The Traitor's Niche: A Novel

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A Horseman for the Headless: On Ismail Kadare’s ‘The Traitor’s Niche’

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1978 was a good year for Albanian literature, if not for Albania. Its great man of letters, Ismail Kadare, released two books. Kadare is best known for his pitch-black humor, authentic to the painful saga of Balkan history, and for winning the inaugural International Man Booker prize in 2005. It was two years after his country’s Third Republic era had commenced in 1976, when readers of the Albanian language devoured his pair of linked historical novels, Three-Arched Bridge, and The Traitor’s Niche.

It was a time fraught with anxiety over the erasure of recorded time, as the infamous Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha instituted a new constitution in 1976 further enforcing the destruction of the multi-faith establishment that had been part of the small nation’s contested ancient Illyrian legacy, bloodstained by some five centuries of Ottoman occupation. According to atheist state law, preaching was a crime punishable by up to ten years in prison. Other such crimes were inconceivable beyond the isolationist government that ended in 1992, three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall lifted the Iron Curtain.

At the cusp of that epochal paradigm shift, Kadare chose exile in France, where he has lived out his golden years, since becoming a global voice who defends the artistic integrity of literature foremost over its political import. Yet, it is difficult to read his works without identifying certain critical parallels to the times in which he lived and wrote. Forty years after its publication in Albanian, the English translation by John Hodgson is effective in relaying the creative naturalism of his informal, though skillfully poetic, idiosyncratic tone. The complexity and sharpness of Kadare’s sentences are delivered with a powerful candor by Hodgson, an English writer and professor who also translated Three-Arched Bridge. It is the case that Kadare is an artful literary writer, a quintessential prose stylist, leading to his brushes with Nobel candidacy.

The Traitor’s Niche is not plot heavy. Kadare’s fiction intuits the spirt of the art movements of his day, orbiting the dark ambiance of indie cinema, goth punk, shock installation. The gift of Kadare as a writer is also not merely in the aesthetics of his language, but in the rudimentary transmission of deft, witty meaning, and deeply satirical commentary in dialogue with pages in history that were thoroughly obscured from his perspective in Albania, particularly as he wrote while priceless manuscripts went up in flames, disappeared from state-ransacked mosques and secularized churches.

Such blind and irreversible cruelty finds its perfect metaphor in the severed head. Be it a head of state without its body politic, as Ali Pasha of Tepelene came to resemble in the example of Hoxha, symbolizing the drive to sheer, ideological madness, often manifest in the form of extreme nationalism unfollowed by the national majority. But in the Balkans of Ottoman times, nations went doubly silent, unable to speak by law, while thoroughly disenfranchised of all cultural faculty as victims of multiple, overlapping forms of extractive politics. Finally, in Kadare, an Albanian voice penetrates the abyss of lost time.

Under the pen of Kadare, the central square of the old city in Istanbul resembles the present day with an unsettling likeness. It could be read as an imagistic comment on undemocratic, superficial progress, intractability at the core of Turkish life, where premodern and current trends constantly commingle. Like a freak of modernity, the word, “tourist,” as hotly used today as in the past, opens the narrative from the first page.

With his deft knack for original turns of phrase, Kadare writes: “The square was like a swimming pool whose water changed every half hour.” Fixed within its earthly tide is the introductory character of Abdullah, guardian of the traitor’s niche, a cutout of stone where decapitated heads are displayed. Kadare has a talent for conveying disgust, to the point where his readers may feel the need to retch at the thought of the overcrowded, overfed masses streaming past unfocused, dead eyes, blank with a colorless expression like “the distant reflection of a void,” stuck to a dish of honey.

Abdullah has his own, more personal problems. He breaks at a cafe, where many of the news-criers retire after losing their voices, also their livelihoods, as they read the news aloud in the streets for the illiterate masses. He also partakes in a bit of hashish. He needs it, as so many Turks do today, considering the parallel crises of national financial and political instability. As he notes, the price of currency is often a better indicator of imperial and international disputes than newspaper reports. But his problems are not merely shared by the state, and that is where he finds his greatest source of difficulty, given to envy and later delusions of grandeur that will be his downfall.

Abdullah is unable to satisfy his young wife. He visits a gregarious doctor. It happens to be the Night of Power, an Islamic holy day marking the eve when Muhammad first heard the Quranic revelation, also when the Turkish sultan traditionally takes a virgin into his bed. This is a point of great psychological friction for Abdullah, exacerbated by the rumors of the legendary harem of 38 women in far-flung Trabzon which the owner of the first head in the traitor’s niche is said to have enjoyed during orgies that turned his face yellow. That man was Bugharan, and he ended up bodiless in the traitor’s niche because he failed to vanquish Ali Pasha from his seat as the separatist Albanian governor who ruled from the seat of the Ottoman province that is now the northwestern Greek city of Ioannina.

As in historical fiction by contemporary Turkish writers like Ihsan Oktay Anar, who, in his, Book of Devices, details the sexuality of characters with cartoonish exaggeration during 19th century Ottoman times. Kadare also maintains the dirty mind of his repressed characters with the rawness of a pulp romance bought from a dusty used bookstore at the turn of the century in Istanbul. In that way, he cleverly portrays the spirit of the age when stuck-up, early Victorian mores imported from the West met with the fundamentalist traditions of Islam, only to unravel under the guise of self-censorship before the all-too-human spells of sex, drugs and violence.

Abdullah listens to the the doctor at a coffeehouse as he bluntly advises the impotent young man in public, assuring that his virility will return when his bride regrows her pubic hair. Kadare’s sense of humor is woven through his wordplay of the administrative language of Ottoman military and scholarly contexts, almost in the vein of a David Foster Wallace brand of outlandish mockery of official vocabularies. There are “assistant pronouncers of curses” who stand ready among the soldiers on the frontiers of battle, and a manual, “Regulations for the Care of Heads of the Condemned” with a chapter, “On the Use of Salt” which the decapitated head courier Tundj Hata refers to on route from the provinces back to the capital with the grisly state prize essential to his mission.

Hata endures throughout The Traitor’s Niche more than any other character. In fact, even after exhuming the third and last head of the novel from a grave five fathoms deep with his yataghan dagger, he returns home to the marital care of his loving wife. Hata ties many of the loose ends from head to head, capital to frontier, as the action of the novel follows him as he retrieves and delivers the remains of enemies of the state from the neck up. He is an unsavory presence, a quality that lends itself to his amoral attitude and bullheaded perseverance in the lifeless underworlds of the Ottoman-era Balkans. Like an enigmatic growth of the wilderness, ugly to the bone with his hennaed beard and flaxen face, he emerges out of the wintry mist like a misbegotten spawn of evil.

From the perspective of Hata and his reason for being, Albania is the sharp as the edge of the formidable empire, with its longest running dynasty in history. And over a hundred years after the novel’s period has passed, its geography on the southern reaches of the Adriatic Sea prompted inhabitants under the mid-20th century’s Communist rule to make a break for Corfu despite shoot-to-kill guards and floating mines. It has the aura of an outdoor prison, a terrorized ghetto, where people endure an existence without the light of humanity, driven to suicidal extremes, to see if there is life beyond the interminably overcast skies that darkened life from extremity to the heart of the empire under a uniform shade of foreboding.

There are passages in The Traitor’s Niche that evoke a reality worlds apart from that experienced by most around the world today, before near-universal, personal, handheld communication illuminated geographical remoteness with user-friendly information technology. Kadare writes, that when Hata traverses the no man’s land on the road between the capital and frontier, “the nothingness and the darkness were severing all his connections to this world.” And in that way, Kadare trains his novelistic writing into something more akin to the lost, versified literary forms of old, with his repetitions on the theme of decapitation, figurative and literal.

Kadare then breaks up the environment of darkness with flashes of levity, as when Hata takes unwanted shelter in an inn one night when the weather is too bad for him to continue, placing the head of Ali Pasha down at the hearth where a group of civil servants were gossiping about the private lives of famous people in the arts. Some things do not change. And while Kadare captures the historical moment about his subject, he has a swift ability to humanize it with a timelessness that makes for fine reading, whether in 1978, or 2018, as his penetrating sentences are unencumbered by glaring, technical research, but have all of the substance of eyewitness verity. The author clearly spent his life reading broadly enough to crack the hard shell of unknowing that confined his countrymen to state-approved knowledge.

Like the true Balkan tale, that “makes your flesh creep,” as Kadare states, he animates the territorial character. His settings are shrouded in deep, bold atmospheric writing. The natural border to Albania, for example, is bridged by the Ujana e Keqe, which is said to hold a body of a dead man in its structure. Every element is distilled into an effect that makes the skin crawl. While in the countryside, Hata espies a bride riding on horseback, and what could have been rendered into a scene of beauty is lowered to the humor of a ghastly scavenger who simply imagines her genitals riding up against the saddle.

The grim mood is punctuated by constant attention to the head itself, as it requires vigilant care. At one point, Hata must bargain to buy a handful of snow for its weight in silver from a village on his way through the backcountry. Demonstrating a pillar of historical fiction, Kadare brandishes his ingenious literary ear to the authenticity of provincial diction among the rustic, uneducated rabble who inhabit the featureless zones between provinces whose names are merely designated numerals. In one, where Hata gives a show of the head, he notices a mosque that had, “swallowed the old chapel without digesting it.” In his intelligent wording, Kadare gives vent to the visual history of Ottoman rule, even as it continues today in both historical preservation efforts and in Turkey’s political conservatism.

In some examples, the historical believability of Kadare’s storytelling reaches its limits. Vasiliqia, the 22-year-old wife and later widow to Ali Pasha identifies Byron’s literary merit, comparing him to the Albanian poet Haxhi Shehreti, who composed an epic poem about the height of Ali Pasha’s rule in Ioannina. In his lonesome hours, Ali Pasha is something of a political philosopher. While he was compared to Napoleon by the likes of Victor Hugo for his militant audacity, he was, by all accounts, a figure given to vanity and duplicity more than any socially redeemable qualities that would have made for a successful attempt at national separatism from the Ottoman Empire.

At one point, the autocrat engages himself in an inner monologue of sorts, in which he considers his resemblance to Scanderbeg, the mythical Albanian rebel leader who stood up to Turkish forces in the 15th century with great strategic skill and popular support. Ultimately, bankrupt of a real connection to the hearts and minds of his people, he sees his imminent death as his only ticket to eternity, throwing aside such measures of posterity as Byron’s celebrated “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” in which he is mentioned.

Exploring the condemnation of Ali Pasha, Kadare reflects on the complicated tradition of Albanian nationalist thought. He muses on the capricious hand of death that swept down to take the head of Hurshid Pasha, Ali Pasha’s killer who was once deemed the finest Ottoman general with claims to the title of grand vizier, yet had failed to find the proto-capitalist tyrant’s treasure. Kadare recognizes the legacy of violence in the Balkans as it has echoed down the halls of history indiscriminately, despite the many and varied changes of the guard over the centuries.

Before explaining the administration of language death, how Ottoman authorities meticulously unthreaded the Albanian social fabric of its cultural memory, the people grow as indistinct as the loose, colorless garments they are forced to wear, punished for having survived separatist leadership. Albania is epitomized as a place where people are forced to close the ends of their chimneys so their children are blackened and suffocate from soot, where tax collection is performed like bodily functions and borders are defined by human death. Even the way the country is named becomes dehumanizing, as its native tongue is replaced by the sound ravens make. Caw-caw, writes Kadare, renaming his country to denote desolation, emptiness, and the extinction of all humanity.

In the final passages of the slim, spacious novel, a dream comes to the capital from the reaches of Anatolia, to the imperial capital’s Palace of Dreams, where subconscious visions are gathered, circulated, and interpreted. It is said to hold the fate of Albania, a place that, even in the center of Istanbul no one really knows how to pronounce, despite a steady stream of heads coming from there to the traitor’s niche. Kadare translates the original meaning of Albania, from its autochthonous place name, Shqiperia: “a convocation of eagles with bloodstained plumage scattered by the winds and storms.”

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