Book review: Ismail Kadare’s The Traitor’s Niche – a Balkan master at work

The Traitor's Niche is an allegory of power and old Albania but also a humorous fantasy romp, with three severed heads at its heart.

The Traitor's Niche by Ismail Kadare is published by Harvill Secker.
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In the 1970s, the great Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare wrote three ambitious, interlinked novels. The first two, The Three-Arched Bridge and The Traitor's Niche, were published in 1978, while The Palace of Dreams didn't appear until 1981. The third novel was banned in Albania shortly after its appearance, underlining Kadare's delicate place in the repressive state. But also his popularity: by the time it was pulled, all copies had sold out.

The Traitor's Niche is the last of the three to make its way into English, in Jonathan Hodgson's lucid translation. With the novel in hand, it's hard to understand why it took English-language publishers so long to complete Kadare's allegorical-burlesque portrait of 19th century Albania.

The novel is set during a bitter winter in the early 1800s, when Albania was at the far edges of a vast Ottoman Empire. Our main characters are the severed heads that populate a small, tidy niche in one of Constantinople’s main squares. The novel’s three successive heads are gawped at by tourists, circled by journalists and diplomats, and feared or admired by citizens.

As the novel opens, we, like the tourists, are startled to come across the first head. The narrative quivers with the underlying hilarity of the surprise. Throughout, it’s both a serious allegory about power and a raucous laugh at body parts.

The first head, pumped with embalming fluid and resting in a bowl of honey, is that of the vizier Bugrahan Pasha. His head was removed after he failed to conquer Ali Pasha Tepelena, or Black Ali, the rebellious octogenarian governor of Albania. The head is watched over by an anxious newlywed guard. Twice a week, it’s attended by a too-jolly doctor who can’t believe the empire still makes him follow the ancient, stuffy Regulations for the Care of Heads of the Condemned.

The second head comes off the rebel Black Ali. But before that, we follow Ottoman forces as they march across the frozen stretch of the Balkans. Ali has announced that he will free Albania from the empire. To his surprise, the Albanian people refuse to rise up with him and he loses his head. It’s here that a parallel with 1970s Albania runs closest. Like isolated Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, Black Ali wants to see himself as a liberationist hero.

Down in one of Black Ali’s dungeons, a dissident still lives. Before Ali loses his head, he descends to tell the man: “Up above, I’ve made Albania an independent state, but you won’t see it.” The man, who is covered in dirt and half-dead, laughs. “You’ve done nothing, for you’re still a pasha.” Even as Black Ali tries to silence the man, he tauntingly insists, “You’ve climbed on a blind horse, Ali” and “Albania isn’t your mother Hanko.”

As in many of Kadare’s novels, there is an interplay between repressive silence and the insatiable need to speak. The empire’s powerful bureaucratic apparatus is set on eliminating national languages and repressing dissident memories. Still, folk stories, gossip and niggling questions can’t be controlled. “The central archive could perform many miracles, as it had done with the Balkans, but it was beyond its skill to hide these looming questions that emerged through the fog like mountaintops and seemed to glint above the entire world.”

The mountains, plains and the weather itself are also characters. Even the wind speaks, as when, “The February wind whistled in a thousand languages across the plain darkened by winter and war”.

But silence is not only a tool of repression: it can also be a weapon wielded against the powerful. When Black Ali demands the Albanian people rise up against the Ottomans to protect him, the people are resolutely mum.

Thus Black Ali contributes a second head to the Constantinople niche. Still, the Traitor’s Niche is hungry. Not long after red-bearded Tundj Hata travels across barren lands to bring back Ali’s head, he must return to Albania for the third: Hurshid Pasha, the “hero” who killed Black Ali. Unfortunately for Hurshid Pasha, his star grew too bright. He, too, must be silenced.

It's possible that Kadare, now 80, won't be granted the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yet The Traitor's Niche shows how surely his best novels warrant it.

M Lynx Qualey is an editor and book critic with a focus on Arabic literature and translation issues. She edits the website