Stephen Hayes's Reviews > The Concert

The Concert by Ismail Kadare
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really liked it
bookshelves: fiction-general, history, politics, tshwane-library

I've read a couple of Ismail Kadare's books before -- see Chronicle in stone — book review | Khanya -- but the others were set in the time before Albania was ruled by Enver Hoxha, who famously made it, for 27 years, the world's only truly atheist county.

Albania was almost unique among communist countries in becoming increasingly isolated from the world, including other communist countries. It broke first from the USSR, but for a while maintained friendship with China, but eventually even that friendship dissolved, and during the 1970s Albania's ties with China loosened and Hoxha came to regard the Chinese, like the Soviets, as "revisionists".

This novel is set in that period, and shows the effects of the changing relationship with China on families that were mostly fairly close to the centres of power in Albania. Relations between the two countries cooled when Albania crtiticised the Chinese decision to invite US President Nixon to visit China in 1972, and by the time of Chairman Mao's death in 1976 the break was almost complete. And now, 40 years later, we see China treating African countries in the same way as it treated Albania in the 1970s.
... everyone talked of how work had slowed down on many big construction sites, especially those building hydro-electric plants in the north. This was because of hold-ups in supplies of equipment from China. Freighters now took and unconscionably long time to reach their destination, and when they did arrive they might be carrying the wrong cargo. On two occasions ships had turned back without even entering Durres harbour. All this was said to be part of China's famous "turn of the screw". Cafes in Tirana were full of stories about this tactic: no one realized that one day the whole country would be its victim.

The "concert" of the title took place towards the end of this period, where the audience was far more important than the performers, and Albania, like the rest of the world, was watching to see who was invited and who was not, who turned up and who did not.

At the centre of the story is Silva Dibra, a civil servant like her husband Gjergj (whose job takes him on visits to China), their schoolgirl daughter Brikena, Silva's brother Arian, an officer in a tank regiment who was expelled from the Party for disobeying an order, and her dead sister Ana. It also features several of her work colleagues and friends and associates of Ana. One of her sister's associates was a writer, who also visited China, The life and work of Albanian writers and artists was restricted. As Kadare puts it:

...people reconciled themselves to the idea that it was going to be a dry autumn. Meanwhile all the other seasonal changes took place as usual: the leaves turned colour, the temperature dropped, the birds migrated. As usual too, painters flocked to headquarters of the Writers' and Artists' Union to get their annual permits to concentrate on autumnal themes.

In China, however, the Writers and Artist's Union had been abolished altogether in the Great Cultural Revolutuon of 1966/67. According to the thought of Chairman Mao, the "new man" did not need art and literature, which were bourgeois by their very nature. Rather than painting autumnal themes, they should be planting and harvesting rice.

Nevertheless I'm in two minds about the book. Kadare's descriptions of the Albanian characters grabs me, perhaps because, having lived there for a month, I can picture the streets of Tirana, the beaches of Durres, and the steel factory at Elbasan, which he mentions. But I'm put off by the bits where he tries to describe the thoughts of Chairman Mao. They are racist thoughts, and I wonder if they are the thoughts of a white racist imagining the thoughts of a Chinese racist, or whether Chairman Mao ever did have any thoughts like that. But there is too much that suggests that they are what a white racist imagines a Chinese racist might think.

And in the book the Albanian characters express racist thoughts about the Chinese, as the Chinese do about the Albanians. Of course an author does not necessarily share the sentiments expressed by his characters. But when Kadare is describing the thoughts of Mao while alone in a cave, these are not mediated through a character in the story, but are descibed directly.
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Reading Progress

November 12, 2019 – Started Reading
November 12, 2019 – Shelved
November 12, 2019 –
page 140
November 13, 2019 –
page 165
November 15, 2019 –
page 165
November 15, 2019 –
page 220
November 20, 2019 –
page 420
November 20, 2019 – Finished Reading
November 22, 2019 – Shelved as: fiction-general
November 22, 2019 – Shelved as: history
November 22, 2019 – Shelved as: politics
November 22, 2019 – Shelved as: tshwane-library

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