Ismail Kadare: Koncert në fund të dimrit (The Concert)
It is a mystery to me why, at the time of writing, Kadare has not won the Nobel Prize. This novel alone justifies it. Dimri i madh [The Great Winter] – not currently available in English – told the story of how Albania and the Soviet Union broke off relations. This novel does the same with the break-up of Albanian and Chinese relations. As with the first book, we follow the process of the break-up and its effect on individual Albanians. And, just as the first book took us into the head of Stalin, this one takes us into the head not only of Mao Zedong, but also other Chinese leaders, particularly Lin Baio (aka Lin Piao). And, as he does in other books, characters from the first novel appear in this one.
The book could have been called The Lemon Tree for, in a touch of Chinese symbolism, the book starts with a key character buying a lemon tree and ends with the tree producing its first lemon, after the break-up with the Chinese. We follow the story of a group of friends who are involved in the China business. One is a diplomat and has to travel to China, another works in a factory and deliberately assaults a Chinese colleague, leading to a diplomatic incident and his dismissal, while another has learned Chinese to make a living as a translator and now sees his living threatened. We learn that one man – an army officer in the tank corps – has been arrested for disobeying an order – with others – to arrest a group of party officials. Only later do we learn that the order was given by the minister at the suggestion of Lin Baio!
All the while, diplomatic relations are slowly been broken off, as the Chinese seek rapprochement with the West, particularly the United States (this is post-Nixon’s visit) and, at the same time, Mao is slowly dying and the vultures are waiting to pick apart his legacy. Every small event is analysed. But, as this is Kadare, he gets right inside Mao’s head. The scene in the cave, where Mao seemed to spend much of his time, and his obsession with Albania and his philosophical ramblings, is brilliant. But Kadare gives us much more – the Chinese plan to bug absolutely everybody (and why this does not work), the real story behind the death of Lin Biao and the power games for Mao’s succession. This reaches its climax in the brilliant eponymous concert scene, where people try to interpret who is there (and who is not) and who is sitting next to whom and what the various scenes of the opera really mean.
Albania more or less survived without China, just as most (though not all) of the characters in the book (and the lemon tree) do. This book – maybe Kadare’s finest – shows how the people survive both in reality and in their imaginations. It shows us the inner workings of both the Albanian and Chinese political systems, not just from a political perspective but also from a literary and imaginative perspective. Above all, it gives us portraits of key historical characters, such as Mao and Lin Baio but also the minister who made the decision to surround the party members, which are masterful.
First published 1988 by Naim Frasheri, Tirana
First published in English 1995 by Harvill Press, London, William Morrow, New York