‘The Traitors Niche’ by Ismail Kadare – A Comedy of Beheadings


‘The Traitors Niche’ by Ismail Kadare (1978)  – 200 pages      Translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson

Ismail Kadare of Albania is one of those writers I keep coming back to because I get a lot out of his novels. ‘The Traitor’s Niche’ is no exception.

‘The Traitor’s Niche’ is a historical novel and a laugh riot that takes place in the early nineteenth century when Albania was still part of the brutal Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman rule was harsh to say the least, and in the main square of Constantinople they kept what was called a Traitor’s Niche where just the head of a leader who had rebelled against the empire was displayed to the public. Whenever a new rebellion was quashed the head of its leader would replace the head that was currently displayed. ‘The Traitor’s Niche’ is the story of the beheading of one such rebel leader Black Ali, the transfer of his head to the square in Constantinople, and the care and grooming of the head to keep it in shape for public display.

The blade of destiny had harvested its crop, and it was there on the table, this white cabbage from the gardens of Hell.”

Not only were the Ottoman rulers constantly quashing uprisings; they also made harsh attempts to strip or erase their conquered people of their national identities. Kadare calls this stripping of identity Caw-caw, and the Ottomans used several methods to achieve this goal. Weddings are one occasion where communities celebrate their roots, so the Ottoman rulers would come up with diabolical ways to debase, distort, or entirely eliminate the wedding rites of these subjugated people.

Another Ottoman goal was to reduce their various conquered peoples’ languages down to what Kadare calls Nonspeak:

Words had been expunged from dictionaries, rules of grammar and syntax had gradually been erased until they vanished from use, and finally the letters of the alphabet were rubbed out.”

So among all the fun and mischief of the beheadings and the care and grooming and display of these severed heads, Kadare makes some serious points about the destruction of a people’s culture and language by a conquering empire.

That is what I like most about Ismail Kadare, his mixture of the profane and the sacred. Not many writers have the ambition or the wherewithal to deal with an entire nation’s identity and still be humorous.


Grade:   A


3 responses to this post.

  1. Indeed, one of my favourite writers. I forget which prize he won that brought him to our attention, but I’ve been buying his books ever since. This is one of my favourites too, but I also liked The Siege.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Lisa,
      This is the fifth Ismail Kadare novel I have read and reviewed just since I have been blogging. That’s more than any other writer. And I still haven’t read ‘The Siege’.
      Another wonderful novel from southeastern Europe is ‘The Bridge on the Drina’ by Ivo Andric which also deals with the time when the Ottoman Empire ruled that part of Europe.



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