Book review: Ismail Kadare’s dark but comic ode to exiled Albanian women

How do you bring someone back from the dead, asks Ismail Kadare. His latest novel is a story of state repression as dark as the Greek underworld which inspires it.

To save his beloved from death, Orpheus must enter the Greek underworld and lead Eurydice away without a backwards glance. During their long walk, Orpheus is filled with anxiety. When his love calls out to him, the great musician cannot help but turn back. At that moment, his beloved “girl in exile” vanishes.

Ismail Kadare's A Girl in Exile, translated by John Hodgson, is concerned with bringing all our lost Eurydices back into the light. Like much of the novelist's world-renowned oeuvre, this book is set among the bureaucratic machinery of Albania's 1945-1991 dictatorship. As such, it's a story about state repression. But it's also about art, doubt, and how to reanimate the voices of the dead.

Kadare’s protagonist, the playwright Rudian Stefa, aims to create challenging art in 1980s Albania. Stefa knows he’s not the first in such a tricky situation: After all, Zeus was a dictator-god, and he allowed Orpheus to cross into the underworld. But once Orpheus/Stefa is there, how can he bring back his love? How can either move from an uncanny artist’s knowledge to something that exists for “real”?

In the opening pages of A Girl in Exile, originally published in 2009, Stefa waits to hear whether his newest play will be approved for production. Yet censorship is not Stefa's only anxiety. When he's called in by the Party Committee, Stefa is not sure if he'll be interrogated about his play or about his relationship with a young woman, Megina.

In both cases, Stefa must bring someone back from the dead. In his play, he attempts to channel the voice of a Second World War partisan who was shot in the back by his comrades. Stefa is sure that this section of his play will be censored, mostly because “socialist realism didn’t allow ghosts”. But the ghost must be there, as he carries the weight of Stefa’s art, mediating between worlds, allowing the dead of Albanian history to speak.

In Stefa’s romantic life, it is Linda B whom he must rescue from death. In the beginning, it seems Stefa has fallen in love with young Megina. But, as we pull back layers, we find that his true love is a dead woman he’s never met. He grows to love Linda B, through Megina, as he tries to understand why she killed herself.

Linda B did not lack reasons to be depressed. From birth, she was interned in the provinces along with her family. The family’s sentence, handed down because of their royalist ties, is renewed every five years. This means Linda B has seen the Albanian capital only through TV and books. Through this media, Linda B falls in love with Stefa. And through a sort of literary alchemy, her love infects her friend Megina, who can travel to the capital.

Once he learns of Linda B’s death, the playwright must unravel why. He interrogates both Megina and the Party Committee investigator. Slowly, indirectly, he learns details of Linda B’s life.

But these revelations are never easily won. Throughout A Girl in Exile, the artist's truth resists a direct gaze. When Stefa has a fleeting idea for a new play, he looks too hard at the idea, and it crumbles.

Near the end of the novel, the point of view shifts, and Albania’s “Leader” appears as an element of comic relief, reviewing all we’ve heard so far with his staff. The Leader is told that Stefa had asked “whether any country permitted engagement … with a dead person.” The Leader’s secretary suggests Stefa’s compulsion was not necrophilia, but something else. The buffoonish Leader tells him: “Go on, but skip those Latin medical terms.”

Kadare is frequently mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel, and A Girl in Exile is of that calibre. The book, dedicated to Albanian women who grew up in exile, is deeply comic and deeply serious, and translated into a lovely clear English. Megina never grows into a real character, so at first the book seems to lack human warmth. But by the end we feel a deep, fragile love for the lost Linda B – though we're never sure if we can look too closely, or if looking might make her vanish.

M Lynx Qualey is a freelance writer based in Cairo who blogs at arablit.wordpress.com.

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