The Balkan Spirit Attracts Me
An interview of the writer and publisher GEORGI GROZDEV with the world-renowned Albanian writer ISMAIL KADARE days after the prestigious English Booker Prize received a Balkan address
Dear Mr. Kadare, allow me to congratulate you for the Booker Prize on behalf of your Bulgarian and Balkan fans Ė The Literary Balkans magazine is printed both in Bulgarian and English and has readers from Nicosia to Ljubljana. What delighted you the most about this prestigious award?
Joy is natural, just like any writer who would be awarded this prize. There is nothing more to it. The award was greatly contested, with exceptionally strong competition. The writers, selected for the final, were all great. The selection was really strong and I hadnít thought, honestly speaking, that I could win. Almost all the writers were classics, very famous ones. That is why I was surprised. I have been a Nobel Prize finalist several times with four or five contestants, but never like this Ė with 18 contestants. The participants came from big countries Ė big literatures, big languages. You can say Albania was the smallest country at this competition.
When looking back, can you clearly see the importance of the Albanian book for you?
Contrary to what is sometimes considered cultural development of Albanian culture, Albania has a long book history. The first Albanian book is 30 years older than the German translation of the Bible, by Martin Luther, who built the foundations of the German literary language. So, on a relative scale this can be considered European history, because it represents a venerable age, excluding countries like Greece, Italy and Spain. Albanian history, again contrary to beliefs, has a long and yet not thoroughly examined history since the communist regime had no interest in telling the truth; it concealed it or tried to cover something up which couldnít be covered up Ė the natural development of the Albanian book. Why? The reason is very simple: for a period of almost three centuries Albanian literature was bilingual Ė Albanian and Latin. The Latin part of Albanian literature and the writers who wrote in two languages were mainly catholic clergymen. Communism was particularly allergic to that literature and didnít want it to take its rightful place, it was barely mentioned and in reality the picture of the development of Albanian literature seemed very poor. Similar bilingual literature at that time was present in many European languages. In part of Europe literature was created in two languages. This played a big role in preserving Albanian culture during the Ottoman oppression. First is the Latin nature, its Eupeanism which sustains its life through the Latin language, and second is the European spirit, the spirit of European Christianity. The two are inseparable. This period came into the light through Albanian research. It existed and was known as far back as the tsar time, but communism tried to push it to the dark. Now it rises through the mists in its full height. These things are little known, especially to foreigners who go by the official communist propaganda.
What is your impression about the Bulgarian and the other Balkan literatures?
Iíve always been drawn to Balkanism, so to say, the Balkan spirit of literature, because it is something natural for every writer. First is the Greek presence which has reflection of the whole Balkans. It is our common motherland, the spiritual motherland of each writer. After the Antiquity comes the common Balkan epos created under circumstances, which, in my opinion, have not yet been researched well. With the decline of Greek Antiquity after the destruction of the Byzantine Empire, the whole of this stifled culture emanated to all the Balkan countries. Its effect is particularly strong on modern Greeks, Albanians, Bulgarians, Serbians, Slavs, i.e. it leaves trace in the best of Balkan literature. Some Balkan writers, who managed to take it on, had success, others who got lost in the limited national color, did not.
Unfortunately, we possess only fragmentary knowledge of Bulgarian literature, with the exception of Hristo Botev and the novel Tobacco, I donít remember the author. I remember another book Bai Ganyo Balkanski, but I donít know who wrote it. He was known as an author here in Albania at a certain time. In other words thereís lack of systematic knowledge of literature. There is information based on several cliches. The truth is that for a long period of time communist countries Ė Balkan or not Ė exchanged caricatures of their literatures. That way they hurt each other, Iím sure Albanian literature was for quite a long period of time presented in a deformed way in the communist world. It was our common suffering.
What is the destiny of fine letters now and what could this destiny be in the near and the more distant future?
I find unserious the forecasts for a decline of the book, decline of the novel, decline of literature. I would compare them to seasonal sicknesses which appear from time to time and pass away. In the professional world this is amateurism and I refuse to accept it seriously. The art of literature is an art born together with human conscience and will die away together with it. It is irreplaceable. It is something ancient for humankind, known since the most ancient of times.
I remember when I wrote the novel about the Pyramid of Heops. I consulted Egyptian chronicles and was left amazed. 4000 thousand years ago there were the same conversations as today. ďToday people are corrupted, have no morality, no character, do not keep their word, do not keep their promises. Once they were true: men were men, women were women.Ē 4000 years ago Pharaohs spoke in the same way people today speak in all the European cafes.
Is there a cultural crisis in Europe, in Albania today, and if there is what do you think the cure for it is?
I think we should not identify the moral crisis, which is completely obvious, with some kind of a literary one. People confuse moral with literary crises. Literature is something which is born and dies in every time. It could be a time of morality or immorality, literature is not interested in this. Literature does not run parallelly to the successes and failures of nations, nor to economic growth or other emancipation growth, since literature is not predestined to go with democracy or tyranny. It can accompany one or the other. In other words, literature has its own ways, which are sometimes contradictory. So the moral crisis should in no way be confused with a crisis in literature. People should not think in such a way, especially in the former communist countries, which have now been 15 years without dictatorship. Letís not forget this is a very short time for literature and should not be regarded as a starting point neither in a positive, nor in a negative direction. It is a very short stretch of time which gives no reason for optimism nor pessimism.
Please share some of your secrets in writing ďThe Generalís Dead ArmyĒ, which was translated for the first time abroad in no other language than Bulgarian by Marina Marinova. I mean creative secrets, which the author usually does not reveal.
It is a known fact The Generalís Dead Army was first translated into Bulgarian. Actually, my first book is a collection of poems, published in Moscow in 1961. It was my first and it came out just when the relations between Albania and the USSR deteriorated. Almost nobody heard about it. The book, which came out in Bulgaria, created problems for me. The novel was coldly received and unexpectedly for us was published in a ďrevisionistĒ country. Such a thing was regarded as suspicious here. Suspicions doubled when it was later published in Yugoslavia. About six months later. The suspicion acquired global proportions when France published it, but at the same time, having created a lot of stir, it somehow established itself and people here gave up, ďNow it really became famousĒ, that is, the bad aspect of it was gone and something confusing happened, it unexpectedly became world-known and so things were forgotten.
The Bulgarian edition, I remember when I saw it, was very nice. The Generalís Dead Army is known to everyone as my first novel, but it is in fact my second. My first novel at that time was not published. I wrote it as a student, in 1959. A City without Advertisements (Qyeteti pa reklama). The Generalís Dead Army was published in 1963 and so remained my first published novel. The second was The Monster, I think it is published in Bulgarian. It is from 1965. It was banned.
The Generalís Dead Army passed through a few stages. At first I published it as a story, about 40 pages, a novel which has no published predecessor. Actually, the published book and unpublished book differ very much from each other, but thatís another thing. This is the novel which was published in the whole of Europe. For me, this was the novel of fate. It was published also in the USA. And all that within 3 years of its Bulgarian publication.
What has been the major source of hope and belief for you through the years?
Shakespeare and Dante. The former, because he completely devalued reality, he showed it to me colorless and insignificant. The latter, because he taught me a great truth Ė that the writer in a communist country is a live person, who moves in a world of dead men, just as Dante travels the Beyond. And feeling alive among the dead, if he/she truly believes that, the writer is saved. This grows into a religion, a true faith. A second, superior, conscience is created. You are in the midst of a terrible nightmare but you are aware of it and will wake up from it. Just like the person having a bad dream is aware of it, ďIím having a nightmare and if I want I can get out.Ē
How do you imagine Albania and the Balkans in the end of the twenty-first century?
The Balkans are a restless place in Europe. Restless nations carry inside them a mixture of good and bad. For literature this not harmful, on the contrary. Whereas for social life it may be harmful.
What peculiarity of yours as a person and writer can you joke about and do you do it often?
A German guy about a century ago used the phrase ďheroic lazinessĒ to describe Albanians and Montenegrins. I can say that this laziness, meaning literary-heroic laziness, is inherent to me too, in terms of attitude towards many things in the world, which I donít take too seriously, but have rather focused my attention mainly on literature. The German has used this phrase differently, in regards to the Albanian and Montenegrin highlanders. His name is Gesseman. I have to say I admit this about myself, it is an obligatory vice of mine. Negative, but useful. I have never in my life been employed. I have worked only a few years in a literary weekly Ė six years in the Drita newspaper.
How difficult was your road to recognition as a writer?
My road to success was very difficult. Communist countries usually offer help to young artists. When they become famous, then difficulties begin.
At that moment, however, when I was supposed to experience more serious problems, the kind writers in such empires experience, I had already become known to the world and a new factor appeared, which simultaneously complicated but also relieved my life, both at the same time. At times it was negative, at times positive.
Is there a refuge from the monologism and masochism of the Balkan people?
I think Balkan people have refuge from the monologism and the masochism. For me this is irrefutable.
Which Balkan authors would be essential for an imagined anthology of chauvinism?
There is no arguing about it, part of Balkan authors are chauvinists. The density, the dosage of chauvinism in Balkan literatures seems to be very high. I find it hard to quote names, and I also donít remember them.
The Balkan Library Series, in which you participate with Aeschilus, this Poor Wretch has already published 15 Balkan writers from all the countries of the peninsula and there are as many more in print. In this context how do you assess the role of Balkani, the private publishing house?
This undertaking is absolutely natural. Very soon it will look absurd for the state to take such initiatives.
What do you think the Balkan people cannot divide?
I donít believe there is something about the Balkans that makes us different from others. We are normal, like others. If sometimes there is an increased dose of insanity, it is human. I havenít heard, for example, of the existence of crazy animals. But there are crazy people. You canít say there are crazy lions or tigers. It is a human quality.
What bigger opportunities do you see for the Balkan cultural and literary communication and what authors would you like to see in The Balkan Library Series?
All the famous Balkan writers like Kazandzakis, Andrich, Danilo Kish, Seferis, Elytis and others are really the authors who should find a place in the Balkan Library Series.
Danilo Kish is in print, Kazandzakis hasnít been included yet, the others were among the first published, along with you. How do the Balkans look like from Edinburgh, where you received the Booker Prize?
Edinburgh is not very far from us. The Scottish and the Irish worlds possess something similar, something vaguely similar.
I truly thank you for your time. I wish you health and new successes, including a Nobel Prize