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The haunted Albania of Ismail Kadare’s A Girl in Exile

Kadare's story of a detective in a dictatorship is a ghost story twice over.

A Girl in Exile, the newly translated novel by the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, is a ghostly book, in a double sense. It is a ghost story, a tale of love, death and possession, that in its primal eeriness feels like something found in an ancient ballad. And it is set in a world that, though not so far in the past, already belongs to another, dead age – the world of communist Albania, under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.

Although A Girl in Exile was originally published in 2009, the story unfolds in what seems like the early 1980s, a time when Hoxha was nearing his death, though his repressive regime was still in full vigour. For Kadare, who came of age and spent most of his career under communism, this regime – with its secret police and phone taps, its censorship and thought control, its cat-and-mouse games with writers – is still very real in the imagination. Much of his work, including novels such as The Palace of Dreams,
uses Kafka-esque parables and historical legends to express indirectly the plight of the imagination under dictatorship.

Early in the book, the hero, Rudian Stefa, a middle-aged playwright, finds himself walking near the Dajti Hotel, the best one in Tirana, where visiting foreigners stay. He recalls “the Dajti test”, invented by a friend: “When you’re not sure you feel totally safe in your own skin, pass in front of the Dajti. If your feet hesitate even for an instant before entering, forget it. Admit that you’re no longer safe, to put it mildly.”

The test works because, Kadare implies, the hotel is a place of maximum visibility, full of spies and informants; to go there is to submit yourself to the full scrutiny of the regime. Worse, ordinary citizens have internalised the state’s power to such an extent that the government functions as a kind of superego: you don’t even have to set foot in the Dajti to feel judged by it.

Rudian has all the more reason to be afraid of that judgement because he is not an ordinary citizen. As a successful playwright, he is known to the secret police and the censors, even to the Leader himself. Although he seems to be in favour, his latest play is being held up by the Artistic Board, mainly because he had the daring to bring a ghost on stage, in violation of socialist-realist propriety. Yet it is not this ghost that will turn out to be most dangerous.

Rather, in the first scene of the novel, Rudian is summoned by the party to explain his connection to a young girl, Linda B, who has died in the provinces and who had in her possession a signed copy of one of his books. At first, he is confused, thinking that the girl in question is his girlfriend, Migena (whose name, Kadare over-helpfully spells out, is an anagram of “enigma”). And this confusion – Rudian’s uncertainty over what he is dealing with and who is who – remains the keynote of the book. A Girl in Exile is structured like a detective story, with the hero compelled to unravel the mystery of Linda: a girl he has never met but who might turn out to be his undoing.

Appropriately for a detective in a secretive dictatorship, the main obstacle Rudian faces is simply the reluctance of people to come out with facts they already know. His interrogator, for instance, clearly knows more about Linda B than he lets on; and Rudian is bold, or crazy, enough to phone the man up and invite him out for coffee, hoping to learn more about a case in which he himself is a possible suspect. In this scene, Rudian fantasises about becoming his interrogator’s interrogator: “Didn’t he know how cruel writers can be? If their roles were reversed, Rudian Stefa wouldn’t interrogate with this delicacy. He would shackle the man’s hands behind his chair back and scream at this filthy state torturer: Tell us how you gouged out Father Meshkalla’s eyes because he baptised a baby . . .”

Migena is the other keeper of secrets, and it is her refusal to meet with Rudian, or to tell him what he wants to know, that causes him most pain. “We’re still not being honest,” she tells him. “We don’t dare, either of us. We evade the truth, the dangerous part. We’re scared.” This reluctance is understandable, because they are both genuinely in danger from the state and the party; yet it is also frustrating, because it sometimes feels like a device to prolong the quest, and therefore the book. In the end, Migena does come out with the story of Linda, who turns out to be connected to her, and to Rudian, in intimate ways he could never have imagined.

By that time, however, Rudian has, like the writer he is, built up the dead girl into a full-fledged myth, making her the Eurydice to his Orpheus. Finally, he even receives a dream visit from Linda in which, like Keats’s Belle Dame sans Merci, she seems to cast a fatal love-spell on the writer:

He thought it would take years to say all the things he had in mind. He was preparing to tell just the gist of it, that this cold, lifeless union was a violation of the order of nature. But to his own astonishment, instead of uttering these words – in fact in contradiction of them – he lowered his head as a sign of acceptance.

Rudian, and the novel, seem to live on two planes; the body’s, constrained by politics and violence, and the soul’s, where anything is possible. If this is a kind of freedom, Kadare shows that it comes at a terrible price.

Adam Kirsch’s Emblems of the Passing World : Poems After Photographs by August Sander is published by Other Press

A Girl in Exile by Ismail Kadare, translated by John Hodgson, is published by Harvill Secker (192pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game