to most Brits it reminds of 'Dad's Army' and it rather lacks rhythm. The German title 'Der General der toten Armee' has more pace to it.

At least one of my readers remembers my review of Kadare's other book, 'Broken April', which I had headed 'barbaric!' referring to the system of blood vengeance in Albania, rather than the book as such. She was rather fussed, to put it mildly. So she read it again and reviewed it on her blog.

In the meantime I thought I'd better read another book by the same author, and this is the one I picked up passing through Vienna one day, in German, naturally. It's about a general and a priest, probably Italian, who are sent to Albania 20 years after WW2 (the book was first published in 1970) to collect the remains of their army who had fought there. They engage a specialist in identifying bodies, some gravediggers and trundle round Albania with a car and a lorry, digging holes and collecting bones. Prior to his departure the general finds his house besieged by people looking for the bodies of their sons; a rather more well-to-do family socialises with him on his holiday to impress on him the urgency of their need to find their colonel son/husband. The search takes 2 years; much of the digging seems to be taking place in the rain, or the cold, with the general and his priest staying in a variety of accommodation. Do they find the colonel? Hmmm....

It's a fascinating book. Kadare writes very simply and briefly (the words are well spread across the pages...); the story of the general and the priest is interspersed with excerpts from a soldier's diary, the thoughts of an understandably vengeful old woman, a little fairy tale. I don't know whether it is Albania, Kadare's writing, or the topics he chooses, but however great the book is, I always feel a greyness of depression creeping over me when I read them; here it's the rain, the mud, the tragedies, the killings (not of the army but again the killing that seems to be in the Albanian soul; where for example at the first sign of the invasion people walk with their guns for days from remote villages to the coast, only to be shot by the invaders. The priest says that even infants have a gun placed beside them in the cradle and it becomes part of their lives. When the topic comes up again, they define war as similar to early morning sport for the Albanians. Remember that this book is written by an Albanian though first published in exile in France....)

Despite that it's a great read; it describes an extremely unusual situation and the reader emphasizes with the general and his sidekick rushing around all over the place collecting those bones. Not that the general should be proud of everything that he does! And what of those whose bones are not found?


varske said...

When I heard Kadare talking about his books in Oxford, he said that people complain that his books were full of rain and mud, and why couldn't he write about something cheerful. he said that at writers' school in Moscow they had tried to train him to write about good socialist achievements and happy people. His response was to reject that and write about what he saw, which was rain and mud. And the books still sold, so he couldn't be doing everything wrong.