Ismail Kadare is an Albanian writer, both a poet and a prose writer who enjoys a broad international reputation. Born and raised in the museum-city of Gjirokastra, Kadare studied in the Faculty of History and Philology at the University of Tirana and subsequently at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow until 1960 when relations between Albania and the Soviet Union soured.
He had begun his literary career in the 1950s as a poet with verse collections such as the modest Frymëzimet djaloshare, Tirana 1954 (Youthful inspiration) and Ëndërrimet, Tirana 1957 (Dreams) which gave proof not only of his ‘youthful inspiration’ but also of talent and poetic originality. His influential Shekulli im, Tirana 1961 (My century), helped set the pace for renewal in Albanian verse. “Përse mendohen këto male?” Tirana 1964 (What are these mountains thinking about), is one of the clearest expressions of Albanian self-image under the gruesome years of the Hoxha dictatorship.
Kadare’s poetry was less bombastic than previous verse and gained direct access to the hearts of the readers who saw in him the spirit of the times and who appreciated the diversity of his themes. He soon became widely admired among the youth of Albania for his verse. With candidness and sincerity, Kadare contributed in particular to the evolution of love lyrics, a genre traditionally neglected in Albanian literature.
In the sixties, Kadare turned his creative energies increasingly to prose, of which he soon became the undisputed master and by far the most popular writer of the whole of Albanian literature. He was thus the most prominent representative of Albanian literature under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha and, at the same time, its most talented adversary. His works were extremely influential throughout the seventies and eighties and, for many readers, he was the only ray of hope in the cold, grey prison that was communist Albania.
At the end of October 1990, a mere two months before the final collapse of the dictatorship, Ismail Kadare left Tirana and applied for political asylum in France, a move which, for the first time, gave him an opportunity to exercise his profession with complete freedom. His years of Parisian exile have been productive and have accorded him further success and recognition, both as a writer in Albanian and in French. He has published his collected works in ten thick volumes, each in an Albanian-language and a French-language edition, and has been honoured by the French-Academy in 1996 and was later made an officer of the French Legion of Honour.
In 2005 he became the first winner of the Man Booker International Prize. Kadare’s other honours includes the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.
Kadare has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature 15 times. He has stated that the press has spoken about him being a potential Nobel Prize winner so much, that “many people think that I’ve already won it”.
How did you find your way to me?
My mother does not know Albanian well,
She writes letters like Aragon, without commas and periods,
My father roamed the seas in his youth,
But you have come,
Walking down the pavement of my quiet city of stone,
And knocked timidly at the door of my three-storey house,
At Number 16.
There are many things I have loved and hated in life,
For many a problem I have been an ‘open city’,
Like a young man returning home late at night,
Exhausted and broken by his nocturnal wanderings,
Here too am I, returning to you,
Worn out after another escapade.
Not holding my infidelity against me,
Stroke my hair tenderly,
My last stop,
[Poezia, from the volume Vjersha dhe poema zë zgjedhura, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1966, p. 27, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie, and first published in English in An elusive eagle soars, anthology of modern Albanian poetry, London: Forest Books 1993, p. 76]
My childhood – ink-stained fingers,
Bells in the morning,
The muezzin at dusk,
Collections of cigar boxes and old stamps,
Trading one Ceylon
For two Luxembourg.
Thus they passed,
Chasing after a rag ball, raising dust and cries,
A rag ball,
Made of grey Albanian rags.
(1958)[Fëminia, from the volume Shekulli im, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1961, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie, and first published in English in An elusive eagle soars, anthology of modern Albanian poetry, London: Forest Books 1993, p. 77]
And when my memory
And when my fading memory,
Like the after-midnight trams,
Stops only at the main stations,
I will not forget you.
I will remember
That quiet evening, endless in your eyes,
The stifled sob upon my shoulder,
Like snow that cannot be brushed off.
The separation came
And I departed, far from you.
But some night
Someone’s fingers will weave themselves into your hair,
My distant fingers, stretching across the miles.
Longing for Albania
I was filled with longing for Albania
Tonight as I returned home on the trolley,
The smoke of a Partizani cigarette in the hand of a Russian
Curled bluish, twirled upwards
As if whispering to me, its compatriot,
In the language of the Albanians.
I long to stroll through the streets of Tiranë in the evening,
Where I used to get into mischief,
And through the streets where I never got into mischief.
Those old wooden doorways know me,
They will still hold a grudge against me
And will snub their noses at me,
But I won’t mind
Because I am filled with longing.
I long to stroll through the lanes full of dry leaves,
Dry leaves, autumn leaves,
For which comparisons can so easily be found.
I was filled with longing for Albania,
For that great, wide and deep sky,
For the azure course of the Adriatic waves,
For clouds at sunset ablaze like castles,
For the Albanian Alps with their white hair and green beards,
For the nylon nights fluttering in the breeze,
For the mists, like red Indians, on the prowl at dawn,
For the locomotives and the horses
That huff and puff, dripping in sweat,
For the cypresses, the herds and graves
I was filled with longing.
I was filled with longing
For the Albanians.
I was filled with longing and swiftly journey there,
Flying over the mists, as over desires.
How far and how beloved you are, my country.
The airport will tremble with the droning,
The mists will hang in suspense over the chasms.
Surely those who invented the jet engine
Must have been far from their country once.
(Moscow 1960)[Malli i Shqipërisë, from the volume Shekulli im, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1961, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie, and first published in English in An elusive eagle soars, anthology of modern Albanian poetry, London: Forest Books 1993, p. 79]
The cataracts cascade downwards
Like spirited white horses,
Their manes full of foam and a rainbow of hues.
But suddenly, at the edge of the gorge,
They fall on their forelegs,
They break, oh, their white legs,
And die at the foot of the rocks.
Now in their lifeless eyes
The frozen sky reflects.
The old cinema
Where no films, not even reruns, have been shown for a long time,
Where the audiences no longer make a clatter with their seats,
Where peanuts are no longer sold
The stained screen,
The broken speakers,
The empty seats like lines unwritten.
Pensive and full of nostalgia
I stare from the doorway
At this poem of seats, long and abandoned.
I’ve seen so many countries,
I’ve seen so many auditoriums,
But none of them have I entered with such joy
Shabby old cinema,
Wonderful and precious to me!
Nowhere have I felt better,
Not in luxurious halls of shining velvet,
With a couple of blondes at my side.
To you I come
In the company of a gypsy or two.
Money collected with difficulty,
Jingling merrily at the ticket-booth,
The posters by the mosque
And by the Bazaar Cafe
Drawn by Qani the doorman himself.
One poster said:
Another for the same film said:
But no one really cared,
We forgave you everything,
On that bit of screen
We saw a bit of the whole world,
For the first time.
On six square metres
The world had no limits,
The world was splendid
Even though the screen was patched up.
We too were patched up,
Patched up was the Republic,
Time, elbows, States were patched up,
But the glossiest of screens
Had never seen
A sparkle like the one
In our eyes.
Seats where childhood days
Sat in rows.
Like a row of birds
On a telephone wire.
Heavy, long and sunken seats.
As old as I get,
Wherever I go,
Like a porter I’ll carry them
With me, those seats.
I love those train timetables at little railway stations,
Standing on the wet platform and contemplating the infinity of the tracks.
The distant howl of a locomotive. What, what?
(No one understands the nebulous language of steam engines)
Passenger trains. Tank cars. Freight cars full of ore
Endlessly pass by.
Thus pass the days of your life through the station of your being,
Filled with voices, noise, signals
And the heavy ore of memory.
Requiem for Mayakovski
I ate at the same table with his assassins
At the writers’ vacation house
in Dubulti, in Yalta.
They smiled and talked of socialist realism,
While his blood
spattered their car windows,
Their jackets, armchairs, salaries
And the ruddy face of the critic Yermilov.
They thumped their chests and talked of socialist realism
In the presidium chamber of red velvet
under the emblem with a star,
While the Russian winter
Stretched out upon the black earth,
only to be thawed out in April.
Obscure forces dressed in socialist garb,
A pack of lousy critics, speculators, careerists,
Took up the attack with the age-old refrain of the mediocre:
“You were great, but we got you.”
There stands his bronze statue in Mayakovski Square,
It rose and glumly observed the years to come.
Behind the crowd of his assassins, whom he knew,
He saw the first clouds of the counter-revolution darken the sky.
What are these mountains thinking about
What are these lofty mountains thinking about
As the sun sets in the distance beyond the highway?
A mountaineer sets out at the fall of night,
His long rifle
Casting a hundred-mile-long shadow on the ground.
The shadow of the rifle hurries
Over mountains, plains, villages;
The shadow of its barrels hastens through the dusk.
I too set forth along the hillside
With a thought in my mind
The shadow of the thought and the shadow of the rifle
Cross and collide in the twilight.
This is how you have always set out, Albania,
On your long legs
And with a long rifle.
You wandered without knowing where to go,
Onwards toward the morning full of clouds and mist,
Grey and ponderous, as though born of night.
Cloudbursts ate away at the land
And bared the bases of the cliffs.
Thus, the centuries have gnawed away at your body
Until your very sinew and ribs were exposed.
Sinew, sinew and ribs,
Only boulders, rocks and mountains,
Little flat land,
Oh, how very little flat land
The centuries left you!
The centuries gnawed at you like hounds
Wherever they could get at you.
When you met them
They attacked you,
The teeth of time
Dug into your thighs,
But you did not turn back,
You did not yield.
You never removed the long rifle
From your shoulders,
From shoulders covered in wounds,
From shoulders of skin and bone.
You ate bread in brine,
Brine and maize every night,
And you saved a little fat,
Oh, that little bit of fat
For friends and for the long rifle,
To grease the long rifle.
Women give birth to babies,
But a rifle gives birth to bullets,
And the two have been equally sacred
To the Albanian:
The bullets and the babies.
The child will tomorrow take to the plough
And the rifle will protect him at night.
Time fired bullets over the shoulders of Albania
Like rice thrown over the shoulders of a bride.
The pealing of bells
Rung by night
Resounded over the mountain slopes.
What were the bells saying,
What were the priests murmuring
To their high churches
In their foreign tongues?
Latin logic, in long sentences,
Strove to bend the long rifle.
And there were poets
Poised on hand-carved furniture
From your forests
Who, inspired by you,
Wrote of varnished wood
And of nightingales
In the trees, ancestors of furniture,
Who had once sung.
That in your forests,
From whence the furniture came,
There were many wolves
And few nightingales.
Storms, fever, malaria ravaged your body,
The priests and the mullahs
You devoured your children in blood feuds,
And on these feuds the minarets and bell towers
Bestowed their blessings.
And fierce enemies nipped at the borders,
Nipped at the pale, bare shoulders of our native land.
The land arose, tottering,
Its eyes glowing with hunger and fever
And, forgetting its hunger,
Set forth in the night to measure the borders,
With a foot rule?
With a yard stick?
With the long rifle.
Your first contact with inventions,
With the new technology of civilization
Was with types and calibres of new weapons,
Which were tested against your withered, bullet-riddled breast.
After the fighting
There remained but the solitary graves of mountaineers,
Mounds of melancholy,
For a long time
Nothing but a heap of stone
And, instead of flowers at the head,
A monotonous song
Chanted by the tribe,
A monotonous song.
And beside the long limbs
The rifle fell away, the long rifle.
And after the long limbs
The short name fell away,
The letters dropping off
Like pine cones in the rain,
And after everything else
At last the song ceased,
The monotonous song of the tribe.
And once again Albania cowered in a hut
In her dark mythological nights
And on the strings of a lute strove to express something
Of her incomprehensible soul,
Of the inner voices
That echoed mutely from the depths of the epic earth.
She strove to express something
But what could three strings
Beneath five fingers trembling with hunger express?
It would have taken hundreds of miles of strings
And millions of fingers
To express the soul of Albania!
If one was slain on a hillside,
Another arose elsewhere,
As if out of the earth –
The gaunt Albanian,
And above his body,
Like an iron limb,
The long rifle
With the rifle in his hand,
He wandered through these regions,
Over mountains and plains.
The rifle made him taller,
Though it often made his life shorter.
Chewing on legends in the freezing night,
Famished, you ate your own songs,
You were overcome by sleep,
Bent over the plough at twilight
Under the dark heavens
And you dreamt of so little joy
As no one had ever dreamt of before.
Of one more slice of bread,
Of one more spoonful of brine.
You dreamt of brine and bread
And of a little, so very little fat
To share with the rifle.
Your wedding was
Lightning in the midst of your misery,
Full of nerves, drums, quarrelling
And a little joy,
The little joy you dreamt of behind the plough
The nights gave birth to mornings,
Ponderous and grey;
The days cursed the nights,
The nights cursed the days.
Albania in her ruggedness
Gave birth to beautiful children,
Implanting in each child
A dream, a hope.
Tending her withered breasts,
Albania gave life,
She gave birth to soldiers,
Who later died in the sands of the Sahara,
Singing of the Bridge to the Kaaba.
The sons you sent to the cities of Europe,
Who knew foreign pleasures,
One by one,
To find a sorrowful land,
Clouds laden with yellow rain.
The monarchy, like a quarryman, smashed their dreams.
With suitcases full of illusions
Under the shadow of minarets, of monasteries,
And rambled in autumnal delusions
Until the earth returned them to her bosom
And they rotted under the monotonous song of the rain.
Early fruits are expensive in price,
But early fruits are often destroyed by frost.
Albania placed them back into her bosom
“It is still too early,” she said,
Observing the gloomy light of dawn.
And once again she bent over the plough
And sowed her bitter tears in long furrows.
Under a sombre sky of endless ignorance
She sowed her tears
For rainstorms and tempests to come.
The priests and a few drowsy poets came forth
To declaim abstract genealogical glories,
But you trampled on traditional laws
With your bare feet and scratched their poetic figures.
As if you were some insane beauty,
The traitors spun you around to take advantage of you,
No matter if you have no food.
We are God’s chosen people,”
While you scratched out an embossment under the stars,
Your embossment of scabby, filthy sores.
The poets wrote hymns to the fairies and nymphs,
Who were delousing themselves by the streams.
You could count the very ribs of the fairies, the nymphs,
Who, for a few coins, would proffer themselves in the bushes.
On occasion, the fairies and the nymphs managed
To abandon their epic alpine meadows
And descend one by one
Into the villages.
And, one by one, they ended up
In the brothels,
In the brothels that dotted
The weary mountain ridges,
The nymphs departed,
Abandoning the myths,
And the myths began to empty.
The last granary of the nation,
Returned to the abandoned churches.
For the myths, like people, were hungry,
And lived in great poverty,
Greater than any other,
In an age when the winds of boredom whistled
Over deserted mythical plains.
In the palace, King Zog gave nightly balls,
The princesses smiled,
The dancers waltzed.
In the quiet cells of frigid monasteries
The priests studied suffixes.
The orchestra played on
In Café Kursaal,
The elderly matrons powdered their noses,
While pregnant Albania
Miscarried the days
On bloodstained napkins of clouds.
And the mountain ranges were silent like horse caravans,
Oh, what caravans they were,
These mountain ranges!
They waited for hours,
For someone to lead them into the great battle,
For someone to lead them to a new world,
The mountain ranges waited with their heads in the clouds.
There were those who tried to tug at the mountains,
Like at the halters of horses
And led them a little way down the road,
But in the dark, they lost their way.
The formidable mountain ranges wandered in circles
Through the night and the fog,
As if frightened by a tragic shrieking of old,
The heroic mountains neighed in their dreams.
And thus they turned in circles like a caravan in the desert,
Until they settled down, were calm once again,
Until twilight, the fortresses, hunger, the epic legends
Jumped on their backs again,
And with them
The brothels too.
But the calm was deceptive,
The long mountain caravans were waiting,
Waiting for a leader,
Albania was waiting
For the Communist Party.
What are these lofty mountains thinking about,
These enigmas of ridges stretching north and south?
I continue on my way
In the shadow of the long rifle,
That long rifle:
Your Archimedes’ lever, Albania.
Through the sight of his rifle
The Albanian observed the horizons and the times,
The solitary whistling of his musket
Forced the centuries to duck.
This rifle barrel
On the Albanian’s back
Has grown there like a long sharp bone
Transplanted to his spine by a difficult destiny,
An extension of his backbone,
This awesome iron limb,
A proud atavism of ancient times.
The fearless Albanian has crossed the centuries,
With destiny on his back,
Trudging in his ancient sandals
Across the ageless land holding the graves of our forefathers.
This land which has brought forth
More heroism than grain through the ages,
That is what these lofty mountains are thinking about,
As evening falls in the distance beyond the highway.
(1962-1964)[Përse mendohen këto male, from the volume Përse mendohen këto male, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1964, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie, and first published in English in An elusive eagle soars, anthology of modern Albanian poetry, London: Forest Books 1993, p. 88-96]