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Ismail Kadare: Hija (L’ombre) [The Shadow]

This novel is not your typical Kadare novel. For a start, it is set mainly in Paris. It is set in the present. It does not involves Albanian myths, legends and customs. It was written between 1984 and 1986 (when Albania was still a totalitarian state) and only published in French in 1994 and not published in Albanian till 2003. Kadare had given instructions, before its publication in 1994, that it should be published in the event of his death.

The narrator of this novel is unnamed. He planned to be a film-maker and has written a script based on a story by a Russian friend, though the story features as its female lead, a character called Doruntine which, of course, recalls Kadare’s own novel of that name. However, the script is rejected. At first, he thought that this was for political reasons but he has now come to the conclusion that it was because it was not good enough. He styles himself a failed film-maker. But he then becomes involved in cultural activities. He finds out that he is to be sent to Paris to further Franco-Albanian cultural exchanges, particularly in the field of cinema. Naturally, he will not go alone so that he can spy on his colleague and be spied on by him. At the last minute, his colleague is taken ill. The first reaction is for the trip to be cancelled but our narrator has an uncle with an important post on the Central Committee and he is allowed to go alone. When the opportunity again occurs to go to Paris, he is, this time, allowed to go alone as he has already proved trustworthy going on his own! When he returns, his friends ask him if he has had an affair with a French woman. To his shame, he has to admit that he has not

A significant part of the rest of the book is his attempt to redress this failing, though it is by no means a straightforward process. There are two women he meets whom he considers. The first is Sylvaine, a film actress, and the second Madame V (we never learn the rest of her name or, indeed, whether there is a Monsieur V). Our narrator struggles with both, not least because of his own awkwardness. He becomes friendly with Sylvaine and tries to impose himself on her (there is an undercurrent of violence throughout the novel) but is politely rejected. It seems that she lives with someone but neither he nor we meet this mysterious man. Sylvaine always seems ready to meet him, go out with him and dine with him but nothing seems to go much further. Things are more complicated with Mme V but not much more successful.

The background to all of this is the political situation, which is constantly changing in Albania. At times, on his trips to Paris, he is accompanied by others. This makes it difficult, as the proper Albanian official despises Paris and everything in it as being contrary to Marxist-Leninist norms. (Our narrator, of course, adores Paris.) Another problem is that Albania is going through its most isolationist phase. The discussions on cultural exchanges – a French film week in Albania, an Albanian film week in France – are, according to the narrator, entirely spurious. Discussions are held, documents exchanged, papers signed but everyone on both sides knows that it is all a charade and nothing will ever happen. Back home, there is always a worry that the political climate will change and people will be arrested. For example, we follow the parallel story of our narrator’s Russian friend who seems to be in favour and then out of favour. There is a rumour that he was written a book that has been published in the West and has accordingly been sent to Siberia but, somehow, he keeps emerging. But our narrator somehow manages to keep coming back to Paris. On one occasion, it is proposed sending an Albanian representative to the Cannes film festival. There are two obvious candidates but both hate each other and spend their time attacking the other. Finally, the director decides to send no-one. But then Enver Hoxha receives a visit from his French doctors and they carry out a urine test. While doing so, they ask why no-one is going to the Cannes festival from Albania. The director is ordered to send someone and, not willing to send the two enemies, he sends our narrator, who wryly comments that the entire history of Albanian cinema may well have been changed by a urine test.

But there is another aspect to this isolationism. It is clear – and the narrator makes it clear – that the isolationism of Albania is reflected in the isolation of our narrator. His problem with the two women is mirrored in Albania’s isolation from the world. We get several amusing examples of this. On one of his trips, he phones up all his various friends, including Sylvaine and Mme V but all seem to be either in Belgium or going to Belgium. We never learn why or, indeed, if this is true but it is symbolic of his isolation. His visit to Cannes ends up with a Dantesque visit to the subterranean car park where he sees strange and threatening people, including his Russian friend. Is this a dream or is it really happening? The answer is that his paranoia is, understandably, deep.

This novel is certainly not as enjoyable as most of his others, with their exploration of the Albanian psyche, through its myths, legends and customs, and their light-hearted wit. There is humour here – for example his night-time drunken wanderings around Pigalle with his French friend, when everyone else is in Belgium – but it tends to be almost entirely dark. As a result, it is perhaps not too surprising that this book is only available in French and Albanian. Nevertheless, it is fascinating other side to Kadare and his preoccupations.

Publishing history

First published in French in 1994 by Fayard
First published in Albanian in 2003 by Onufri
No English translation