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Ismail Kadare: Spiritus [Spiritus]

An unspecified group is visiting all the European post-Communist countries, with the aim of trying to find evidence of the supernatural in those countries, particularly evidence of supernatural phenomena during the Communist period. They have finally arrived in Albania. Initially, Albania is like the other countries. There is some evidence of nasty behaviour by the authorities, such as the practice in Tobolsk, Russia, of burying a living person next to a recently dead person and then, post-Communism the two bodies being mixed when dug up, causing problems for the families of the survivors. Then they come to the town of B., possibly based on Sarandë, which is just across the Ionian sea from Corfu. There is nothing specific there but they start getting a few hints. A lot seems to revolve around a performance of Chekhov’s The Seagull. This was performed during the Communist period but was soon banned but then allowed to be performed. This happened four times before it was finally banned.

The performance itself seemed to have been more or less forgotten. Or has it? The group track down four survivors – the actress who played the role of the Seagull (presumably meaning the role of Nina), the wife of the director, the local Party secretary (who may or may not have been responsible for the ban) and the theatre manager. All have slightly different memories but some of them do remember the tale of a spirit having been captured by the secret police. Gradually we find out that the actress, a married woman, had had an affair with the electrician. We soon learn that he had been a medium. The group are amazed to learn that there was a spiritualist group in the town during the Communist regime. It seems that the electrician was the medium. He had been arrested by the police and been killed. The group, however, manage to track down a tape recording of him made both when he was a living medium but also as a dead spirit. Had the police really captured a spirit? They also learn that one of the actors had been shot, no-one knows by whom or why, soon after the fall of Communism. He had acted in a bizarre role. The police had made every effort to prevent people from fleeing from Albania to Corfu, but without success, till one day they returned with a body draped across their boat. This deterred people for a while but then they forgot it and started escaping again The actor was persuaded to play the role of a corpse and the police reenacted the scene. A plot involving the French government, a blind crow and various other odd events all seem to play a role.

This first part is called Chaos. The second part is called Revelation. It takes us back to the Communist days and the period when Enver Hoxha was going blind. This leads on to his paranoia and his acquisition of special spy microphones that the Chinese had given Albania, at Hoxha’s request. We follow the stories of some of the key players in the spiritualism meetings and the production of The Seagull. We see the stories from both sides – from the theatre and spiritualist groups but also from the side of the secret police. We also follow the role of Hoxha and his acolytes, with Kadare, as usual, happy to mock Hoxha and his paranoia and hubris. All the oddities, from the cancellation of the theatrical performance to the recording of the spirit, from the blind crow to the involvement of the French, are gradually explained in an unexpected way. Kadare, as ever, uses this explanation to mercilessly mock the Albanian authorities, from the use of Hoxha’s double to the special commission set up to organise his birthday presents.

This is certainly one of Kadare’s better books, with a clever and complicated plot, whose explanation is not obvious to us and certainly not to the characters in the book. And, as usual, he savagely mocks the Albanian Communist system. Sadly, this book has been translated into Catalan, French, German and Spanish but not into English.

Publishing history

First published 1996 by Onufri
No English translation
Published in Catalan as Spiritus in 2001 by Proa
Published in French as Spiritus in 1996 by Fayard
Published in German as Spiritus in 2007 by Ammann
Published in Spanish as Spiritus in 2000 by Alianza