In his famous essay "What is a Nation?", the French historian Ernest Renan suggested that nations are defined equally by what people choose collectively to remember and by what everyone decides to forget. The General of the Dead Army tells the story of an Italian general sent to Albania in the 1960s to repatriate the remains of the young Italians who fell there during the Second World War. Their defeat is something that Ismail Kadare's saturnine general would rather forget. Unfortunately for him, the bungled Italian invasion and the tireless and savage resistance it provoked are things that the Albanians will always remember.
The general approaches his irregular mission with solemnity. Prior to his departure for Albania, he receives streams of relatives - peasants and city dwellers alike - who crave an end to their feelings of loss and present him with fragmentary details of their sons' lives. He attends press conferences at which the expectations of a bereaved nation are loaded on to his shoulders. The people are as unable to forget their losses as they are to remember the fascist expansionism that led to the deaths.
Equipped with lists and maps, dental records and notes of distinguishing features, and with only a terse Italian priest for company, the general arrives in Albania. He finds an unforgiving landscape and a simple, determined people, steeped in tradition. As the general lies in his tent after a day digging for skeletons in the rain, he listens to the Albanian labourers sing mournfully of suffering and martyrdom, bravery and loyalty. Yet, despite where and when this book was written (Enver Hoxha's Tirana in 1963), the novel is not above criticising everyday peasant life. One of the reasons Kadare was able to survive the terror of Hoxha's totalitarianism is that he shared with those who governed him the Marxist ambition to liberate the country folk from their backward past. Thus village life in the novel is permeated by superstition and oppressive conservatism. Yet the villagers' sense of place and their connectedness with the land contrasts with the general's sense that he is lost and adrift.
There is no respite from memory and death in this book. Each grave contains a story. Each graveyard is a place where biography and history converge. At irregular intervals, and without warning, the voices of the dead ripple into the narrative: a deserter's diary; a fragment of front-line conversation; the thoughts of a nameless young man moments before death. In that it involves reconciliation, co-operation and exhumations, rather than burials, the general's purpose is the opposite of bellicose. Yet it is also an extension of the war, as, hour by hour and day by day, memories are disinterred with the bones. The general, who exclaims bitterly that he has "a whole army of dead men under my command", is tortured by nightmares. In a mirror of his countrymen's defeat 20 years earlier, he is slowly vanquished by his task, his despair giving way to madness.
Piled up in hygienic bags, ready to be flown home, the remains of the dead are the last physical expression of the foundations upon which were built myths and stories, which are themselves extensions to the great mass of legend upon which a nation stands. (The German social historian Robert Michels has suggested that every nation has two myths: one of "origin" and another of "mission".)
It is hard not to be affected by Kadare's bleak parable. This is a novel that grasps its reader around the ankles and mires you, pulling you down until you are forced to travel through the book at exactly the author's pace - trapped, like the general, by the smell of rotting corpses and quicklime and by the inscrutable, weather-blasted faces of the Albanian workers. Kadare is often mentioned as a future Nobel prize-winner; with its metonymic realism and fidelity to its characters, The General of the Dead Army reminds us why his work is so valued.