Ismail Kadare is a kind of lapidary artist who carves meaning and pattern into the rocky mysteries of his native Albania. Born, like his frenemy the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, amid the blank-faced mansions and feuding clans of the ‘stone city’ of Gjirokaster, the novelist has always framed the terror, secrecy and confusion of the regime as a family affair. The usual comparisons with Kafka and Orwell underplay the sheer, gut-twisting intimacy of politics and power in his work. It baffles outsiders who want to label Kadare either a brave dissident or a complicit stooge. Ideology be damned: this is, and always was, strictly personal. The Doll even wonders whether ‘tyranny is a real thing or something one projects oneself. The same goes for enslavement.’
Having so often portrayed Albania’s body politic as a dysfunctional household, Kadare (now 83) reverses the flow of the metaphor. The Doll is an autobiographical story, with his beloved, fragile and inscrutable mother at its heart. Sensitive and elegant under her kabuki-like panstick mask, she brings some wealth but little prestige from her own Dobi clan when, in 1933, she marries into the grand but down-at-heel Kadares. Centuries of pride and grudge have seeped into the ancient stones of their Gjirokaster mansion, with its hidden chambers and ‘famous dungeon’. Just as, with Kadare, a nation becomes a (damaged) family, so a secret-ridden dynasty may become a country: ‘The state had laws, and so did the house. In short, each took care of its own.’
Laconic, sinister and drily funny, Kadare imagines the ‘covert diplomacy’ between the two households. He dramatises the isolation of the ‘Doll’ as she enters the rival castle, and the bizarre ‘trials’ (his father, a court official, came from a legalistic tribe) that set wife against mother-in-law. When little ‘Smajl’ begins to cultivate his literary talents, the family that strikes the deepest chord with him is the Macbeths (a long-standing Kadare touchstone). Hamlet’s and Oedipus’s folks come not far behind. Gjirokaster itself haunts him ‘like the ghost of a murdered king’. The family moves to Tirana and his mother — a pale, papery presence, but uncrushable — enjoys ‘the appeal of the chic’ in the capital. But the forsaken mansion still obsesses them. They even mourn the loss (into a ravine) of their ‘big baklava tray’, its disappearance mentioned ‘softly and gently, as if it were an old lady who had died in not-very-clear circumstances’.
Miss this fatalistic, deadpan wit, well served in John Hodgson’s nicely crafted translation, and you miss something essential in Kadare. It shades his experiences as a writing student in Moscow (before Hoxha broke with the Soviet Union). Party hacks denounce the ‘Joyce-Kafka-Proust trio’ while the Albanian prodigy feels like ‘a soldier of a death squad’, recruited to slaughter literature. Back in Tirana, he reflects on ‘the grotesque mock-epic of my adolescence’. Somehow his mother’s apparent weakness has enabled his strength: ‘Everything that had harmed the Doll in life became useful to me in my art.’ The dependence of his tough, sly and resilient voice on her lifelong loneliness and vulnerability lays a clinching, and moving, capstone on this book. At the end, on a return visit to the renovated mansion, he and his wife Helena discover a ‘secret entrance’ to the house. Slim but not slight, The Doll opens some long-concealed doorways of its own. Not all, however: ‘The perplexity of long ago’ remains.