Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Ismail Kadare’s The Siege

Ismail Kadare’s The Siege is not, strictly speaking, a historical novel, but it does give a broad sense of life, and life during war, during the time of the Ottoman Empire. As with Kadare’s other novels, The Siege takes place in his native Albania; and, more specifically, is set at an unnamed citadel belonging to Skanderbeg (an ethnic Albanian member of the Ottoman army, who left Islam in favor of Christianity, and the Turks for the Albanians). Strange though it may sound to say that this novel, which has no narrative thrust other than that of shifting levels of despair, succeeds because of its plotting, The Siege works because there is a tension to the story even as we suspect that it will lead to no real conclusion. Kadare sometimes gives in to an excess of dreaminess in his writing, but here keeps that tendency in check in favor of describing the council meetings and varied attempts to break the citadel’s defenses, and following the lives of those members of the Ottoman army waiting out their lives beyond the walls of the citadel.

The Siege is told largely from the view of the Ottomans, with short – two-page – narratives inserted between chapters, describing the Ottomans’ latest actions from the view of an Albanian inside the citadel. This means much description of the minutia of siege warfare, from deciding which soldiers to send over first, to when to pull back, to how the successes and failures of an attack can change the careers of the men making the decisions. This may sound dull, but Kadare is pitch-perfect in this novel, giving his characters the space to battle over their preferred strategies, and thereby giving the reader a chance to, as it were, join the negotiations. In focusing not only on the details of the siege, but on the decision-making process, Kadare also offers an extensive exploration of the idea of power, and of what influences the men fighting this battle.

There are few characters who maintain their role throughout the novel – who aren’t sentenced to death, or demoted to the lowest ranks of the army, for a loss, an accident, or a wrong decision – but even those who do maintain their position (most notably the pasha – the army’s leader – and Çelebi, the chronicler assigned to turn the siege into myth) are keenly aware of their precarious position and the odds that they will lose their power far more quickly than they gained it. When assigning punishments, decreeing that men should go “down below” to dig a tunnel underneath the citadel, the pasha recognizes not only that he holds these men’s fate in his hands, but that someone else holds his:

He hastily initialled the sentences but added in the margin, “Send below”. As he scrawled those words, which meant “to the tunnel”, he felt the well-known sensation of the powerful of the earth who can cast another man into the abyss. The idea that his own fate was also in the hands of another did not hold him back, but, on the contrary, put fresh energy into his view. He had long known that the world is but a pyramid of power, and the loser would always be the man who gives up the exercise of his own power before the other. (124)

Kadare also explores the minor, and often failed, assertions of power the men make, their attempts to break into the Pasha’s inner circle where they can be heard with the other top men of the army. In Kadare’s vision, even the secretary recording these meetings is seeking opportunities to declare his own strength:

The Pasha had spoken. In the utter silence that ensued all that could be heard was the scratching of the secretary’s quill as he put down on paper everything that had been said. They were all accustomed to this sound which was always identical, whether the words being transcribed were sharp or smooth, scorpion bites or soft summer wind. Those among the council members who were familiar with administrative accounts realised that the secretary was making his quill squeal more than was necessary. To judge by the serious face he made at such times, it wasn’t hard to guess that these silent pauses in which his pen scratching was the overriding sound gave him his sole opportunity in life to assert his own importance. Once someone started talking again, his very presence would be forgotten. (201)

There’s a sense of the forgettable to the events of this novel. As anyone with a rough understanding of the history of the Ottoman empire can guess, this siege won’t be successful; it is nothing more than a footnote in history, months of war that are of note only as a part of the tide that will eventually overwhelm the Albanian defenders. The scribe who spends so much time observing soldiers and battles for the account he will eventually write is confronted not only with the question of whether this will be read and remembered, but by the fact that what he records is not really the truth. Throughout the novel, men make note of the things the scribe won’t write in his chronicle – the aspects of warfare that are so wholly ugly they’ll find no place in the glorious chronicle of this siege.

Kadare perfectly captures the deadening effects of war, how its horrors become commonplace; the political machinations that go into decisions down to the level of what soldiers should be eating; how power is claimed and used and, in time, lost; and the circular nature of war, the way that one army will so easily replace the last. By showing so much of the siege through the chronicler’s eyes, Kadare also questions how memory is shaped, and what aspects of war will be remembered, and which should be remembered. The Siege is a remarkable novel, one worth repeated visits for its unsentimental look at mythmaking and the nature of war.

“In the raging storm of battle the crocodiles charged the ramparts again and again, but fate…” It was a hard sentence to finish off, and he had a headache. He was tempted to write “…did not smile on them”, but “smile” seemed the wrong word here. How could there be any smiles in the midst of such horrible butchery? He put his quill down and stared pensively at the pages he had written in a hand now weakened by age. One day, they would constitute the sole remains of all this blood spilled beneath a burning sky, of those thousands of dreadful wounds, of the roar of the cannon, of the yellow dust of forced marches, of the unending, nightmarish ebb and flow of assailants beneath the castle walls, of men clambering up ladders under showers of hot pitch and arrows, falling to the ground below, then clambering up again alongside comrades who don’t even recognise you because you are already disfigured by your injuries. Those pages were going to be the sole trace of the soldiers’ tanned hides, of these innumerable skins on which sharp metal, sulphur, pitch and oil had drawn monstrous shapes which, when the war was over, would go on living their own lives. To cap it all, these pages would also be the sole remnants of the myriad tents which, when they were dismantled, as they would be in a few weeks’ time, would leave thousands of marks on a wide empty space, looking as if it had been trampled by a huge herd of bizarre animals. Then, next spring, grass would grow on the plain: millions of blades of grass, utterly indifferent to what had gone on there, with no knowledge of all that can happen in this world. (294)

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Review: Robert Carver’s The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania

Questions I am struggling with as I begin reviewing Robert Carver’s The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania:

What is the point of reviewing/eviscerating a little-known (and now out-of-print) book about a little-known country?

Should I even bother reviewing the book, or just launch my attack on people (see: Greg Mortensen) labeling their Awesome Stories “non-fiction” because they know that only a handful of people will be able to see through their bullshit?

Should I address everything that is stomach-turning about this book (see: the author’s sexism*, wishful thinking/dramatics, and lack of respect and understanding about Albanian culture; that huge and basic errors in the Albanian printed within show that Carver did not collaborate with Albanians even to get the damn phrases right) or just the big ones?

Really, after listing those things out I realize that there is nothing I want to say about this book that I can hold back from saying, even though exactly zero (0) of my readers will ever lay hands on Carver’s masterwork. As someone who has lived in the Balkans, it’s absolutely clear to me that Carver’s travelogue is as much a product of his imagination and the spy thrillers he reads as anything that actually happens around here; and my suspicions about this work leave me feeling nearly as unsettled as I did after I finished reading Three Cups of Tea with the sense that Mortensen had managed to pull one over on every person who had never worked in foreign aid.

So, where to start. Carver visits Albania in 1996, just five years after the fall of Communism and shortly before the 1997 collapse of the pyramid schemes that many Albanians had invested their life savings in. Although the book’s title refers to the Accursed Mountains of the country’s north, Carver spends more of his three months in Albania in the south and in the country’s capital, Tirana, lending the book a slightly unbalanced feel.

Carver makes some astute observations about the Albanian character and, in particular, about what the easy availability of Western foreign aid has done to the country. He describes Albanians as “Westernized but not Western” (26), which is about the best way I can think of describing the Balkans today – many people listen to American music, watch American films, dress in American styles, but maintain a very Albanian mindset. Carver makes some good points, as well, about what Communism followed by foreign aid has done to the local initiative, writing that “nothing would ever be done to clean up and rebuild the country, because that was always and would always be ‘someone else’s’ job” (26).

It’s unfortunate, then, that the things Carver gets right about the country are so outweighed by what he gets horribly, and seemingly purposely, wrong. Carver doesn’t take a single bus journey that doesn’t involve numerous stops to pay off local policemen and/or bandits. Within a hundred pages of the book’s start, the writer is convinced that people are plotting to kill him at every turn. Given that Albania had been home to Peace Corps Volunteers since 1992 (and Peace Corps doesn’t place its volunteers in countries where Americans are regularly hunted down by wily locals), it’s only logical to conclude that Carver’s conviction that so many Albanians were out to harm him is the result of either an unbalanced mind or a desire to sell more copies by dramatizing the story a bit. Probably the latter, since the lead-in to the sixth chapter of The Accursed Mountains is, “The first attempt to murder and rob me was a hopelessly amateur affair” (88). This attitude of paranoia pervades the remaining 250 pages of the book.

That Carver chooses to show Albanians in such a light is offensive precisely because it is a country that is known by so few. To color an entire nation as being populated by thieves, rapists, and murderers, as Carver does, is an irresponsible act. It’s one that’s all the more upsetting for the moments in which Carver reveals himself to have known so little Albanian during his travels, and to have done so little fact-checking while writing his book, that he was not even able to get correct something as simple as asking for a coffee “without sugar.” (He writes “ska sheker.” It should be “pa sheqer.” Literally, the first thing I learned to say in Albanian.) And yet, to most readers of The Accursed Mountains, Carver’s word would be taken as good as fact, just as so many readers believed what Greg Mortensen laid out in Three Cups of Tea. Maybe the impact wasn’t as wide-ranging here as with Three Cups – Carver, after all, didn’t find a way to make millions via a charity playing off the goodwill of his readers – but it’s upsetting nonetheless to think of an author twisting his story in order, presumably, to sell more books.

What else does Carver get wrong? The biggest fault is probably when he writes about the Kanun of Lek Dukagjini. The Kanun is a code of law that Albanians in the northern mountains used to govern themselves – I wrote about it a while back in relation to an article about blood feuds. The Kanun of Lek Dukagjini is just one example of these law codes, and the best known. Carver seems unaware that there are other Kanuns, and makes the further error of writing about all Albanian society, northern and southern, in light of the Kanun. If Carver had spent even a few weeks reading about Albania, he would have known that his entire chapter on the Kanun deserved to be cut.

For all the times that publishers have been criticized for not fact-checking anything they publish (is this an exaggeration? I don’t have a fact checker to tell me), they’re going to continue printing books like The Accursed Mountains that are full of factual errors and offer a false picture of something most people will never experience for themselves. I guess the unfortunate conclusion is that we have to approach all these books with caution and suspicion, an awareness of the limitations of our own knowledge, and an awareness that the author in some cases may be seeking to sell books rather than offer something close to the truth. Which, frankly, sucks.

* Further offenses, that as a woman I feel I can’t leave off without mentioning, come in the form of Carver’s sexism. The man appears incapable of describing a woman other than by the size of her breasts; he seems to view women as nothing more than a pair of legs with a pair of breasts attached at the top. See:

Prominent, unavoidably so, were also a pair of splendid, gauze-enveloped breasts which fully deserved to be declared national monuments in their own right. I didn’t dare ask ‘Falso or vero?‘, although it did cross my mind. (154)

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Review: Edith Durham’s High Albania

Edith Durham was a British traveler of the early twentieth century who focused much of her travel and writing on Albania. At the time, the West knew little about Albania – the country was largely unexplored. In her travelogue, High Albania, Durham notes at times the gross inaccuracy of the maps she’s traveling with, giving some sense of just how unknown the region was.

Durham occasionally delves into anthropology, but High Albania is a book best read as the travel diary of a woman in love with the Albanian people. There’s some discomfort here for a reader visiting the book over a hundred years after it was first written, as Durham frequently offers cringe-worthy statements about the childlike nature of the Albanians, or broad criticisms of the Muslims she encounters on her travels. (Though she never goes as far as the Christian Albanians, who claim you can always tell when a Muslim is in the room by the stench.) But read with a sense of the time at which it was written, and a knowledge of Durham’s unabashed love for Albanians – that other famous female chronicler of the Balkans, Rebecca West, criticized Durham for returning home “with a pet Balkan people established in their hearts as suffering and innocent, eternally the massacree and never the massacrer” – this is a stunning glimpse at Northern Albania just before the first World War.

I usually keep my reviews out of the realm of the personal, but in the case of High Albania I’m not sure there’s a way to do so, or even a reason to try. One of the things I most loved about Durham’s writing was that it highlighted so many of the things I felt and experienced when I lived in Macedonia, over a hundred years after she made the trip she writes about in this book. There is something awing about getting a glimpse of the continuity of a regional culture, and to see that for all the aspects of life that have changed in Northern Albania (and also in Western Macedonia – I’m extrapolating, because although there a number of real distinctions between the Albanian cultures and religions in the two countries, and between Macedonian Muslims and Albanian Muslims, there are also a lot of commonalities, broadly speaking) there are many that are just the same. When Durham eats at a sofra, for instance, I was drawn back to my first time eating at a sofra with my host family in Debar, and to some of the traditions they explained over the two years I lived with them.

The women brought warm water in an ibrik and soap, and a clean towel for each. We washed our hands, the sofra was spread with the men’s dinner. We squatted round (I am always classed with the buck-herd) and the women withdrew to a respectful distance.

The soup, fowl, eggs, and milk were excellent. We ate with wooden ladles from a common platter. The Kastrati took the breast-bone of the fowl and held it against the light, scrutinised its markings, and declared it foretold no evil to this house – which was very polite of him.

[…]

We washed our hands and rose from the sofra. The women hurried up and carried the remains to the other end of the room, where they devoured them. (64)

Edith Durham

High Albania is composed of moments like this. There’s no real organizing principle evident behind Durham’s writing; at points, there is even a jumpiness to the text that suggests a direct transcription of notes she made while traveling. Durham’s shifting from describing travel conditions to a blood feud (one of her main focuses as she writes) to a traditional story gives us a vivid portrait of Albanian life. That Durham chose not to attempt better organization was actually one of my favorite aspects of the book, as the crush of information about all aspects of Albanian life so closely mirrors the actual experience of moving to a new country and attempting to assimilate cultural traditions and history and habits all at one moment.

In recounting traditional stories, Durham also offers a glimpse of the sort of favorite stories that will rarely show up in a history book, and that highlights some aspects of the Albanian character that we might otherwise miss. She includes perhaps five or ten stories of a few pages each in High Albania, but there are also briefer examples of this type of story – here’s one.

The tribesmen love a joke. It is usually a tale of a successful swindle. Thus: A man bought a donkey at the bazar and led it away. Two thieves followed him. One slipped the halter from the donkey, and went off with it. The other put the halter on his own head, and followed the man. When the first thief had had time to escape with the donkey, the second began to pull and groan. The astonished man looked back, and found the donkey gone and a man in its place. “Where is my donkey?” he asked. “Alas!” cried the thief, “I am that luckless being. A wicked magician turned me into a donkey for fifteen years. The time has just come to an end. I have nothing, and know not where to go.” The kind man then released him, and gave him some money. (212)

As Durham writes, the idea of the trickster is such a common one in Balkan stories – it is these characters, in fact, who are the “heroes” of the story. In the despairing way in which they speak of the Turkish government, and of the possibility of having greater rule and fewer blood feuds in the Northern region, there is a sense of why this tale of the swindle is such a central one in Albanian culture. For a group of people so removed from government, who may have heard of the great workings of the West or the Ottoman Empire but saw no evidence of them in their own lives, for people who might work hard every day but have their lives changed by one instance of good or bad luck, the notion of a man tricking his way into a better situation must have been an apt one. Durham does a fantastic job of pointing the reader to this, and to so many other factors influencing the lifestyles and mindsets of the Albanians she meets.

High Albania is a great read for anyone into old-timey travelogues, the Balkans, or casual anthropology. I may well write more about this work, but no fears – anything more in-depth will find its proper place on my other blog, where I probably should be writing about all my research reading to start with. (But hey! It’s my blog, I make the rules around here!)

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Review: Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs

Oh, Maisie Dobbs! Where do I begin? I read the first novel in Jacqueline Winspear’s mystery series about an investigator-slash-pyschologist in inter-war London over one gorgeous day on my balcony. I think I put it down, a couple times, for meals.

The first novel in the series, titled simply Maisie Dobbs, follows Maisie as she opens her detective agency in London and struggles to find clients. With help from her benevolent former employers (along the lines of Downton Abbey’s Lord Granthom), she soon finds work on a number of minor cases. One of these cases forces Maisie to look at her own past, and to uncover the wounds World War I has left on her and on so many former soldiers from England, including the son of her former boss, Lady Rowan Compton.

Maisie Dobbs isn’t a mystery novel in the strictest sense of the term, because there is so much here that has to do with Maisie’s personal development, and with the changes to British society during the wars, rather than with the investigations she is hired to carry out. In making the novel as much about culture and loss and moving past personal histories, though, Winspear gives us something so much more valuable than a simple whodunnit: a novel that takes its central mystery as a way to consider World War I and its lasting impact on soldiers and society as a whole.

As the novel opens, Maisie is hired by a man who believes his wife is cheating on him. In following his wife, Maisie stumbles over a larger mystery: that of how a retreat for wounded soldiers is being run, and why several men living at the retreat have died in the past years. In addressing this mystery Winspear relies heavily on coincidence, and there’s an air of Nancy Drew here as Maisie tools around in Lady Compton’s “smart crimson motor car”, but watching Maisie and her assistant, Billy, work to learn the truth behind this retreat is a pleasure.

The middle third of the novel is devoted to Maisie’s past. It’s here that the novel loses some steam, but also where Maisie’s character – and the characters of those she works with and has lived with – are developed. After her mother dies, Maisie has to work as a maid in the home of Lady Compton. After her employer discovers Maisie’s thirst for learning, she is supported in her studies and as she goes to university. Not long after the outbreak of war, though, Maisie leaves school to train to be a Red Cross nurse. In the course of things, she falls in love with a doctor, Simon; it’s this story that shapes Maisie’s own, including her interest in investigating the soldiers’ retreat. Although her tone is often light, Winspear does an admirable job of coloring the war for her readers, particularly the ways that war overlaps with the daily lives of those still living at home. Before she decides to train as a nurse, for example, Maisie is passing through a train station:

The station was a melee of khaki, ambulances, red crosses, and pain. Trains brought wounded to be taken to the London hospitals, nurses scurried back and forth, orderlies led walking wounded to waiting ambulances, and young, new spit-and-polished soldiers looked white-faced at those embarking.

Despite its faults as a mystery novel (namely, that no reader could hope to solve the mystery before Maisie herself does), Maisie Dobbs is a total pleasure of a novel, beach reading for the person who wants something some depth in their reading. Watching Maisie move through London ten years after the war is enthralling, as is watching her work through her memories in the course of her work. It is real fun to trip in Maisie’s shadow as she works not only to solve the central mystery, but to find some closure for her own memories and wounds (physical and otherwise) of the war.

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Review: David Goodis’s Dark Passage

Disclaimer: This novel, part of a five-novel collection (Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s) was provided by the publisher for review.

David Goodis’s Dark Passage was first published in 1946, serialized in The Saturday Evening Post before being published in hardback and adapted for a film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Dark Passage was Goodis’s big break as a noir writer, and is being reprinted as the first of five novels in The Library of America’s David Goodis collection.

The novel is a claustrophobic, sometimes downright trippy, following of Vincent Parry, a man who escapes from prison after being incarcerated for the murder of his wife. Parry has claimed his innocence all along, and in his escape hopes to find his wife’s real killer. This is a novel in which nothing, and no one, is unimportant. Every person that Parry meets is somehow central to Goodis’s plotting, even if they at first seem little more than background color. There’s a sort of hyperrealism at play here, as Parry’s history, his relationship with his wife, his relationship with the woman who aids him after his escape, and every event between his escape and novel’s close, is exaggerated. Characters’ speech somehow has an element of terseness even at its most verbose, and there is a serious pleasure to watching the speed with which characters are drawn and developed in the pressure cooker environment Goodis has loaned to them.

Goodis early establishes not only Parry’s innocence, but an innocence to his spirit that provides a sharp contrast to his surroundings.

He had an idea that he might be able to extract some ounce of happiness out of prison life. He had always wanted happiness, the simple and ordinary kind. He had never wanted trouble.

As clearly as Goodis here draws Parry’s character for the reader, other characters of Dark Passage are able to guess at his motives and movements. Most notably, there’s Irene: a woman whose father was wrongfully convicted of murder and died in prison, and who has followed Parry’s case since his trial. Hearing of his escape from prison, she manages to intercept him and drive him to her apartment in San Francisco, where she urges him to remain in hiding until the manhunt dies down. Irene and Parry develop an odd and intense intimacy, forced by Parry’s lack of options, her money, and her inexplicably strong desire to see his name cleared.

Things, of course, can’t be so simple for Parry as holing up for a couple weeks in the home of a beautiful woman. Insistent that he leave her apartment, he finds himself in the backseat of a cab whose driver has his own interest in helping Parry – and who has a backstreet plastic surgeon for a friend. After getting his face redone, Parry goes to the apartment of his best friend only to find that he’s been murdered. It’s here that Goodis moves into high gear, as Parry attempts to evade law enforcement, the murderer of his friend (and presumably, also, his wife), negotiate his relationship with Irene, and learn who murdered his wife, and why.

The energy coursing beneath Goodis’s writing sometimes belies the coarseness of the prose; but this, like so many other elements to the story, seems perfectly fitting here. The descriptions of violence, the attention Goodis gives to blood in all its shades and spatters, are both gorgeous and representative of his prose:

There was blood all over Fellsinger, blood all over the floor. There were pools of it and ribbons of it. There were blotches of it, big blotches of it near Fellsinger, smaller blotches getting even smaller in progression away from the body. There were flecks of it on the furniture and suggestions of it on a wall. There was the cardinal luster of it and the smell of it and the feeling of it coming up from Fellsinger’s busted skull and dancing around and settling down wherever it pleased. It was dark blood where it clotted in the skull cavities. It was luminous pale blood where it stained the horn of the trumpet that rested beside the body. The horn of the trumpet was slightly dented. The pearl buttons of the trumpet valves were pink from the spray of blood.

Dark Passage is a novel that asks its readers to suspend belief, and rewards them, handsomely, for doing so. This is a novel that bristles with tension, in which every character and every moment is of the utmost importance. It’s one so heavy with atmosphere that it at times feels hard to catch a breath. And whether Goodis takes Parry anywhere other than we expected, it’s a joy to accompany this character as he struggles to clear his name and find freedom, or even happiness.

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Check back over the coming weeks for reviews of other novels from the new Library of America Goodis collection, Five Noir Novels of the 1940s & 50s.

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