My last review for The Spectator was of Julian Barnes’s biographical novel about Shostakovitch. A Girl in Exile also depicts the life of an artist favoured by a brutally oppressive regime, this time written by one who was there. Ismail Kadare survived the rule of that isolationist tyrant Enver Hoxha.
In some quarters, Kadare has been criticised for surviving. Like Shostokovitch, indeed, he has been accused of collaborating with the regime within which he worked, joining the party and accepting public appointments. It is not the business of a book review to enter into such arguments; but some of the criticisms, made by armchair freedom fighters insisting that others should stand up for uncompromising heroism, are obviously, cruelly and merely naive.
Kadare’s fiction evades ideologies, escaping into richer realms of the past, of myth, folklore and dystopian fantasy. At their best, his works are certainly subversive; but they cannot be pigeonholed, even into that worthy category.
I have raised the shabby spectre of complicity only because it is relevant to this book, which is haunted by absences and sins of omission. A Girl in Exile is not set in some remote, imagined time or place, but in the recent past, in the last years of Hoxha’s regime; for some readers the deliberate narrowing of imaginative scope will be disappointing.
The protagonist, Rudian Stefa, is a successful Albanian playwright, protected to some extent by his fame — though of course he is never sure how far. He is not a sympathetic character; nor is he intended to be. When the novel opens, he has been summoned ‘without explanation’ to the party committee building: he does not know whether he has been called in for violating the rules of social realism in his latest play, which features a ghost in Act II, or because he has been denounced by his mistress, whom he recently assaulted, slamming her head against a bookcase.
This is a long way from the Hollywood ideas of ‘love under surveillance’ suggested by the blurb, especially as it rapidly becomes clear that he barely knows this girl, Migena, who has now disappeared. She is a literary groupie, exploited as the enviable perquisite of fame; he can barely remember her ‘palpable form’. She is a dim blur of breasts, hair and constant apologetic tears. He has, in fact, another long-term girlfriend, whom he ‘would have married that summer if she had not gone to Austria on a four-month internship’.
As it turns out, he has not been summoned to discuss Migena but another, even more shadowy girl, whom he has never met at all: Linda B, a friend of Migena’s for whom he once signed a copy of a book, who has now been found dead.
Someone, somewhere, will doubtless be writing a review accusing Kadare of misogyny. (It is a grim irony that Hoxha is praised by apologists for championing the rights of women.) It is true that abused girls abound in Kadare’s fiction; but he is certainly not condoning Rudian’s behaviour. His short-comings — to use no stronger term — are made explicit as his artistic muse fails him:
So there it is, he thought, finding himself back at his desk and staring at the blank pages in panic. You are a bit of a bully. It was Migena who had first said this to him, immediately after making love, qualifying what she said with a thousand apologies: excuse me, let me tell you something, don’t take it the wrong way, but on the contrary, in all kindness, etc.
Migena of course could be accused of being ‘complicit’; but then of course complicity is at the core of an abusive relationship.
There are, indeed, disturbing resemblances between the playwright and the Leader. Towards the end of the novel, they disintegrate in parallel. Rudian faces creative sterility and madness; the Leader is shown with the first signs of cerebral ischemia. He ‘eyes’ the young bride of a newly appointed chief of staff ‘with great curiosity’; but even as he defends ‘crazy’ writers, this gaze of libidinous entitlement becomes odder. ‘The Leader’s right eye…seemed larger, velvety, with the glint of a tear.’
‘Five years later’ (surely it should be six?), when the statue of the Leader in Skanderberg Square is pulled down, ‘the right eye of the bronze figure — huge, black and unnatural — seemed to be weeping.’ The empty madness of a dilated pupil lives on; the legacy of Hoxha does not end with his death.
This is a brilliantly disturbing image. Kadare’s themes are often explored through images and myths. In this novel, however, these are not always embodied in the narrative, and feel somewhat extraneous: Rudian merely muses on the underworld myths of Orpheus, and on the copper mines of Albania, where he is attempting, and failing, to set a new play. This lessens their impact: the richly fluid and inclusive realms of image and myth thin and curdle into metaphor and allegory. The trucks trundling up from the depths of the mine, laden with black ore but containing an occasional spark of gold, become a rather obvious simile for creativity.
Even so, these subterranean metaphors are intriguingly ambiguous. Orpheus is a profoundly disturbing myth about art and memory: if he had not looked back, and never again looked directly at Eurydice, in what way would he have recovered her?
Paradoxically, one loss that Kadare is struggling with may be the loss of his greatest enemy. Under Hoxha’s regime, Kadare’s fiction was forced to glance only indirectly at the truth. Suggestions lurking in the penumbra of the imagination, things glimpsed out of the corner of one’s eye, can be powerfully evocative. Now Hoxha is himself history, and there is nothing to prevent a direct, backward glance.
Except, of course, that the clarity of hindsight is always a falsification, untrue to the murky subterranean complications of human life, where ‘guilt and innocence’, even ‘kindness and cruelty are still undifferentiated’. A Girl in Exile is partly about those things that can never be recovered —the girl that was never met, the book that was never written, the love never found.
I suspect that a great many readers will be frustrated by this book, since it revolves around a relationship that barely exists, a mystery that is not a murder, and a description of a repressive regime that barely glances at the depth of its horrors. But even if it does not satisfy our expectations, it is profoundly intriguing — not least in the suggestion of the deep imaginative complicity with one’s subject matter that is needed by every true writer.