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.

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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 appears in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war