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Making Albania’s leading writer accessible in English

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

LAWRENCE – Ismail Kadare is having a moment in America, and University of Kansas researcher Ani Kokobobo is partly responsible.

Of course, Kadare has been world famous for decades. He rose to prominence as Albania’s foremost novelist during the 1970s, and during the Stalinist regime of dictator Enver Hoxha, Kadare slyly shifted in and out of the government’s good graces. Since the fall of communism in 1992, Kadare has been repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature and won the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005 for his body of work.

Kokobobo’s translation of his “Essays on World Literature” (Restless Books) is one of three Kadare books to be published in English this year. The others are two novels published by Counterpoint Press, “A Girl in Exile” and “The Traitor’s Niche.”

Kokobobo, an assistant professor of Slavic languages & literatures, said she loves the 82-year-old author’s novels.

“He’s really good at taking Albanian culture, history and mythology and using that as the basis for writing these incredible, high-modernist novels,” Kokobobo said. “A favored setting for many of his novels, including ‘The Palace of Dreams,’ is the Ottoman Empire.

“Kadare was someone who, writing and working during communism, moved beyond the socialist-realist artistic standards. He exhibits a variety of styles: high modernism, some surrealism, some magical realism. So in this sense, I view him as a dissident artistically. His status as a dissident is a controversial issue in Albania, and many Albanians are very critical of him. He had power and privilege during communism, but, at the same time, faced considerable scrutiny and harassment from the party.

“With Hoxha’s communism, being an offshoot of Stalinism, Albania was not the kind of country where you could really rebel. Most dissidents were either dead or imprisoned.

“Kadare himself has said that one of the only reasons he remained alive was because he depicted Hoxha in a flattering light in the novel ‘The Great Winter’ (about Albania’s relations with China). Hoxha liked his own portrayal in the novel so much that he resisted punishing the author for other, politically incendiary work, because if Kadare was purged, the book would also have to be erased. Kadare credits the book for his own physical survival … a kind of political insurance.”

And even though Kokobobo says that English translations of Kadare’s novels vary in quality – some were translated first into French and then from French to English – all of them have at least been translated. So she set out to translate a series of book-length essays that had as yet been untranslated into English.

“Each was published separately in Albania – one on Aeschylus, one on Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ and one on Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet.’ It was over 100,000 words in total,” Kokobobo said, “so it took me a while to translate.”

Kokobobo previously published two scholarly articles about Kadare and has another on the way. She says his nonfiction essays “tell me a lot about him; how he thinks. Some of the things he does with the Albanian language is unprecedented. No other author brings this level of sophistication to the language.”

“It’s really interesting to me because I don’t find that he has any literary predecessors in Albania. He had to search for kinship across world literature. Aeschylus and Shakespeare and Dante are his literary forefathers. The essays are a great reflections of his influences.”

Kokobobo said that three years ago she proposed the idea of publishing the essays together in single-book form to Kadare’s U.S. literary agent (the Wylie Agency), which approved of the idea and helped find the publisher.

“I am really happy with the way it turned out,” Kokobobo said. “It will be really great for people to be able to read these and to be able to assign them to students. The essays bring out connections we don’t normally think about; for example, between ancient Greece and Balkan culture or between Shakepeare’s tragedies and Balkan culture. The essays underscore the theatrical, tragic, dramatic element in Balkan life with things like blood vengeance and some of the more dramatic celebrations.

“These essays, which bring to light a more accessible Kadare, will serve as a roadmap to his work, with a lot of educational value for people who are interested in the Balkans.”

Photo: In this 2015 photo, the president of the Republic of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga, (left), presents Ismail Kadare with the Order of Independence for his outstanding contribution to the affirmation of Albanian culture and literature and for supporting the efforts of Kosovo for freedom and independence. Source: President-ksgov.net.