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The Siege by Ismail Kadare
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's review
Jun 16, 2011

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Not a Historical Novel, Not Quite as Great as Some Reviewers Say...

On the surface this appears to be the story of the siege of a medieval Albanian fortress by the Ottoman Turks. In fact it is firmly about the contemporary concerns of the author.

As others have said, Kadare uses the fifteenth century siege as a way of exploring issues occupying the Albanian of the 1970s. Although parts of the story do effectively capture something of the lost world of the Albanian resistance leader Skanderbeg and his Ottoman opponents (the mixture of Christianity and older beliefs of the Albanians is nicely portrayed), one is struck by anachronisms in the attitudes of the characters. Even more tellingly, however, the battle scenes, of which there are several, are told at a distance or reported by observers. We are never - even when the Turkish commander joins his troops in a final push - put into the heart of the action - the troops storming a breach, those scrambling over the parapets - as it happens. Kadare simply isn't interested.

The mechanics of the siege are only touched on. Damage inflicted by cannon fire on the castle walls is mentioned, but the breaches caused are not ever discussed by the besieging war council, which seems a trifle odd, given their importance to getting in. Nor do we hear of the defenders trying to patch them up. A mine dug by the Ottomans manages to get under the castle walls yet, rather than try and bring the walls down with it, they dig on to get inside the castle - an odd and unexplained decision. The castle, and therefore the siege, exists in the story only as an implacable obstacle: a literal symbol that the lives of the Turkish soldiers and their commanders' ambitions can be dashed against, in a confused maelstrom, belying the Ottomans apparent meticulous planning.

So what we have instead of a historical novel is a way that Kadare can discuss things that, presumably, communist Albania would not have let him talk about openly. The Turkish army, with its internal divisions, its secret intelligence on its own attitudes, its paranoid tendency to turn on its own, creating its own enemies, worse than those it really faces, its lightless labour camp and its strongman leader, whose main aim is to preserve his own position, is a pretty clear portrait of communist Albania. There are digressions about the nature of national identity, the progress of science and the durability of culture and language. For a short book there is a lot of intellectual ballast. Ideas are packed in.

The problem - for me, at least - is that this is too much a novel of ideas. As well as the lack of interest in the surface story of the battle, there is a lack of interest in the characters that people it. The kind reviewer might call them archetypes, but more accurately, they are ciphers, whose characters often develop little beyond their job descriptions.

Overall, good, but not great.

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