Saturday, December 22, 2007

Agamemnon’s Daughter by Ismail Kadare

It is not everyday that one reads a book whose theme is so politically sensitive that it had to be smuggled out of the country in batches but Agamemnon’s Daughter: A Novella and Stories has endured this fate. Penned in Albania in the 1980s by Ismail Kadare, names and locations were dressed in German camouflage and after being couriered to France were then changed back to the original before being translated.

The volume contains three stories by Kadare each set in different periods and times yet linked by many of the same characters and themes.

The novella, Agamemnon’s Daughter, commences with a scene of energetic sensuality. The narrator is practically engaged to somebody else but he is having an affair with Suzanna, the daughter of a man who is a high ranking official in the Albanian political leadership. Surprisingly, the narrator, who is an outspoken journalist, has received an invitation to attend a state rally and as he waits for his lover to meet him it seems that their relationship is in jeopardy.

Although this book has been translated and retranslated it has a poetic flow and is laced with images that are wonderfully descriptive. In illustrating the playfulness of his lover but the potential danger of their relationship the writer says, “She ruffled the hair on the nape of my neck with cold fingers that felt as jagged as broken test tubes.” (p7)

Suzanna had talked to her partner, about ‘sacrificing’ their relationship so as not to do anything that would torpedo her father’s ascendancy. Kadare provides resonance by referring to Robert Grave’s book, The Greek Myths, which includes the tragic story of Agamemnon, the Greek leader, who was prepared to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, to model to the army his submission and loyalty to the state. This deeper layer and interpretive key gives Kadare the substance on which to plumb the mysterious motives of political leadership that would lead to the sacrifice of one’s nearest and dearest, yet there are further questions about who is actually making the sacrifice.

Akin to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach or Graham Swift’s Tomorrow, the scope of this novella deals with less than one day or one march to the parade. Told in the first person this helps the author to share his innermost thoughts and describe in detail the fears, the suspicion, the threats, the glances, the betrayals and the constantly shifting craziness of living within the suffocating stranglehold of the single party, communist regime. As the author walks to the parade with questions, doubts and total confusion, the reader is thrust into the frustrating fog, the sense of the void and the exhausting questions that are central to Kafka’s novels and to most totalitarian regimes. One does not know what is happening and why it is happening and this lack of logic and clarity is the ploy of powerful leadership and part of the punishment that is dealt out to dissidents.

On the walk through endless checkpoints to the parade the writer meets people who had an “inextinguishable hankering for the higher slopes” but whose lack of loyalty or the indiscretion of a relative led them overnight to “fall all the way down to the netherworld.” (p37) This ‘snakes and ladders syndrome’ reveals that ascendancy is only achieved by the sacrifice of others. Like a raptor’s need for raw meat to fuel its flight, power is achieved but only tenuously maintained when flesh is given.

The description of the leaders seated in Grandstand A, viewed so close to the power from Grandstand C gives Kadare the chance to contemplate the big question: “By what means did they get that far up?” He inspects them all, one of whom “was smiling at someone else, with a face as worn and as lined as an old fig.” (p64). He analyses their furtive glances and notes their smug veneer—“Everything was smothered in collective joviality as if a generous helping of sauce had been poured over it all so as to even out the taste.” (p61). Why had he been given a seat in Grandstand C and had this access and ascendancy, even if so temporary, been achieved at the sacrifice of Suzanna?

Seated in the grandstand the writer unsuccessfully ponders the reasons for Suzanna’s change of heart and such reflection moves to the Greek Myth, the sacrifice that Stalin made of his son and to the questions pertaining to all leaders who dehumanize and whose decisions lead to the shriveling of life and love.

Agamemnon’s Daughter was a costly book to write and it is an emotionally demanding volume to read. It is a deserving winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2005.

Ismail Kadare, Agamemnon’s Daughter: A Novella and Stories (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 56.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Agamemnon’s Daughter; Ismail Kadare.