The long-awaited arrival of these two books thwarted an existing reading itinerary. His Palace of Dreams that warn against authorities who take away even the freedom of dreams was enough to make me want to read more after that first Ismail Kadare experience in 2021.
Why the inaugural winner of the International Booker Prize is not as widely read as other foreign authors in this part of the world puzzles me, especially when his stories continue to be remarkably resonant. When his allegories of tyrannies and his parables about the threats of imperialism are redolent of current events, I think we should all be reading a Kadare or two.
Curious as to how it would resemble or differ from The Bridge on the Drina, a novel by another Balkan literary giant, Ivo Andrić, I was eager to cross The Three-Arched Bridge. While I love Andrić’s rich and lengthier novel, Kadare’s has the surprising texture of a fable that makes it easier to read despite the dark subject matter.
It is 1377, Byzantium is in decline, and the new Turkish state is a looming threat to the Balkans. A bridge is being built somewhere in the peninsula and Gjon the Monk decides to tell its story, “To stop them spreading truths and untruths about this bridge in the eleven languages of the peninsula… to record the lie we saw and the truth we did not see and to put down both the daily events that are as ordinary as stones and also the major horrors, which are about as many in number as the arches of the bridge.”
The construction of the bridge encounters various obstacles and seems to be cursed. The setbacks lead to the recalling of an old Illyrian legend where immurement as sacrifice for the completion of a castle was necessary. In due course, an immurement is committed for the success of the bridge: A chilling metaphor for the new worlds and ideals founded on blood and, perhaps, a disturbing reminder of what is often sacrificed in the name of progress.
The writing left a significant impression on me, once again, that I jumped straight into the fray of The Siege wherein I felt amazed to have been held in thrall by the intricacies of fifteenth century military strategies. The “necessary” presence of architects, engineers, poets, chroniclers, astrologers, and the harem on the battlefield adds to the madness of war. Warfare might have evolved greatly since then, but man hasn’t. The Kadare straightforward with his prose is suddenly generous with details and delightfully ridicules war and testosterone, bringing to mind a line from Svetlana Alexievich who wrote, “War smells of men.”
What it has in common with The Three-Arched Bridge is that both books are seen through the eyes of chroniclers, opening a window to how history is written and made. The Siege unfolds through the impressions of Mevla Çelebi for the Ottoman camp (which probably alludes to real-life Ottoman traveller and writer, Evliya Çelebi), and an unnamed observer in the besieged Christian citadel.
In another twist of creativity that makes this my favorite among the three Kadares I’ve read so far, the narrative is focused on the besiegers, and with this brilliant move we are made privy to the thoughts and intents of those who intend to conquer or wipe out an entire people — “We could take their language,” or their religion: “You can’t call a country conquered until you have conquered its heaven… everything that has to do with the soul.”
Trust Kadare to embed a powerful message in an easily overlooked passage, a lesson in what a people must guard and defend — Everything that has to do with the soul.