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Ismail Kadare: Dimri i madh [The Great Winter]

Unfortunately, this book is not available in English, which is a pity, though the length probably put the publishers off – it’s around 800 pages long. It tells the story – both from the point of view of the country as well as of individual Albanians – about the break-up between Albania and the Soviet Union and the effect this had on the country and individuals. Kadare gives us both the story of the country as well as of the individuals and, of course, the two mix.

The book is told primarily from the point of view of Besnik Struga, a Government journalist/translator/interpreter. It is he who accompanies the Albanian delegation, led, of course, by Enver Hoxha. Kadare’s description of this meeting is superb, as we see the tension building up and meet the key players. These include not only Hoxha but Khrushchev, Andropov and other leading Russians as well as Ho Chi Minh, Ulbricht and others. Besnik is somewhat intimidated by Khrushchev and makes a mistake in the interpretation (but not a serious one), which will haunt him later. The whole affair is shrouded in secrecy and this causes considerable tension for Besnik and sours his relationship with his fiancée, Zena (they eventually break up but, at the end, both seem to have found other partners).

Besnik, of course, knows before the others what will happen but others are affected. Besnik’s brother, Ben, is sent to Vlorë, which is the site of the joint Albanian-Soviet submarine base and where tensions build up. Their father, an old communist partisan, is dying (and finally dies) of cancer. Nurihan, an old bourgeois and neighbour of Zena, keeps hoping that the Communist regime will fall but she, too, dies disappointed. Even the old street sweeper, Rem, is affected, as he pisses against a tree Khrushchev stopped at and is arrested. It is Kadare’s gift to tell a story that is both gripping from the political point of view as well as the effect on the daily lives of the populace. He even refers to two of his previous books as we meet the General of the Dead Army as well as find the remains of the horse and the Pasha from The Castle. This book is the equal of its two predecessors.

Publishing history

First published 1977 by Naim Frasheri, Tirana
Not published in English
Published in French as Le grand hiver by Fayard in 1978
Published in German as Der grosse Winter by Neuer Malik-Verlag in 1987
Published in Spanish as El gran invierno by Vanguardia Obrerain 1991
Published in Swedish as Den hårda vintern by Bonnier in 1980