Albanian novelist Kadare practiced elliptical dissidence. A shrewd and non-confrontational Balkan opportunist, he concealed his subversions to throw off Enver Hoxha’s wildly xenophobic censors.
Thus a novel about an Italian general dispatched to Albania to repatriate soldier remains is transformed into an astute parable about how decency and revulsion coexist. As the general winds his way through rural Albania in the company of an Italian bureaucrat priest and gravediggers, the country’s moroseness becomes his own. “Sniffing for death like hyenas” and “wandering around the country like an ambulatory tumor,” the general is teased by an army of ghosts. Dead soldiers tell their stories; deserters speak up; villagers recall slaughters, many committed by the vengeful Col. Z, whose body the increasingly shell-shocked general cannot seem to find.
Slowly, the general’s distance from the priest increases and his ties with the locals grow more dreamlike and menacing – “We’ve become like pilgrims in the Middle Ages,” he says. But there is no promised land, only “rain, mud, lists” and putrid bones. One worker is infected by dug-up remains and dies, confirming war’s open wound even two decades later. “Dwelling on the past, nothing can be more dangerous,” muses the general, who still can’t resist, flirting with madness.
Kadare ennobles Albania without paying lip service to its regime. He does get in a jibe on its behalf. The general compares the many-colored uniforms of visiting NATO officers to the tint of autumn leaves: “Green first, then turning to pale brown, and later a coppery yellow; then when they rotted they turned black.”
As a character, Kadare’s general memorably straddles the continuum of grimness that extended from the end of World War II to the static Cold War of the mid-1960s, when this was written. “I feel like I have crossed over into a kingdom of pure bones, of pure calcium.” He hibernates among the dead and struggles to leave them.