Ismail Kadare: In Search of Human Liberty

The 27th Jerusalem International Book Fair kicked off today with a press conference with writer Ismail Kadare. The Albanian novelist and poet is to receive a prize awarded annually to authors whose work emphasizes freedom of the individual in society. Previous recipients have included Arthur Miller and Ian McEwan. Kadare now lives in France.

I have wanted to read his novels ever since I learned about him while researching a travel article on Albania in 2011. My desire to read him was heightened after driving over an excruciatingly potholed road to visit Gjirokaster, the hometown of the author and also of Enver Hoxha, the longtime Communist dictator of Albania. Despite my best intentions, however, that hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t think it happened to most of my colleagues at the press conference. None of us came up with a question that didn’t seem to bore or annoy the acclaimed author.

Perhaps to show off that I knew what Gjirokaster looks like, I asked whether the author saw any resemblance between Jerusalem, in which all the buildings are faced with stone, and his hometown, which hangs on the face of a craggy mountain and which he compares in one of his novels to a prehistoric creature with a stone carapace “clawing its way up the mountainside.”

“There is a resemblance,” he responded in French, which was rendered in English by an interpreter, “but it is a misleading one. They’re both stone, but that’s all. My hometown has given nothing to humanity except for literature. Jerusalem has symbolic importance.”

In response to the inevitable question as to whether Jews and Albanians have anything in common, Kadare responded that they both live with the threat of extinction, although one cannot really compare the fate of the two.

“I don’t think there is any country that has banned the writing of a language,” Kadare said. For the four centuries that Albania was part of the Ottoman Empire, writing in that language was forbidden. The language “was at risk of extinction” and thus the people feared that they, too, might disappear, he said.

Israeli writer, translator, and activist Ilana Hammerman, who has been awarded the 2015 Yeshayahu Leibowitz Prize for activism against the occupation, asked Kadare whether he was aware of the 300,000 people “living here [in Jerusalem] who do not have human rights.”

Clearly irked, Kadare responded, “I didn’t come here for this. I came here to receive a literary prize, not to deal with local problems.”

And what about a definition of freedom, which is a theme in his novels (and a reason for his being awarded the prize)? “I don’t think this is the place to discuss a topic that is so sublime, so complicated,” he said. Then he added, “In art, literature, philosophy you can talk about liberty, but humanity hasn’t arrived there yet.”

This year’s book fair differs from its predecessors both in its new venue—the First Station, one of the city’s newest entertainment areas—and its expanded program. According to Yael Sheffer, the fair’s artistic director, the five-day event is geared to young adults and young families. There will be cooking classes in the mornings, activities for children in the afternoons, and a full program for adults, including erotica and poetry, in the evenings.

And as for Kadare, who appeared relieved to be liberated from the press conference, I thought of D.H. Lawrence’s caveat to trust the tale, not the teller. More than ever, I wanted to read Kadare’s novels and erase the disappointment with this unfortunate meeting.

Text copyright 2015 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

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13 Responses to “Ismail Kadare: In Search of Human Liberty”

  1. David Bennett Says:

    Ha! I like his comment “…not to deal with local problems.”

    One the subject of separating the artist from his art:

    I remember a conversation I had a long time ago with a friend about a song, and how I heard it differently after having heard an interview with the singer/songwriter – not because he explained the song, but because of what he was like as a person.

    And I met a man once who was taking time off from work. He was a psychiatric nurse in London and he was traveling around the world to clear his head. He was very difficult to talk to. Then one day he came back to the hotel with a guitar. He couldn’t resist being able to play. He played ‘My Funny Valentine’ so that it made you want to cry. So I had the experience of the man before I had the experience of his art.

    It’s a conundrum.

    Is there a list of all the recipients over the years? I read ‘The Cement Garden’ by Ian McKewan, and enjoyed it. And I enjoyed his short stores. I tried another novel – I can’t think it was – and I didn’t get far with it.

    That must have been interesting – visiting Albania. It was a closed country when I was in that part of the world. Later I read about blood feuds and the wild and rugged countryside. Did you think if was a ‘different’ place in this increasingly similar world?

    • estherhecht Says:

      I remember hearing awful things about John Coltrane’s marriage, yet his music continues to mesmerize me.

      I saw only the surface of Albania, but my impression was that it was like Israel in the early 1960s: People had simple pleasures, such as eating an ice cream cone while strolling along the main street of a town. There seemed to be a certain innocence about Albania. But again, as I said, I saw only the surface. The reality is very likely different. I also saw some of the rugged countryside. Parts of Albania are incredibly beautiful, like the road from Elbasan to Tirana. The mountains, the forests, the sea, and the road that winds up and down the mountainsides–it’s breathtaking. This is the link to my article:

  2. Lior Neiger Says:

    Great article, Esther.

    Sorry for the disappointment. When you read his books you will probably hear is voice in your head. Hopefully while reading this experience will fade and leave the stage for his art. Unfortunately, the list of artist/writers/philosophers that their life and remarks need to be separated from their work, is too long.

    • estherhecht Says:

      Thanks, Lior. I really do look forward to reading his books.
      Some writers, artists, and musicians can speak easily and articulately about their art and their craft, but what they say is never as important as what they do. And for those who are uncomfortable speaking in public…the principle is the same.
      Meanwhile, I’m taking E.M. Forster’s Passage to India with me on the trip to India. Nothing like a little colonial literature to lighten up the trip.

  3. Eric Says:

    My favorite quote

    …”in art, literature, philosophy you can talk about liberty, but humanity hasn’t arrived there yet.”

  4. Judy Labensohn Says:

    Thanks for this report, Esther. Hope you will send reports everyday of the “festival” for those of us who might not get there.

  5. estherhecht Says:

    Thanks, Judy, but I’ll be far, far away.

  6. Mike Greenwald Says:

    Hi, Esther. I enjoyed this piece, mainly because of my fascination with Albania. I’ve just read a terrific book called “Kim Philby: A Spy Among Friends,” which contains a vivid description of how Philby betrayed allied efforts to send freedom fighters into Albania and caused all the Albanian invaders to be captured and killed by Hoxha’s forces. As for Kadare, I’ve neither read him or seen him in person, but I’ll certainly opt for the latter. I see you’re heading for India, which should be a great experience that I’ll look forward to reading about. You can enjoy Forster and Paul Scott too without having to worry about encountering them in person!

  7. Iris Chayet Says:

    So interesting Esther. And, of course, I purchased Chronicle in Stone on my Kindle.Don’t know when I’ll get to read it, but I have the book, I once had the same experience with a doctor leading a group and was very disappointed with his answer.

  8. estherhecht Says:

    Thanks, Iris. Shraga said he would order something for me on his Kindle, but he’s always reading it!

  9. Mike Greenwald Says:

    In my comment I, of course, meant to say I would opt for the former, reading him rather than seeing him!

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