Ismail Kadare: Gjenerali i ushtërisë së vdekur (The General of the Dead Army)
Kadare’s first novel published in English (there had been previous ones published in French) is a superbly written novel and showed that Albania was, from the literary point of view, no backwater. The story concerns an Italian general – known simply as The General – who is coming to Albania, twenty-five years after the Italian invasion of Albania under Mussolini in 1939, in order to repatriate the bones of Italian soldiers killed during the invasion. They are getting the cooperation of the Albanians (in return for money, of course) and it is the Albanian workers who do most of the work. The General is accompanied by a priest (who has lived in Albania and who speaks Albanian) and an Albanian-appointed expert.
On the face of it, the whole business looks straightforward. The General has details of who is buried where and he has the cooperation – more or less – of the Albanian authorities. Even the Albanians do not seem too bitter, as they might be expected to. However, things gradually go wrong. The weather is against them. It is permanently cold and wet. Bodies are not where they are supposed to be. In particular, they cannot find the body of Colonel Z. Before leaving Italy, the General has been petitioned by hundreds of relatives to find their son/husband/father. In particular, he has been petitioned by the well-connected widow of Colonel Z, who is convinced that her husband was a hero and that no effort must be spared to bring his remains back home. Of course, we gradually learn that Colonel Z. was the head of a vicious punishment battalion that slaughtered, pillaged and raped its way across Albania.
Kadare tells a wonderful story not only from the point of view of the General and the priest but also the Albanians and from the point of view of the dead. For example, they find a diary of an Italian who had deserted and gone to work for an Albanian farmer. The Italian tells a poignant story of his desertion and his love for the daughter of the farmer (she is eventually married off, against her will, and taken away to her new husband’s place). We also see a less successful effort by another foreign power to look for their dead and there is an interesting comparison and rivalry between the two.
It all ends, though not very successfully. The General gatecrashes a wedding, where he is clearly not welcome, and is abused and attacked by a woman who lost her husband and her daughter, because of the notorious Colonel Z. He does recover the body of the Colonel but then loses it. He is very happy to leave Albania. An excellent novel.
First published 1967 by Naim Frasheri, Tirana
First published in English 1971 by W. H. Allen, London