Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 14, 2009

The Siege (1970), by Ismail Kadare, translated by David Bellos

siege1I had to wait a while for this book; there were quite a few reserves at the library.  Kadare was the winner of the inaugural Man Booker Prize in 2005 and there has since been a bit of a flurry to discover more about this very fine Albanian writer.  Today I searched Wikipedia for the date of publication of The Palace of Dreams, only to find that there was not even a list of his books, an omission I have rectified since there was such a list on the flyleaf of The Siege (published by Text in Melbourne).   The translation deserves a mention: The Siege has been translated from the French of Jusuf Vrioni by David Bellos. In other words, it’s  been translated from Albanian into French, and then into English – but it’s so well done, you wouldn’t know it.

palace-of-dreamsI read Kadare’s  The Palace of Dreams in 2005, and thought it was an excellent book, but this is even better.  At face value, it’s the rivetting story of a C15th siege – the Christian Albanians in the besieged citadel and the Ottomans camped outside.  The chapters alternate between these two POV but the Ottomans tell most of the story in what appears to be a straightforward 3rd person narrative.  However, there are deliberate anachronisms such as show trials and biological warfare which jolt the reader into recognition that this is an allegory.  The colour and the splendour of Ottoman army ceremonials evoke those impressive Soviet military spectacles that we have all seen, and we are reminded of the abuse of power under various Soviet dictatorships by the Pasha’s power to arbitrarily order torture and execution, not to mention irrational military manoevres.  (Subtle as this is, Kadare did not escape the attention of the Albanian regime and he had to seek asylum in France in 1990).

The battlefield scenes are graphic.  Through the Chronicler, whose job it is to tell the story of the siege, we witness the arrival of tens of thousands of men in different regiments; the harem and the followers; and all the apparatus of war.  Cannons of increasing size are cast on the battlefield, an architect identifies the weak spots in the citadel, and thousands of men die hurling themselves up ladders in a wave of attempts to breach the parapet.  The brutality of the Ottomans is shown by their indifference to the fate of these foot-soldiers and to the captured women auctioned off as sex slaves for the soldiery.

Through his characters – the Pasha, commander-in-chief; the blind poet; the Quartermaster; the Astrologer; the Mufti; and the women of the harem, Kadare is able to question the morality of events and depict the fate of those who displease the regime.  In the initial council-of-war the Pasha weighs competing strategems, and on the advice of the Mufti, chooses  to start the siege before the mortars have been cast because the Astrologer claims an early start to be auspicious.   He does this not because he believes in superstition over science but because he has weighed the politics of the situation.  When ignoring the Engineer’s advice inevitably leads to failure, the Astrologer is consigned to a harrowing death.  He is sent, with others in disgrace, to dig a tunnel to breach the walls from below:

‘He didn’t want me,’ the man said, ‘and that’s why I’m moulding away in this grave. There are a lot of undesirables down here, that’s to say, men who have been sentenced. Hundreds of others are under surveillance. Yet others are under interrogation. Not to mention torture…‘ (p168)

If you’ve read Solzenhitztyn, you know where this reference to forced labour camps is coming from.

And then the  Christians cause a rockfall to entrap them underground. Kadare does not spare us their final moments….

Conversations between the Chronicler and the Quartermaster question the brutal arithmetic of war, and the morality of weapons of mass destruction.

‘He [Sarunhali, the deposed engineer] refused to make cannon of larger calibre. He claimed it was impossible, but in fact, as he told me, he didn’t want to do it. If we make them even bigger, he would say, then the cannon will become a terrible scourge that will decimate the human race. The monster has come into the world, he said by way of explanation, and we can’t put it back where it came from.’ (p35)

Later, the Quartermaster acknowledges the impossibility of ever defeating their enemy militarily. It’s not possible ever to eliminate a people entirely: and the songs people sing, the religion they believe in and the language they speak live on.

We had a long debate on the issue,’ the Quartermaster said. ‘What would we leave the Balkan peoples, and what would we take away from them: their religion, or their language? Some thought we should take both away, others reckoned we had to leave them one or the other…in the end, our camp seemed to have won. which means we will leave these people their faith. As for their language, for the time being we will only prohibit it being written down. It’s too soon to ban the speaking of it.’ (p147)

The Siege is a brilliant book, engaging to the end and providing food for thought long after it’s been returned to the library.

Author: Ismail Kadare
Title: The Siege
Translated from the French of Jusuf Vrioni by David Bellos
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2008
ISBN: 1921351632, 9781921351631
Source: Kingston Library


  1. Great review … I read Kadare’s Broken April not long ago, and found it similarly powerful.


  2. Isn’t it wonderful when you discover a writer that’s new for you, and you know that there are other treasures waiting down at the library?!


  3. Nice to know that you enjoyed this, Lisa. I remember you saying you were going to look for it – clearly you did.

    And I also do love that bit about religion and language – it’s an amazing break in the action that really makes you think.


  4. I think Text in Melbourne are terrific for taking the plunge and publishing interesting books like this in translation.


  5. Lisa – Great review. I’m so glad you put in that Kadare wrote it in part as an allegory – I couldn’t figure out how to put that into my review.

    A few things I noticed and I wonder if either occurred to you? –

    The Quartermaster – I thought at one point towards the end of the novel (probably in the conversation you quoted at the end of your review, in fact) it was implied that the Quartermaster was a member of the Ottoman Empire through assimilation rather than birth.

    The Chronicler – Didn’t you think he was portrayed in a way that was not at all sympathetic? He seemed more sycophantic than anything else, which I found strange because that would seem to be the character Kadare would identify with most.

    PS – Thank you for subscribing to BookSexy! I’ve had ANZ on my Google Reader for quite a while now.


    • I hadn’t picked up the Quartermaster’s antecedents, but I did think his loyalty was pragmatic which would be consistent with what you say. And yes, I thought that the voice of the Chronicler was Kadare, but that there was a cynicism there which was directed against himself. A case of Kadare showing the Chronicler privately thinking ‘I’m writing this because I have to’. Perhaps that’s how writers in the Soviet Union signalled to their readers that they were being monitored by the security forces; perhaps sycophantic comments ensured that the authorities left them alone? But to be honest, I’d have to get the book back and read it again to be sure, now. A day or two ago I saw a review of a new book by Kadare … I wonder if he’s still writing about these themes or if he’s now writing about something new? Lisa


  6. I had no idea he was still alive! I would definitely like to read another book by him, so I’ll keep an eye out for the new one.


  7. […] up with his oeuvre since he won the inaugural Man Booker International in 2005, when The Siege (see my review) and other novels were hastily translated from French editions into English in order to […]


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