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.