The General of the Dead Army by Ismail Kadare is a novel published in the year 1963 and brought the novelist and poet fame and glory. He garnered the reputation of being the first international novelist from Albania. Ismail Kadare was and still remains the most acclaimed writer from Albania. Since then his work has been analysed, praised and proved controversial both in terms of politics and literature. He has been accused of spreading Islamophobia and being contemptuous of Albania in his literature. He was won many international, literary awards such as Neustadt International Prize for Literature, Man Booker International Inaugural Prize, and The Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society. His work has been described as beautifully written in lucid prose which verges on the poetic, yet his themes and images are as complex and moving as ever written in literature. A complex novel, The General of The Dead Army, begins with a general who is sent to Albania to recover the bodies of the soldiers who were killed in the war. The general is sent along with the priest, who is another complex protagonist, alongside the general, who works his wits in the exhumation process.
It begins slowly, with beautiful descriptions of the landscape and controversial revelations about the Albanian people. The General of The Dead Army is not meant for the faint-hearted; no matter how gentle the flow of the narrative may seem at first, as the novel begins to unfold, it is utterly gut-wrenching and deeply unsettling. Ismail Kadare is not a man who romanticises literature; for him, literature is an artistic method to confront the truth and expose buried realities beneath the glittering coat of history. His characters are at once allegorical and multi-dimensional, and the complexity of the lives he showcases in his literature is no less masterful than that of the great oral history narratives of Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The tension in the narrative is inaccessible yet shocking and evocative; the tension, alongside the characters’ lives, arises from the breath-taking nature of the Albanian landscape. And despite being rooted in a grim, realistic narrative and embedded deep in history and culture, Kadare manages to capture Albania’s mountains, cliffs, and agrarian lands with a poetic vision which has hardly been seen in literature since Homer. The suffocation of totalitarianism buried within the folds of the novel is mystical and surrealistically Kafkaesque. It is a dual reflection on the nature of reality and the metaphysical nature of fiction countervailing against each other in Kadare’s novel.
It slowly sweeps away the reader into its labyrinthine emotions and never lets go; the book unnerves the reader and grips the reader in ways which may be enviable to the great contemporary novelists who may venture to imitate Kadare’s mastery of history, culture, fictional narratives, and landscape alongside the psychological turmoil of the characters. Having said that, Kadare remains a unique new voice in literature, and a serious reader could barely imagine his works passing into antiquity, they hold as much as power as when they were published. Kadare is not only a voice of masterful narration but a voice of courage in the face of adversity and dictatorship. He is perhaps more so than anyone a literary hero in my definition; not many great masters of writing deserve that honorary title. There are great writers to be found everywhere, but seldom one comes across a writer like Kadare, whose thought is as beautiful and complex as his beautifully constructed sentences.
The novel is a journey through the darkness of hell, under the giant eye of totalitarianism; Kadare also possesses some of the magic of The Wasteland. The repeated images of characters digging out corpses, in some cases with success but in many without, and the descriptions of human remains is done so smartly, it never comes across as masochistic or disgusting. The small movements in the villages and the cultural atmosphere is aptly captured, as the relationship between the occupying soldiers and native Albanians slowly unfolds; there are stories at once touching and minimalistic which gives us, the readers, a perspective of individual crisis against the vastness of a cultural and/or collective crisis of a nation who has lost their autonomy. Even the soldiers lack autonomy in Kadare’s novels, which is true of every war, yet something which is rarely explored in depth in the huge spectrum of war literature. The Albanians have lost their autonomy, yet the soldiers, who are menacing and fearful, have lost their self-governance as well. Every war is tyrannical and dictatorial for the ones who participate in the fallout, Kadare seems to evoke in this novel.
However, despite the darkness and the dystopian atmosphere of this novel, it would be a reductive view to categorise this novel as dystopian. It is not set in an entirely fictional landscape and much of the aspects of this novel focus on the problems of our world; these are ordinary human beings pitched against extreme situations. I do not mean to say that this novel lacks any of the elements of a perfect dystopian novel, yet the genre category of dystopia, or any genre categorisation for that matter, reduces our view of the novel’s large spectrum of themes. It cannot be categorised as a war novel as it is set in a post-war environment. It is a masterful fictional work which gains its source of inspiration from many elements of genre writing, yet it manages to transcend all boundaries; The General of The Dead Army is a humanist novel which is set in despairing times of political upheaval. And manages to transcend the boundaries of genre standards which seldom fulfil a more important function than marketing purposes.
The General of The Dead Army, to conclude, is a masterpiece of contemporary literature which evokes the classical Greek tragedies and Kafkaesque modes of fiction; it is a must-read for any serious reader who admires global literature. Ismail Kadare is the only person writing today who we could call a literary hero of our modern times.