A bloody trail

Pyramid of Skulls by Paul Cézanne

THE TRAITOR'S NICHE By Ismail Kadare,Harvill Secker, Rs 799

The movement of capital is the movement of power. The word 'capital' is derived from the Latin ' caput', meaning head. The movement of heads severed from bodies is also the movement of power, a horrible, grotesque reverse of the other kind of movement, but serving the same purpose.

Ismail Kadare's The Traitor's Niche describes the bloody trail left by heads of enemies of the state, cut off and transported across provinces, over vast stretches of snow, to be displayed in a niche in the main square of Constantinople. This is early 19th century Ottoman Empire, and the heads are coming in a row from the frontiers, especially from Albania, a troublemaker for long.

Kadare, one of the greatest literary figures of Albania and of the contemporary world, wrote this novel in 1978. It took 39 years to be translated, but better late than never, for The Traitor's Niche is that dark, grim, compelling book which exhilarates even as it makes no obvious concession to humour.

Ironies abound though. The grand business of transporting heads and keeping them on display rests on two humble servants, like a triumphal arch on two sturdy pillars: Abdulla, the keeper of the niche, and Tundj Hata, the imperial courier, who brings the heads to the capital joyfully. (On the way, he makes a little money by displaying the heads to impoverished, conquered village folk.) But one little slip, and the heads of these two can roll too. No head is safe in the empire. Only the spectacle of death is, in the hands of Tundj the courier.

Kadare writes the book as an allegory. He was regarded as one of the strongest living voices against totalitarianism. What the Ottoman Empire was to Albania, which would not gain freedom till 1912, the communist Albania of the 20th century would be to many, including Kadare.

His works were systematically banned from the 1960s by the communist regime of his country. He was accused of using allegory, the only way he could tell his story, as a strategy of masking the truth. In 1990, he sought political asylum in France. Kadare, whose name has been up for the literature Nobel for long, has said again and again that dictatorship and literature are incompatible.

The greatest strength of The Traitor's Niche lies in the allegory, which speaks at many levels: what was true once is also true now as the world submits to the power of huge, totalitarian entities, not only political but also corporate.

In the Ottoman State, a ministry was set up to erase languages of the conquered provinces. After the head of Albania's decapitated rebel leader, Ali Pasha, is placed in the hands of the royal courier, the ministry will swing into action, and begin to obliterate Albanian, and accomplish "the ruin of grammar, the withering of particles, especially prefixes, and the coarsening of syntax". Sounds kind of familiar in the age of globalization and disappearing languages?

An interesting episode in the novel involves the poet Byron, who had visited Ali Pasha in Albania in 1809 and written about it in "Childe Harold". Kadare takes a certain liberty with Byron, as does Byron, characteristically.

Wish one got to read more writers like Kadare who write in their own languages, with words tough and sinewy like rope, able to retain their own shape and power, despite the hegemony of English. The translation into English by John Hodgson is admirable.


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