The Successor by Ismail Kadare

Reviewed by Kay Dilday

Image of The Successor by Ismail Kadare

In The Successor Ismail Kadare mines his country's recent history and puts an infamous death into a crucible. In this way, Kadare captures the strangeness of what was Albania's perverse version of an elite community, those close enough to power to be direct psychological captives of its quixotic and ruthless ruler.

The Guide, a literary stand in for Enver Hoxha, Albania's community dictator, is the captor here: his appearances and absences, his cryptic utterances, and most frightening, his silences, all fuel the vital obsession among his inner circle-interpreting favor or disfavor.

This novel is a riff on the mysterious death of Hoxha's designated successor, Mehmet Shehu, a mystery that gripped Albania when he was found shot at his home in Tirana in 1981. Even belief that his death was suicide didn't indicate lack of suspicion, as many believed that it must have been forced in some way.

In the novel, the death heightens the obsession with the dictator's thoughts, but Kadare flattens his characters by giving them no other occupation than Guide reading. Save a few brief pages about the Successor's daughter, whose engagement and wedding are seen as the provocation for the death, and a tantalizing flash of the length an artist will go to for the sake of art, there is scarcely any emotion other than fear.

Even in the worst of times, people love and play and philosophize and dream. Kadare interprets the novel as shellac, freezing his characters in essentially one thought, one moment, one emotion. In this third-generation translation (the book was translated by David Bellos from Tedi Papavrami's French translation of the Albanian), Kadare's writing style is very direct, not quite sparse, but detached and impersonal, akin to an institutional report. It's hard even to believe in the wails, coming as they do in the midst of lean prose and erupting in slightly bizarre fashion: "Wake up, my daughter, they've come to evict us. Get up, unhappy daughter!" The Successor's wife cries to her daughter. It doesn't sound quite like any mother I've ever heard.

Like most native Americans, I have no experience of institutionalized national fear, yet we know from the diaries that survive those worlds that there are more to oppressed people's lives than the world dictated by the oppressor. If not, there would be no overthrow, there would be no dissidents, there would be no social movements. Writing is often what gives voice to that spirit when all around has been silenced. The Successor is not in this tradition. It may be that Kadare has woven it in this fashion to give readers the experience of the groundhog-like nature of any emotion other than fear. In that way the novel works as a set piece and, undoubtedly, it is an important cultural artifact. Kadare is Albania's most famous living novelist, and his novel succeeds-but only on one level.