Ismail Kadare’s novel opens with the backdrop of a bustling city square in Constantinople, in the heart of the Ottoman Empire. There is an ancient stone wall in the square, into which a cavity has been carved, and in this cavity, on a dish of honey and salt, sits a human head. The head belonged to the pasha of Albania, who was seeking independence from the Empire, and the purpose of this display is a deterrent to anyone else thinking of rebellion. This head’s resting place is the traitor’s niche of the title of Kadare’s satirical, fiercely anti-authoritarian novel.
Kadare is Albania’s most popular living writer. His novels tackle the political upheavals in the area, which has been characterised by a series of dictatorships. Kadare, in his novels, deftly weaves together fact and fiction, reality and myth, to create incisive representations of the bizarre and destructive bureaucracies of dictatorial regimes. In The Traitor’s Niche, the human head in the niche will change faces three times, as the once victorious come to their downfalls, and the thirst for power and fear of its loss will drive men to killing each other, again and again.
The novel begins with tourists in the central square gaping at the head. The reader, along with these tourists, is struck by this image, the grotesqueness of it but also its hypnotic effect. To examine a head without a body, to peer into eyes that no longer have life, is a disconcerting experience that inspires complicated and intense feeling. The novel shifts perspective rapidly, from one character to the next, and each reacts to the head in a profound manner. This first chapter follows Abdullah, the keeper of the square, who is overwhelmed by the head’s potency. Hurshid Pasha, the ruler who defeated the beheaded Ali Pasha, looks at the head with fear and dread, but also reverence and love; ‘my savior,’ he murmurs to it, ‘my destiny’. And Tundj Hata, the courier responsible for transporting the head to the central square, is made giddy by the sight of it, by the flipping of the power dynamic in his possession of it. In his mind, he says to it, ‘you would have split your sides with laughter, haha, hehe, if anyone had told you that one day Tundj Hata the courier would have any business with you.’
Kadare’s characters continue to shift from one section to the next, and the effect is sometimes confusing. The reader barely grasps on to a character before being hurtled into another’s mind, and is often left with only a vague sense of the characters’ fears and anxieties. Every character in this novel is bathed in anxiety, and rightfully so, given the severed human head that looms above them. But perhaps the individual characters of the novel were never the point, as Kadare’s focus is on the bureaucracies of Empire. He is interested in the many dutiful but frail humans that make up the Sultan’s land, that do his bidding and keep his territory in check.
The Traitor’s Niche makes one thing clear: warfare and authoritarianism are the playing fields of men. Even the existence of women is acknowledged infrequently in this novel, and when women do appear, their subjectivity is usually limited to their views on their husbands, or more specifically, to their relationship to their husband’s thirst for power. Ali Pasha’s wife is alternately titillated and horrified by her husband’s desire for Albanian independence, and Abdullah’s wife suffers from her husband’s sexual impotence, which itself is a reaction to his awe at the power of Empire. The desire for land in the novel is also often linked to the desire for women. Tundj Hata, while transporting the head through snow, muses, ‘why wasn’t snow black, like the veils of women? After all, the soil is nothing but a fertile woman. An old whore. That was why high officials went even crazier for land than for women’. Similarly, when Ali Pasha is on the verge of defeat, he feminises Albania and regrets that he did not treat her better: ‘It was unforgivable to forget Albania … now that circumstances had forced him to remember her, it was too late. He had long been deaf towards her, and now she too was deaf to him’.
There is something dehumanising and limiting in the fact that women are largely a symbolic force in this narrative. Perhaps a deeper understanding of the pull of power would have been possible if it had not been conceptualised in such fiercely male, heterosexual terms. The desire for power is after all, a human one, not limited to the menfolk. Perhaps the novel’s datedness is a partial explanation – although it has only just been translated into English, it was published forty years ago in its native Albania.
Overall, however, the Traitor’s Niche is a compelling and absolutely relevant read. By presenting his readers and his characters with a severed human head, and bringing to the forefront of their minds the fact that this head would very easily be their own, Kadare highlights the fear of mortality that drives so many of the instincts behind nation-building and authoritarianism. Near the end of the novel, we learn how the business of Caw-Caw, the stripping of a land’s national identity, takes place. The process involves slowly killing out the language, closely monitoring memories and dreams, and disrupting long-held traditions and ceremonies. Through these kinds of clever subversions of reality, Kadare offers a representation of the nature of fascism and warfare that digs below the surface, that allows for a deeper understandings of political processes, and that could help conceptualise this new era of racialised neo-nationalism that we stand at the precipice of today.
The Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare is published by Harvill Secker (£14.99, pp208)
Review by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi
Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi is a short story writer, playwright, and reviewer. Her work has appeared in publications including Peepal Tree Press’s anthology, Closure, Don’t Do It Magazine, The Independent, The Express Tribune, Burnt Roti, and DAWN. She developed her first play with the Kali Theatre Company, worked with the Royal Court Introductory Playwriting Group, and is currently on a year-long attachment with the Tamasha playwrights.