Monday, 24 March 2014

The Siege by Ismail Kadare

published 1970

this translation by David Bellos, 1994 and 2007

also known as The Rain Drums, or The Castle


























[The voices of the Albanian citizens and soldiers in a besieged stronghold in the 15th century, talking about the Ottoman army beyond their walls]

At first we watched with amusement as regiments marched off to exercises and marched back again to a chorus of orders and songs amid a jolly patchwork of brightly coloured banners and toy-like, hastily built wooden minarets, and as flutes, drums and cymbals played heart-rending tunes while horsemen ran races or competed in equestrian games.

Quite a few of us were bemused by it all. Some even went so far as to wonder whether the Turks had given up the idea of making war on us. Perhaps they had received an order — a firman, as they call it — from their monarch who lives at the other end of the earth? People began to pray. May they vanish from our sight as speedily as they can! In short, after seeing much that was truly unbelievable, we noticed dozens of soldiers going about in flower-patterned robes and feminine adornments bought from the stalls set up in the camp. We thought either we were having a bad dream, or the Turks had truly gone out of their minds. We gathered our men and told them they would do better not to look down on what was happening in the plain. We also pointed out that an army capable of taking on the appearance of a horde of mercenaries, then of an iron monster, and then of a loose woman, must surely be a satanic force such as is rarely seen on earth. 







observations: Ismail Kadare is Albania’s best-known writer, which you might think isn’t saying much. He won the International Man Booker Prize a few years ago, to the great delight of those who like him. Perhaps we feared that now he would become well-known internationally, with everyone and his bookgroup latching on, but no chance of that. Maybe a few more people know who he is now, but he isn’t making the 3-for-2 table at Waterstones. He is often tipped as a future Nobel Prizewinner, perhaps that will do it.

He IS a wonderful writer, and he should be more widely-read, to stand alongside internationalists such as Borges, Orhan Panuk, and Umberto Eco. He seems to be very well-served by his translators – this one was translated by the American academic David Bellos, who also contributed a fascinating and sympathetic afterword, which adds hugely to your understanding of the book, as well as explaining much about the history of the book itself, in the sense of different editions & translations, and alterations to the text.

The story is about a siege of an Albanian unnamed city by Turkish/Ottoman troops, at a time never specified – though an Albanian would know because the country’s great national hero, Skanderbeg, is mentioned. His dates are 1405-1468. And there is mention of the siege of Trebizond (called Trabzon in the book) by someone who was there – Trebizond has a fiery past, and seems to have been often besieged, but there was a relatively famous one in 1461 and a smaller one in 1456.

The book gives a very detailed and convincing-sounding picture of the opposing armies, but there are anachronisms – this is a complex point, and will be looked at in another entry later in the week, and probably another one after that – this mesmerizing book is full of fascination.

The Albanians (inside the city) give their view of events in short passages between chapters, as above, but most of it – strangely – is from the point of view of the Turkish/Ottoman army. Apparently what Kadare really wanted was a one-word title that meant ‘the beseigers and the besieged’.

The top pictures of Ottoman soldiers, with banners and stick, are from the work of Melchior Lorck, a Danish-German illustrator, who visited the Ottoman court in the 1550s (ie 90 years after the events in the book) and made an extensive set of drawings of people he saw there. The images are copyright the Trustees of the British Museum, used with their kind permission – they have many of Lorck’s illustrations, great pictures, I was spoilt for choice.

The lower picture shows Skanderbeg going into battle with his Albanian troops.




12 comments:

  1. Moira - Oh, that's what I like about books that are set in the past. So much atmosphere and so much richness. And dare I say it - pageantry. Sounds like the sort of book that can really carry a person away...

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    1. Yes exactly Margot, it was the kind of book where you look up, and feel quite surprised that you're not in the middle of the army camp.

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  2. Glad you liked it, but won't be reading it myself. (Too much from Albania on the heaving shelves already? Alas not.)

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    1. And there I was counting on you to tell me which Albanian author I should try next...

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  3. The style of writing in the extract is very good, very interesting. I don't think I would be interested in this book, but perhaps others he has written. I had not heard of this author before.

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    1. Someone gave me a book by him, and it took me a long time to get round to reading it, but I loved it when I finally did...

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  4. Moira: Only in the Balkans do bloody events 650 years resonate with current citizens. The Serbs go even further back in their reverence for past battles.

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    1. You are so right, Bill, they talk about them as if their uncle was in them. I read a wonderful book by Rebecca West called Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which gave me whatever slight knowledge of the area that I have!

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  5. Excellent review of a great book. I agree, Kadare is an author that should be read much more and alongside the greatest. Broken April, The Palace of Dreams, The Concert, The Successor...you can pick up anything by him and it will be worth it. Ok, I lived three years in Albania and he was my neighbor in Tirana, so I am maybe a bit biased. But still, I think those who don't know him should give it a try. My own review in case you are interested: http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=434

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    1. You actually knew him? Very impressed. I can never imagine what he must be like: I have read quite a few books by him, but don't feel any the wiser about him.
      Thanks for the kind words - I loved this book and often think about it. This, The Ghost Rider, and Broken April are my favourites of his. Off to look at your review now. I wish more people would try him - he is actually very accessible and entertaining, much more than I think people might be expecting when they hear of Albania's greatest living author.

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  6. Completely agree with you, Moira, a very accessible and excellent writer. Well, I saw him frequently on the street in Tirana, in the coffee shop, and on other occasions. But I would have found it not appropriate to approach him just like that, without being introduced by someone. And it was good to know that people let him his freedom to walk around without being harassed, although literally everybody knows him, i.e. his books in Albania. I am planning to soon re-read some of his novels, probably Broken April and The Palace of Dreams. Btw, I just discovered your blog and like it very much!

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    1. Thanks for the kind words - and the fascinating info, and ditto for your blog. I had heard that he has very high status in Albania.
      I write occasional books pieces for the Guardian - you are probably the only person who will be impressed that I managed to get Ismail Kadare into one of them.... see here:
      http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/oct/30/bring-up-the-bodies-digging-up-dead-in-literature

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