“The Successor” by Ismail Kadare (2003) – 207 pages Translated by David Bellos via Papavrami (French translation)
“The Successor” is a crystal-clear novel about the mysterious death of the number-two man in the tyrannical dictatorship that ruled Albania. The official line is that the death of this leader is a suicide, but questions quickly arise. Despite the cover, it is more of a political novel than a detective novel. Here is the first paragraph:
The Designated Successor was found dead in his bedroom at dawn on December 14. Albanian television made a brief announcement of the facts at noon: “During the night of December 13, the successor succumbed to a nervous depression and took his own life with a firearm.”
This novel is a family drama with the dead leader’s wife, daughter, and son being main characters. They live in a luxurious house which is located near the house of the absolute dictator (‘the Guide’) himself. The architect of the house gets involved because there is a locked tunnel from the absolute dictator’s house to the number-two man’s house which can only be unlocked from the dictator’s side of the tunnel.
This story is based to some unknown extent on a real incident that occurred in Albania in 1981 when the Albanian Prime Minister Mehmet Shehu was reported to have committed suicide in December 1981 and was subsequently denounced as a ‘traitor’ to Albania.
The writing is as plain and clear as a bell expressing the stark events which occur and the thoughts and feelings of this family. The novel came to us via the tortuous route of an English translation by David Bellos from the French translation by Papavrami from the original Albanian. Despite all, I suspect that the novel was written in this simple style to begin with. There is an elegance to the telling of this story that makes the novel powerful to read.
There is some criticism of Ismail Kadare on the Internet because he was never imprisoned during the many years of the Albanian dictatorship, while other famous writers who lived in Communist dictatorships such as Milan Kundera, Vaclev Havel, and Imre Kertesz spent time in prison. Albania had one of the most rigid and tyrannical dictatorships in Eastern Europe, and a writer who opposed the dictator may have been not only imprisoned, but also tortured and executed. Not having been there in Albania at that time, I really can’t fault Ismail Kadare.
What I can say is that “The Successor” is a strong stark depiction of the Albanian dictatorship during the Communist years, and the world is fortunate to have Kadare here to testify on those years. Ismail Kadare was the first winner of the Man Booker International Prize. I fully agree with the choice of Kadare ahead of subsequent winners Chinua Achebe, Alice Munro, and Philip Roth; his writing is that good.
“The Successor”, along with “Palace of Dreams”, is an excellent introduction to the writing of Ismail Kadare.