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Ismail Kadare: Kështjella (The Castle; The Siege)

For some reason, this book was only available in English translation in a rare edition published in Tirana, though has since been retranslated (as The Siege) into English. It is set in the middle of the fifteen century, when the Ottoman Empire was feared throughout Europe and threatened Europe. First of all, however, they have to conquer tiny Albania. One of the Ottomans’ leading generals is called Scanderberg, real name George Castriota. By birth, he is Albanian. He and his brother had been taken by the Turks when their father had surrendered to the sultan and had been brought up a Turk in Turkey. He had become a famous Turkish general but suddenly switched sides and joined his own people. He led the tiny country of Albania in a successful rebellion against the Turks, using a combination of guerrilla tactics and the fierce resistance of his people to conquest. After his death, the Albanians held out for a while but were soon subjugated and became part of the Ottoman Empire. This novel recounts one episode in the Albanians’ resistance to the Turks.

The episode is the siege of the Castle of Kruja. A huge Turkish army under the Pasha, with new, powerful cannons and a host of men, arrives at the castle to attack it and take it. Scanderberg has stayed out of the castle. While we get glimpses of the Albanian side, it is general and written without reference to individuals. Most of the story is told from the Turkish side, particularly the leading officials – the Pasha, the chronicler, the quartermaster, the master armorer and a few others. Of course, this gives Kadare a chance to show the increasing frustration of the Turks to take the castle. They attack but are repulsed with heavy loss. They try tunneling but their tunnel is found and collapsed, with many in it. They try attacking the local villages but Scanderberg kills half of their force. Their great cannon kills more of their own men than of the enemy. Eventually, they find the water supply and cut it off but it is too late as the rains come before the water in the castle runs out. And all the while, Kadare skillfully shows the Turkish reaction and pokes mild fun at them. In real life the Turks eventually won but, just as the Italians lost in Gjenerali i ushtërisë së vdekur (The General of the Dead Army) and the Germans in Kronikë në gur (Chronicle in Stone), so here we see the defeat of the Turks and their bitter march home and another hard-won triumph for the Albanians.

Publishing history

First published 1970 by Naim Frasheri, Tirana
First published in English 1974 by “8 Nëntori” Publishing House, Tirana
Translated by Pavli Qesku (The Castle); Jusuf Vrioni (Albanian-French), David Bellos (French-English) (The Siege)