Ismail Kadare: Shkaba (L’aigle) [The Eagle]
Another short novel by Kadare which is not available in English but is available in Dutch, French and Italian. It tells the story of Max who, at the start of the novel is a trainee in a bank. He attends a meeting but does not speak, for which he is rebuked not only by his boss but by friends and family members, who somehow seem to know, though he did not tell them. He is at home when he decides to go out for some cigarettes. On the way, he sees a poster for what is playing at the theatre and goes over to have a look at it. As he is reading it, the ground beneath his feet suddenly gives way and he falls down into a hole. The fall seems to take a long time and more than once he loses consciousness and then regains it. When he finally lands, he is unhurt and in front of a bar, called The Bar of Liberty not unlike the one where he was going to buy his cigarettes.
Of course, as this is Kadare, things are not what they seem. He soon discovers he is in some other land, which people fall into and but generally cannot escape. We can take it as being hell or as some form of Albanian Siberia or even just as a state of mind for people who do not quite fit into the society they lived in. He is told and soon learns that though this is not an ideal place to live, it is not terrible and there are some compensations. He also learns that others, like him, had committed some deed which did not go down well, though, by our standards, these deeds may have seemed relatively minor. He soon finds a place to live and a job in the savings bank. He meets friends in the bar and explores the city. He even meets people whom he knew before from up above. It seems to function like a normal capital city, with foreign ambassadors, police and other features of a city. He finds a deserted aerodrome, which he explores. Is this a way out or a way in and is it in use? One day, while in the bar he writes the name of his fiancée from his previous life in the condensation on the window. From the outside it looks like annA as her name was Anna. A young woman passing by sees it. They smile at one another and she comes into the bar and asks why he has written her name on the window. He tells her that it was his girlfriend from before. This Anna, who will remain annA in this story so as not to confuse her with Anna, starts an affair with him.
But, of course, he wants to get out. He explores the possibilities. There is a man who seems to be making a plane but will not say what he is in fact doing. He does manage to telephone his mother up above but the line is poor. However, the key way out seems to revolve around the eagle. He hears a legend that it is possible to escape on the back of an eagle but the price you pay is that the eagle must be fed from the flesh of the escapee. Of course, the eagle is the symbol of Albania and appears on the Albanian flag and it is clear, particularly as regards the flesh-eating eagle, that Kadare is making the point that this place is a version of Albania, where the state eats your flesh. Max finds out that there is a zoo and goes to visit it. The ticket-collector has been fired so you have to pass near the cages, where tickets are collected by the animal keeper. The zoo has few animals – various have been promised in the past but never arrived – though there is a wolf and there is an eagle. Max watches the eagle intently. When he goes to the butcher to buy meat of not particularly high quality, we know that he is planning something.
This is not one of Kadare’s great books but, as always a fascinating tale, with its own dark side and its criticism of the Albanian system. Is this place hell or Albania or just a state of mind? Kadare gives us clues for all three interpretations but leaves us to guess, even though the fairly horrific ending may help us decide. And, once again, it is a pity that you can read this book in Dutch, French and Italian but not English.
First published 1995 by Dukagjini
No English translation
Published in Dutch as De adelaar by Van Gennep in 1996
Published in French as L’aigle by Fayard in 1996
Published in Italian as L’Aquila by Longanesi in 2007