It's somewhat depressing that Ismail Kadare's work still holds up. After all, his writing has been shaped by the decades that his native Albania spent under grindingly repressive Communist rule, and novels such as The Palace of Dreams and The Pyramid present allegories of the paranoia of totalitarian society and the brutal mechanics of mass dominance. It's unnerving, then, to open the first U.S. issue of his 1970 novel, The Siege, and find elements of current international predicaments staring back.
The title assault involves the horizon-spanning army of the Ottoman sultan marching up to a medieval Albanian citadel and preparing either to intimidate the Albanians into surrendering or smash the castle to bloody rubble. The Muslim Ottomans have legions of soldiers ready to die at Ugurlu Tursun Pasha's command, seemingly unlimited resources, and the technology to construct monstrous stone-pulverizing artillery and undermine the fortress. The Christian Albanians, heard from in third-person-plural interstitial chapters, have only their walls, their resolve, and the example of their never-glimpsed leader/hero Skanderbeg (a historical Albanian national hero). But the Ottoman cause, seen largely through the eyes of its tremulous official chronicler Mevla Çelebi, is fraught with politics as the Pasha tries to fight a war while juggling the fervor of his generals, the caution of his support staff, and the conniving of those more concerned with advancing their agendas than advancing soldiers, not to mention his own doubts. Everyone, right up to the Pasha, lives in mortal fear of failure, disgrace, or simply saying the wrong thing. Even as Kadare limns the gruesome battle on the parapetsflaming pitch here, diseased rats therethe real conflict swirls amid the Ottoman tents. And even if the walls fall, Kadare intimates, the Albanian cause will ultimately be beyond any destructive power the Sultan's forces can muster.
Although translated into English from a French translation of the original Albanian, The Siege's compact prose is remarkably lucid (a clam about an Ottoman religious leader being "in the doghouse" is a glaring exception). Likewise, the novel transcends its allegorical base. Kadare was addressing Albanian identity and the threats to it, Communism perhaps included, but he wrote a novel, not a straight parable; many of his quickly sketched character ensemble, from the wily Quartermaster down to the bored women of the Pasha's harem, acquire enough presence that their often abrupt fates resonate. And it might be difficult for contemporary readers not to find other resonances in the story of an indomitable superpower beating itself to pieces on the irreducible core of a provincial foe.