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Ismail Kadare: Kukulla (The Doll)

The subtitle of this novel is The Story of my Mother and, indeed, the eponymous doll is Kadare’s mother. The book is different from his earlier work as this is a straightforward autobiographical novel about the author’s mother, about himself, particularly how he became a writer, and about his wife, Helena.

In 1990 Kadare and his wife, left Albania and sought political asylum in France, which they were granted. The book opens in 1994 when there had been increased liberalisation in Albania. Kadare’s mother, who is never named in this book though we know that she was called Hatixhe, is dying. Kadare’s brother phoned him and he and his wife take the next plane to Tirana, where she lives, to find her still alive but unable to understand anything. As before she looks like a doll, small, frail as if made of paper.

While other children had various problems regarding their mothers – no mother or parents separated, both of which were considered shameful, Ismail’s problem was different. It had to do mainly with her fragility, with what would later strike me as her resemblance to paper or plaster of Paris.

She had come as a young bride to her husband’s house and it was very traumatic for her. In those days, marriages were arranged and, before the marriage, she had only briefly seen her future husband from a window. The two families, the Kadares and the Dobis, were very different. The Dobis were well off, the Kadares were not. In particular the two houses were very different. Our house was old and grim, but that of my grandfather on my mother’s side was the opposite. Indeed, the Kadare house even had its own prison. The Doll, as I shall call her, stated the Kadare house ate her up. Kadare feels houses like ours seemed constructed with the specific purpose of preserving coldness and misunderstanding for as long as possible.

There were other differences. The Dobis had lots of living relatives while most of the Kadares were dead, so they never received any letters. However, one relative was very much alive and well – the Doll’s new mother-in-law. The mother-in-law was the standard ferocious mother-in-law of myth and legend, stern, ferocious, controlling.

One local tradition was for the lady of the house to declare that she would never leave the house again and this is what happened and it happened to the mother-in-law. As a result there was a clash between the two women with the son/husband in the middle. Kadare said it was like a trial. The judge was my father and the defendants were the two women. Sometimes one won, sometimes the other.

However, it is not all about the Doll. We follow Kadare’s own life and, in particular, how he became a writer. He starts by having ideas for novels but writing ads for them more than writing the novel itself. He wrote poetry and starts to have some sort of success, so much so that his mother feels that he is going to abandon her in favour of a better mother.

1953 was a key year as three major events happened. Firstly Stalin died. Albania had an uneasy relationship with the Soviet Union and will eventually break away from them. Secondly, Kadare’s grandmother died which, surprisingly, left something of a gap in his mother’s life. Finally – the most sensational – was that the city’s pharmacy started selling condoms. There was considerable debate about whether this was a good thing or bad thing.

We continue to follow his career. He goes to Moscow to study, where he learns that they must not write like the Joyce-Kafka-Proust trio. However, the more the officials say they must not act and write like the bourgeoisie, the more they want to do so,

The family abandon the house in Gjirokastër and move to a flat in Tirana. This seems to affect Kadare’s father in particular. His mother soon adapts to Tirana and rather likes it. However, she does not keep up with the times, as she feels that she has to choose a bride for her son, though he has made his own choice. We follow his relationship with Helena and how she is introduced to the family. Eventually, as we know, the two flee to Paris and he is declared an enemy of the state.

This is very different from Kadare’s usual historical novels but nevertheless makes for interesting reading, with the horrific house, the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship and Kadare’s rise to success, which I have only touched on in this review but is discussed in more detail in the book.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Onufri
First English translation 2020 by Harvill Secker
Translated by John Hodgson