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Ismail Kadare: Pashallëqet e mëdha (The Traitor’s Niche)

The Albanian means The Great Pasha, while the French and German call it The Niche of Shame. Both are valid, as the book is about Ali Pasha Tepelena, whom Byron met and wrote about but also about the niche of shame. Indeed, we start with the niche. It is a niche set relatively high up in a wall in a city, which is clearly Istanbul (though never named). The niche is used to put the heads of executed rebels or commanders who have failed in their duty and, as it is in a much visited part of the city, it can be and is seen by many people. This was an important part of the standard policy. We are first introduced to it, through Abdullah, whose sole job is to check on the head, twice a day in winter and four times in summer, to make sure it is not damaged or deteriorating. He has to report to the doctor, whose job is to ensure that the head is kept in good condition, using honey and ointments. At the start of the novel, the head of a rebel is there but a new one is expected – the head of Ali Pasha.

We learn that Ali Pasha is in revolt against the Empire. We later learn, after his death, that he wanted to become as great as Skanderberg and free Albania from the Ottoman Empire and had been trying to unite the various leaders of Albania for that purpose. The Sultan had left him for a while and had then sent a general, Bugrahan, to defeat him. This general had failed and it is his head that is in the niche at the beginning of the book. However, a new general, Hursid Pasha, was sent to defeat him. A decree exonerating Ali Pasha for all his misdeeds was given to him but this turned out to be a trick and he was arrested and beheaded. His enemies in Istanbul feared his success, so Hursid Pasha was accused of stealing Ali Pasha’s money and he committed suicide before being beheaded. All of this is in the historical record but, of course, Kadare embellishes it considerably.

We follow the story of Abdullah (briefly), his job, what he thinks about it, his marriage, his sexual problems and his downfall. We meet Ali Pasha, in particular in discussion with his wife, about his plans to regain Albania’s independence. We are privy to Hursid Pasha’s thoughts, both his concerns before Ali Pasha is beheaded and afterwards, particularly when he realises that it is his turn next. We learn about the discussions of the Sultanate officials, particularly when they are discussing what will happen to Albania after Ali Pasha’s beheading and the various forms of repression that will be used. But the most fascinating character is Tundj Hata, the imperial messenger. It his job to go out to Albania and bring back the head, first of Ali Pasha and then Hursid Pasha. He has a long journey and the head must be preserved at all costs but must also be swiftly transported to Istanbul, often through hostile territory. He makes some money on the way, showing the severed head to the villagers, for a price, commenting that this is their only form of entertainment. His journeys are described in great detail, including what he does with the head on returning to Istanbul and Kadare mildly, but only mildly, mocks the Sultanate bureaucracy through him.

The blurb on the back of my (French) copy states that this novel is to some extent a criticism of Communist repression. While this may be the case – the book was written just prior to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe – it certainly is not obvious, at least to this Western reader. As he has done before, Kadare tells a fine tale of his country’s sad history, in his own inimitable style, referencing his own books, including Ura me tri harqe (The Three-Arched Bridge) (Tundj Hata is scared to cross it because of the legend of the man bricked up in it) and Nënpunësi i pallatit të ëndrrave (The Palace of Dreams) (we learn that dreams are officially interpreted in the Sultanate). It is not, perhaps, as good a novel as those two but it is a pity that it not available in English

Publishing history

First published 1980 by Rilindja
First English translation by Vintage in 2017