Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 7, 2017

The Traitor’s Niche (1978), by Ismail Kadare, translated by John Hodgson

Ismail Kadare (b.1936) is one of my favourite authors: he writes stories about the use and abuse of power in allegorical form, setting his stories in an indefinite past so that they have a timeless significance.  The Traitor’s Niche is an early work from his Ottoman Cycle: first published in 1978, it was Kadare’s eleventh novel but it has taken 40 years for it to be published in English.  Kadare is a prolific author and it is taking the Anglosphere a while to catch 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 get them into bookshops.

The Traitor’s Niche has been widely reviewed, not least by the members of the MBIF Shadow Jury (see their combined reviews from here on this blog) but it didn’t make it into either their shortlist or the official one.  But I was always going to read this novel, whether it won any plaudits or not… Kadare is a master storyteller and I am fascinated by the history of Albania as he tells it…

The Traitor’s Niche is set in Constantinople (now Istanbul) when it was the capital of the Ottoman Empire.  This is where power resides, power that is enforced through brutal repression and grotesque propaganda.  The sultan displays the severed heads of any who dare to betray him in a special niche in the city square, and there is a whole apparatus of flunkies whose job it is to manage the display of heads for the entertainment and edification of the people.

Far, far away, so remote from the sultan’s decrees that most of them can be ignored, is Albania, powerless against the Empire but a place given to rash attempts to free itself.  In his dotage, Ali Pasha Tepelena a.k.a.Black Ali Pasha, dreams of achieving glory like his legendary predecessor Scanderbeg who had a quarter-century of rebellion behind him but died an ordinary death in his bed.  There is no prospect of him succeeding, but it’s not about that.  Black Ali  wants to leave a legacy and a symbol that will inspire others.  So, will he cheat the sultan of his vicious vengeance? 

But of course it’s not just about what might happen to Black Ali.  The ordinary people of Albania, peasants who grumble as they till the soil, have more to lose though they may not know it.  Because the sultan imposes his system of control on any region that dares to rebel, depending on how vengeful he is feeling and on the likelihood of it happening again.  The physical crushing of the rebellion is just the beginning: it is followed by strategies used by totalitarian regimes everywhere.  Stamping out any idea of rebellion is succeeded by the destruction of culture, art and tradition, then by the eradication of the language, and finally by the extinction of the national memory.  (Turkey is still trying to do this to the Armenians, but has failed miserably.  These days they are held in contempt as much for their suppression of memory about the Armenian Genocide as for the genocide itself.)

The perspective of various characters carry the story.  The story begins with Abdulla, fussing over the present incumbent of the niche, the vizier Bugrahan Pasha who lost his head because he failed to suppress Black Ali’s rebellion.  Like many a minor civil servant, Abdulla is peeved that despite the importance of his job, (the preservation of the heads in the niche from decay), he is anonymous.  He faces the wrath of the sultan should anything go wrong, but nobody knows who he is.   There is Tundj Hata, the odious imperial courier whose job it is to enact the sultan’s execution decree and transport the heads back to Constantinople, making a bit of sly money by showing the trophy to villagers en route.  There is Vasiliqia, Black Ali’s young wife, fond of him in her way but baffled by his preoccupation with death.   (Ironically, given their roles, both Black Ali and Abdulla are impotent sexually as well as politically.)

And there is Hurshid Pasha, sent as a replacement for the failed Bugrahan Pasha to vanquish Albania.  Will his head fill the niche, or will it be Black Ali’s?

Black humour laces this surreal story.  Kadare represents Everyman in clever dialogue, in gossip and in the anxious thoughts of his characters.  He pokes fun at the bureaucracy which sabotages the powerful more so than outright rebellion.  But he never loses sight of the historical truth of the Albanian people, pawns of totalitarian empires for so much of its history.

This is a fine translation by John Hodgson, who has also translated The Accident, (see my review) The Fall of the Stone City, (on my TBR), A Girl in Exile and The Three-Arched Bridge.

Author: Ismail Kadare
Title: The Traitor’s Niche
Translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson
Publisher: Harvill Secker 2017, first published in Albanian as Kamarja e Turpit 1978
ISBN: 9781846558450
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Traitor’s Niche


  1. An interesting review of what is obviously an interesting novel. I assume from the translation info that the author is Albanian. Does he write within a wider literary tradition? European or former Ottoman maybe.


  2. Yes, he’s Albanian, and he’s been a Big Deal in Europe for a long time, they were translating him into French and German a decade before he won the Man Booker International. it’s just taken the Anglosphere too long to catch up with him,


  3. Great review.

    Talking about The Three-Arched Bridge, I think that’s the first novel in what you referred to as The Ottoman Cycle, since it deals with the small country that was Albania on the eve of the Ottoman invasion. For some reason, I found it to be frighteningly relevant even today.


    • Yes, I must get that one, I’d love to read it:)


  4. […] has also just reviewed The Traitors  Niche  and is reading the Pamuk that is also available on bbc in an abridged version from the reading […]


  5. […] The Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare (translated by John Hodgson from Albanian, Penguin), see my review […]


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