Fiction - The infinite well

The Successor

Ismail Kadare <em>Canongate, 224pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 1841957631

The novels of Ismail Kadare, first winner of the Man Booker International Prize for fiction, are preoccupied by exhumation. As an Albanian who lived through the Soviet 1960s, Kadare rejected socialist realism's manufactured sunshine in favour of a more Balkan climate. His novels are labyrinths walled in by misty, treacherous mountains; instead of embracing optimism, he interrogates the past by unburying the dead. Kadare's first memory of literature, he has said, is of reading Macbeth. In his latest novel, he shows himself to be as fascinated as ever by inheritance, retribution and the hold the dead exert on the living.

The Successor's first line reads: "The Designated Successor was found dead in his bedroom at dawn on December 14." Having despatched his central character, Kadare turns his attention to those left behind. Because the dead man is heir apparent to Albania's leader (known as the Guide), his death is the occasion of fevered speculation: was it suicide or assassination? The nation is drawn into a labyrinth of uncertainty and deceit from which only truth can provide an exit.

A small group of characters come under suspicion: Adrian Hasobeu, the Successor's political rival; Suzana, the dead man's daughter; the architect responsible for the recent magnificent remodelling of the Successor's villa; and the doctor who conducts the autopsy. Above these stands Albania's dictator himself (or "Himself"). Did he order his Successor's death? Various things suggest he did: the architect knows of a secret passage from the Guide's villa next door through which a murderer could have entered; the Guide mysteriously instructed Hasobeu to patrol the Successor's villa on the December night in question. The characters, however, are fearful of saying what they know, and look to the Guide for a way out of the labyrinth.

Yet the Guide has no interest in the truth: "he didn't know, and never had known, what really went on at the Successor's residence on that night of December 13". Ailing and blind, he leads by tyranny, and like all tyrants is concerned only with deploying tyranny's favourite weapons: uncertainty and terror. Hasobeu's wife understands "his real secret: how to keep people on a string while fast asleep".

Kadare's political whodunnit sheds light not just on the 20th century - on Hoxha, Stalin, Hitler, Bokassa, Amin, Pinochet - but on every age. The nation portrayed is not just Albania, as Kadare makes clear in a nimble inversion of the novelist's usual disclaimer: "The events of this novel draw on the infinite well of human memory, whose treasures may be brought to the surface in any period, including our own. In view of this, any resemblance between the characters and circumstances of this tale and real people and events is inevitable." For the current relevance of the Successor's unexplained death, we need look no further than Ukraine a year ago, and the "suicide" of one of ex-president Kuchma's associates.

Like many of Kadare's works, The Successor draws on the literature - as well as the politics - of the past. From his youthful obsessions with Shakespeare and Homer, Kadare has retained not just a love of mystery and wit and a facility for clear, bleak language, but a sense of the text's own mystery and the impossibility of fully penetrating it. Throughout his career, he has revived old forms - epic, myth, fable, folk tale, legend - partly to distract Albania's censors. Kadare's distinction is mostly shared by his translator, David Bellos, except for a few occasions when he slips up with a phrase such as "run-of-the-mill" when he means "par for the course". There is certainly nothing run-of-the-mill about Kadare's biting parable of tyranny.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Why British men are rapists