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The Siege by Ismail Kadare

Posted by RB Kollannur on July 15, 2012


Note: This review is part of a weekly book review column that I write for City Journal, an English newspaper based in Thrissur, Kerala.

Published on 30/03/2012 during the newspaper agents’ strike and again on 14/06/2012

Publisher – Canongate; Year of Publication – 1970; Pages – 329; Cost – Rs 455

A poet, an astrologer, a chronicler and a janissary are strolling through an army camp sipping raki. The battle awaits them the next day and it is not certain whether they will see another day. For days they have been waiting for the battle to commence, but now that the war is upon them, it is time to celebrate.

There are many battle stories that have been set immortal in ink, but “The Siege” stands apart from these stories. Instead of merely writing a book about a battle, Ismail Kadare comes down amongst the soldiers to venture into their life off the battlefield.

“The Siege” is centred on the aforementioned chronicler whose job is to imprint the battle in eternal memory. This allows the author to explore the various facets of the people that the chronicler comes across during his work. By humanizing the characters of war, it brings the reader into the centre of the army camp with the hope of sipping raki with the soldiers.

But it deviates from the chronicler at the crucial junctures of the battle to bring us the intricacies of politics in the war council. We see stratagem being discussed, as various factions ally themselves to their preferred ploy, and then we see it play out in the actual siege itself, as the Ottomans bombard and sap the Albanians, while a shadowy saviour seemingly await beyond the perimeter of war. Thus, the reader is kept aware of the status of the battle as well.

Set in late fifteenth century, the book talks of a battle in an Albania threatened by Ottomans at the peak of their power in Europe. Curiously enough, the author, though an Albanian, writes the book from the enemy’s side, giving only glimpses of his countrymen who are presented as the antagonists. The book is not a historical novel, though it borrows from the Siege of Shkoder of 1474 which incidentally happened after the death of the antagonist, George Kastrioti.

Written at a time when Albania was threatened by the overreach of the Soviet military, the book came with a latent intent. There are many passages that emulate the Soviet system, set in an Ottoman manner. It was a reminder of the time when Albanians had resisted a mightier foe for nearly four decades. But it was also a reminder that the resistance was eventually futile.

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One Response to “The Siege by Ismail Kadare”

  1. […] 3)    From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple – Published on 16/03/2012 4)    The Siege by Ismail Kadare – Published on 30/03/2012* 5)    34 Bubblegums and Candies by Preeti Shenoy – Published on […]

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