Giving up the ghost.
Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/Gulf News Reviewed by Cynthia Haven
A Girl in Exile: Requiem for Linda B
By Ismail Kadare, Counterpoint, 185 pages, $25
Ismail Kadare's readers are astonished every year when the Nobel committee overlooks him. Albania's first major author is already winner of the inaugural Man Booker International Prize, the Jerusalem Prize and other honours -- the Swedish prize seems long overdue for the 82-year-old maestro. A Girl in Exile, published in Albanian in 2009, may rekindle the worldwide hopes.
Kadare's lifelong theme and the context for much of his work is the four-decade dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, whose grotesque, paranoid, Stalinist regime slaughtered thousands. However, A Girl in Exile -- set in the 1980s against a backdrop of interrogation, exile and thwarted lives -- also offers a more incandescent tale.
The story begins simply: An art student asks a well-known playwright to sign a book for her faraway friend. But his bland inscription opens a door that will lead him to the borderland of love, death, time and a devastating kind of transcendence, leaving Kadare's unlikable hero, Rudian Stefa, half-mad, mumbling broken phrases of Latin and archaic Albanian.
Rudian, who becomes an object of desire for the two young women, is selfish, bad-tempered, occasionally violent, but gifted. The authorities have held up his new play because it includes the ghost of a Second World War partisan who questions his murderers. The diktats of social realism do not allow for the supernatural on stage.
Sure enough, Rudian is called in for questioning, in a country where interrogations leave "blood on the floor."
But the officials target neither his play nor his burgeoning affair with the art student -- but rather her enigmatic friend, "Linda B.," who committed suicide with his signed book in her possession.
Linda's passion for the man she has never met will literally defy death.
In the meantime, her obsession pulls the plot together, along with her ecstatic, idealized longing for the Albanian capital Tirana, far from the provincial backwater where she and her bourgeois family are sentenced to internal exile for their ties to the banished monarchy.
Kadare is still mapping out the boundaries of Albanian, a relatively recent literary language, where everything is new and newly sayable. He is the first of its writers to achieve an international standing. But how to describe something beyond words? "Better if you don't know" is a repeated phrase in the book, along with variations of "it's complicated."
The two girls, "daughters of socialism, as the phrase went," resolve their eternal love triangle with a stunning metaphysical selflessness. And they reply to injustice and repression not by resistance or retaliation, but with an utterly new, unconditioned response that leaves the reader lightheaded, transcending even that which we value as "freedom." In Kadare's words, they move "beyond the laws of this world."
Kadare has commented on his native tongue's unique affinities with classical Greek, and in the past he used allegory and myth to veil meaning and evade censorship. Western readers may find the allusions frustratingly indirect, but Kadare has accustomed himself to telling his tales slantwise, even in a post-totalitarian era where anything goes.
He returns again and again to the legends around Orpheus, for example, his addition of two strings to the traditional lyre -- in Kadare's telling, a radical breakthrough that causes a bureaucratic hubbub in Olympus. The author doesn't tether his own story to the classical one too tightly, but the parallels are obvious -- for Rudian with his forbidden ghost; and for Kadare, who once spirited his messages past Communist censors.
The two extra strings may signify more than the headaches of writers, however. Perhaps they create an altogether new sound, beyond the range of human hearing. It is, after all, the vibration that lulled Cerberus, the hound of Hades, and rescued Orpheus' beloved Eurydice from the underworld.
By the end of this story Kadare allows his characters to violate nature and death, echoing the footsteps of Orpheus.
Rudian's Eurydice tells him of her otherworldly journey to come to him -- the cold, the dogs and the barbed wire that stretches everywhere. It is a denouement that illuminates the final pages like a flame glowing through alabaster.
--New York Times News Service
Cynthia Haven's latest book, Evolution of Desire: A Life of RenE Girard, will be published this spring.
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