Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 31 March 2020

Ismail Kadare's 'The Doll' is an openly tender and elegant reflection of his upbringing

Kadare’s most recent novel is the most directly autobiographical work of fiction he has produced

Ismail Kadare’s novel was first published in Albanian in 2015 Getty
Ismail Kadare’s novel was first published in Albanian in 2015 Getty

Ismail Kadare’s latest novel is the most autobiographical work of fiction the noted Albanian author has ever produced. It is also among his most openly tender, conspicuously moving and – on the whole – straightforwardly composed pieces of writing.

The Doll, which was first published in Albanian in 2015 and has now been translated into English by John Hodgson, opens with an account of a message that Kadare (or, as he is rendered in the novel, a figure more or less indistinguishable from Kadare) received from his brother in 1994, informing him that their mother did not have much longer to live.

Rushing from Paris to be by her side during her final days, Kadare finds that his mother is “unable to understand anything”, comatose in his aunt’s apartment in Tirana, Albania – Kadare’s country of birth, the nation in which he was raised and the environment in which he took the first steps to becoming the internationally acclaimed writer he is today.

From this point, Kadare’s narrative modulates into an elegant reflection on the nature of his upbringing, his efforts to become a novelist, the lineaments of political and domestic life in 20th-­century Albania, and, perhaps most affectingly, on the life of his mother and the complicated but loving relationship the two of them shared.

Kadare’s overwhelming and most enduring sense of his mother is one of elusiveness, naivety and fragility. Early in the book he recalls “the wooden stairs of the house” in which she lived “never creaked under her feet. Like her steps, everything about her was light – her clothes, her speech, her sighs”. He comes to think of her as resembling a paper doll (and here we find the significance of the title of the novel), possessed of a frail delicacy in which Kadare finds the source of the difficulties that marked his relationship with his mother. Those difficulties took the form not of coldness or a lack of care, but arose from an absence of the “maternal things” that were mentioned all around him in the songs, poems and social milieu of his Albanian childhood.

Most of that was spent in the city of Gjirokastra in the huge and imposing house of Kadare’s parental ancestors – an edifice that contained its own prison, but that also functioned as a prison in its own right. This sense of incarceration is most acutely registered by Kadare’s grandmother, the original mistress of the building. She refuses to step outside and it seems she is being consumed by the walls of the house and by Kadare’s mother who, in common with contemporaneous custom, takes up residence in the house as an unworldly young bride. Diminished, daunted and quashed by the tyrannical presence of her mother-in-law, she comes to feel that the structure in which she must forge a life is one that is threatening to “eat” her.

In this environment of barely suppressed animosity, we witness the young Kadare’s early efforts to become a writer (efforts that consist mainly of composing short advertisements for half-written or unwritten novels, proclaiming his own genius) and we join him in witnessing a bewildering series of trials (the nature of which never really becomes clear) that take place within the family home, presided over by his father.

In this environment of barely suppressed animosity, we witness the young Kadare’s early efforts to become a writer.

Lending additional social and political texture to all of this are Kadare’s reflections on the character of life in Albania as its people adjust to Communist rule. Some of these details are bleakly comical, others are harrowing, as when Kadare realises the deprivations to which his mother was subjected (and to which she subjected herself) might have made possible the freedom he found by being afforded the ability to pursue a life in art. It was a pursuit his mother always feared would cause him to abandon or renounce her as unworthy and uncultivated, and it is this sacrifice that provides the most resonant elements of Kadare’s unflinching portrait of filial and maternal love.

Occasionally, this resonance is dispelled by Kadare’s prose, marred as it is by inert and inattentive phrases such as “stabbed me like a knife”, “followed her every movement”, “racked my brains” and “roaring with laughter”. But these minor criticisms do little to dispel the impression that The Doll might be one of the most arresting, subtle and heartfelt works yet composed about the enduring trials of ambition, fame and love, and the plangent dialectic that exists between generosity and sacrifice, liberty and freedom, mothers and sons.

Updated: January 16, 2020 05:03 PM

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