Interviews

Ismail Kadare, The Art of Fiction No. 153

Interviewed by Shusha Guppy

In 1970 a novel by an unknown Albanian writer took literary Paris by storm. The General of the Dead Army was the story of an Italian general who goes back to Albania after the Second World War to find the bodies of the Italian soldiers killed there and take them back to Italy for burial. It was hailed as a masterpiece and its author was invited to France, where he was welcomed by French intellectuals as an original and powerful voice from behind the Iron Curtain. The General was translated into a dozen languages and inspired two films: one under the same title starring Michel Piccoli, the other Bernard Tavernier’s outstanding Life and Nothing Else (La Vie et rien d’autre).

Since then over a dozen of his novels and several collections of his poetry and essays have been translated into French, English, and other languages. He is considered one of the world’s major writers and has been suggested for the Nobel Prize several times. His French publishers are currently publishing his complete works in six volumes, in both French and the original Albanian. The first three have already appeared.

Ismail Kadaré was born and raised in the town of Gjinokastër in Albania. He read literature at the University of Tiranë and spent three years doing postgraduate work at the Gorky Institute in Moscow. The General was his first novel, published on his return to Albania in 1962, when he was twenty-six.

Kadaré has been compared to Kafka and Orwell, but his is an original voice, at once universal and deeply rooted in his own soil. For over forty years Albania lived under the Communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, whose particularly vicious brand of Stalinism lasted longer than in any other Eastern European country. Kadaré used a variety of literary genres and devices—allegory, satire, historical distancing, mythology—to escape Hoxha’s ruthless censorship and deadly reprisals against any form of dissent. His work is a chronicle of those terrible decades though the stories are often situated in the distant past and in different countries. Two of his most famous novels, The Palace of Dreams and The Pyramid, take place respectively during the Ottoman Empire and in ancient Egypt, while The Great Winter and The Concert clearly refer to Hoxha’s break with Russia under Khrushchev and with China after Mao’s death.

Ismail Kadaré left Albania in 1990 and settled in Paris. In 1996 he was elected an associate member of the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences (L’Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques), replacing Austrian-born British philosopher Karl Popper, who died that year.

He lives with his wife and daughter in the Latin Quarter, in a spacious and bright apartment overlooking Luxembourg Gardens; he often travels to Albania. This interview took place at his home in February and October of 1997, with telephone conversations in between.

Kadaré has the reputation of not suffering fools gladly, but I found him gentle, courteous, and rather patient with someone who does not know his country and its literature, both of which he cares about passionately. He speaks French fluently with a distinct accent in a quiet measured voice.  

 

INTERVIEWER

You are the first contemporary Albanian writer to achieve international fame. For the majority of people, Albania is a tiny country of three and a half million inhabitants on the edge of Europe. So my first question concerns the Albanian language. What is it?  

ISMAIL KADARÉ

Half of the Albanian population lives next door in Yugoslavia, in the region of Kosovo. In all, ten million people in the world speak Albanian, which is one of the basic European languages. I’m not saying this out of national pride—it is a fact. Linguistically speaking, there are six or seven fundamental families of languages in Europe: Latin, Germanic, Slavic, Baltic (spoken in Latvia and Estonia), and three languages without families, so to speak—Greek, Armenian, and Albanian. Therefore the Albanian language is more considerable than the little country where it is spoken, since it occupies an important place in Europe’s linguistic cartography. Hungarian and Finnish are not Indo-European languages.

Albanian is also important for being the only descendant of the ancient Ilyrians’ language. In antiquity there were three regions in southern Europe: Greece, Rome, and Ilyria. Albanian is the only survivor of the Ilyrian languages. That is why it has always intrigued the great linguists of the past. The first person to make a serious study of Albanian was the German philosopher Gottfried Leibnitz in 1695.  

INTERVIEWER

The one Voltaire parodied in Candide as Dr. Pangloss, who said, “All is well in this the best possible of worlds.”  

KADARÉ

Exactly. Yet Albania did not exist at that time as a separate entity; it was part of the Ottoman Empire like the rest of the Balkans, including Greece. But this German genius found the language interesting. After him, other German scholars produced long studies of Albanian—Franz Bopp for example, whose book is very detailed.  

INTERVIEWER

What about Albanian literature? What is its origin? Is there an Albanian Dante, Shakespeare, or Goethe?  

KADARÉ

Its sources are essentially oral. The first literary book in Albanian was published in the sixteenth century, and it was a translation of the Bible. The country was then Catholic. After that there were writers. The founding father of Albanian literature is the nineteenth-century writer Naim Frasheri. Without having the greatness of Dante or Shakespeare, he is nonetheless the founder, the emblematic character. He wrote long epic poems, as well as lyrical poetry, to awaken the national consciousness of Albania. After him came Gjergj Fishta. We can say that these two are the giants of Albanian literature, the ones that children study at school. Later came other poets and writers who produced perhaps better works than those two, but they don’t occupy the same place in the nation’s memory.  

INTERVIEWER

The Turks took Constantinople in 1454, and then the rest of the Balkans and Greece. What was the impact of Turkish on Albanian?  

KADARÉ

Hardly any. Except in the administrative vocabulary or in cooking—words like kebab, café, bazaar. But it had no influence on the structure of the language for the simple reason that they are two totally different machines, and one can’t use the spare parts of one for the other. The Turkish language was not known anywhere outside Turkey. Modern Turkish has been constructed by Turkish writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, while the dry, administrative Turkish was not a living language and therefore could not have any influence on the other languages of the Ottoman Empire. I have met Turkish writers who have told me that they have problems with their language.  

INTERVIEWER

On the other hand, a great deal of foreign vocabulary has entered Turkish—Persian, Arabic, French, among others. Before modern times, Turkish authors wrote in Persian, or in Arabic if the subject was theology.  

KADARÉ

For me as a writer, Albanian is simply an extraordinary means of expression—rich, malleable, adaptable. As I have said in my latest novel, Spiritus, it has modalities that exist only in classical Greek, which puts one in touch with the mentality of antiquity. For example, there are Albanian verbs that can have both a beneficent or a malevolent meaning, just as in ancient Greek, and this facilitates the translation of Greek tragedies, as well as of Shakespeare, the latter being the closest European author to the Greek tragedians. When Nietzsche says that Greek tragedy committed suicide young because it only lived one hundred years, he is right. But in a global vision it has endured up to Shakespeare and continues to this day. On the other hand, I believe that the era of epic poetry is over. As for the novel, it is still very young. It has hardly begun.  

INTERVIEWER

Yet the death of the novel has been foretold for fifty years!  

KADARÉ

There are always people who talk a lot of nonsense! But in a universal perspective, if the novel is to replace the two important genres of epic poetry—which has disappeared— and of tragedy—which continues—then it has barely begun and still has two thousand years of life left.  

INTERVIEWER

It seems to me that in your oeuvre you have tried to incorporate Greek tragedy into the modern novel.  

KADARÉ

Exactly. I have tried to make a sort of synthesis of the grand tragedy and the grotesque, of which the supreme example is Don Quixote—one of the greatest works of world literature.  

INTERVIEWER

The novel has since divided into many genres . . .  

KADARÉ

Not at all! For me these genre divisions do not exist. The laws of literary creation are unique; they don’t change, and they are the same for everyone everywhere. I mean that you can tell a story that covers three hours of human life or three centuries—it comes to the same thing. Each writer who creates something authentic in a natural way, instinctively also creates the technique that suits him. So all forms or genres are natural.

Listen, I think that in the history of literature there has been only one decisive change: the passage from orality to writing. For a long time literature was only spoken, and then suddenly with the Babylonians and the Greeks came writing. That changed everything, because before when the poet recited or sang his poem and could change it at every performance as he pleased, he was free. By the same token he was ephemeral, as his poem changed in oral transmission from one generation to the next. Once written, the text becomes fixed. The author gains something by being read, but he also loses something—freedom. That is the great change in the history of literature. Little developments such as division in chapters and paragraphs, punctuation, are relatively insignificant; they are details.

For example, they say that contemporary literature is very dynamic because it is influenced by the cinema, the television, the speed of communication. But the opposite is true! If you compare the texts of the Greek antiquity with today’s literature, you’ll notice that the classics operated in a far larger terrain, painted on a much broader canvas, and had an infinitely greater dimension—a character moves between sky and earth, from a god to a mortal, and back again, in no time at all! The speed of action, the cosmic vision in a page and a half of the second book of the Iliad is impossible to find in a modern author. The story is simple: Agamemnon has done something that has displeased Zeus, who decides to punish him. He calls a messenger and tells him to fly to earth, find the Greek general called Agamemnon, and put a false dream into his head. The messenger arrives in Troy, finds Agamemnon asleep, pours a false dream into his head like a liquid, and goes back to Zeus. In the morning Agamemnon calls his officers and tells them that he has had a beautiful dream and that they should attack the Trojans. He suffers a crushing defeat. All that in a page and a half! One passes from Zeus’s brain to Agamemnon’s, from the sky to earth. Which writer today could invent that? Ballistic missiles are not as fast!  

INTERVIEWER

Nevertheless, there have been literary events such as modernism—Joyce, Kafka . . .  

KADARÉ

Kafka was very classical, so was Joyce. When Joyce became really modernist in Finnegans Wake, he failed. He went too far and no one likes that book. Even Nabokov, a great admirer of Joyce, said it was worthless. There are inventions and innovations that are not acceptable, for there is a vein that one cannot cut with impunity, just as one cannot slice off certain aspects of human nature. A man meets a woman and they fall in love. In this love there are all manner of possibilities, diversities, but one can’t imagine this woman with the body of another creature. If there is a total severance from reality, it is the end—one enters the realm of signs.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you mean that there is a certain continuity in human creativity?  

KADARÉ

Exactly. We are in a way trapped by the past of humankind; we don’t need to know the psychology of, say, crocodiles or giraffes. The past may be a burden, but there is nothing we can do about that. All this noise about innovations, new genres, is idle. There is real literature and then there is the rest.  

INTERVIEWER

You have also spoken about “negative creation.” What do you mean by that?  

KADARÉ

Negative creation for a writer is what he doesn’t write. You need a great talent to know what you shouldn’t write, and in a writer’s consciousness nonwritten works are more numerous than the ones he has written. You make a choice. And this choice is important. On the other hand, one must liberate oneself from these corpses, bury them, for they prevent one from writing what one should, just as it is necessary to clear up a ruin in order to prepare the site for building.  

INTERVIEWER

This reminds me of Cyril Connolly, who said, “The books I have not written are so much better than the ones my friends have produced.” But let us talk about your beginnings. Your childhood first: you were very small when the war broke out, after which everything changed in Albania.  

KADARÉ

My childhood was rich, for I witnessed many events. The war started when I was five. I lived in Gjinokastër, a very beautiful town, through which passed the foreign armies, which was a continuous spectacle—the Italians, the Greeks . . . the town was bombarded by the Germans, the English, passed on from one hand to another. For a child it was very exciting. We lived in a large house with many empty rooms where we played—an important part of my childhood. My paternal family was modest—my father was a court messenger, the man who delivered the tribunal’s letters—but my maternal family was quite rich. Paradoxically it was my mother’s family that was Communist, while my father was conservative and puritanical. We lived modestly at home, but when I went to my maternal grandfather’s house I was the child of a rich family. My father was against the Communist regime; my mother and her family were for it. They did not quarrel about it, but they teased each other with irony and sarcasm. At school I belonged neither with the children from poor backgrounds who were pro-Communist, nor with those of rich families who were terrified of the regime. But I knew both sides. That made me independent, free from childhood complexes.  

INTERVIEWER

After school you moved to Tiranë, the capital, and studied literature at the university. Then you went to the Gorky Institute in Moscow. It was at the time of Khrushchev, when there was a kind of liberation, a thaw after the long Stalinist freeze. How did you find the literary scene in Moscow?  

KADARÉ

I was sent to the Gorky Institute to become an official writer of the regime—it was a factory for fabricating dogmatic hacks of the socialist-realism school. In fact, they took three years to kill every creativity, every originality you possessed. Luckily I was already immunized by what I had read. At the age of eleven I had read Macbeth, which had hit me like lightning, and the Greek classics, after which nothing had any power over my spirit. What was happening in Elsinor or by the ramparts of Troy seemed to me more real than all the wretched banality of socialist-realist novels.

At the institute I was disgusted by the indoctrination, which in a way saved me. I kept telling myself that on no account must I do what they taught me but the exact opposite. Their official writers were all slaves of the party, except for a few exceptions like Konstantin Paustovsky, Chukovsky, Yevtushenko.

During my stay at the institute I wrote a novel called “The Town Without Publicity.” When I returned to Albania I was worried about showing it to anyone. I published a short extract in a magazine entitled “A Day at the Café,” which was immediately banned. No longer was there any question of publishing the book. The head of the Communist Youth Organization who had recommended its publication was later accused of liberalism and condemned to fifteen years of imprisonment. Luckily this extract exists; otherwise no one today would believe that I wrote the novel. It was the story of two literary crooks who want to falsify a text in order to prove that it can be adapted to Marxism, thereby advancing their careers. It tapped into the fundamental problem at the core of socialist culture—falsification. This novel will be published in the sixth volume of my complete works, which my French publishers are preparing. Not a word of it will be changed.  

INTERVIEWER

Yet in your adolescence you were attracted by communism, weren’t you?  

KADARÉ

There was an idealistic side to it; you thought that perhaps certain aspects of communism were good in theory, but you could see that the practice was terrible. Very soon I realized that the whole edifice was repressive, disastrous.  

INTERVIEWER

At the institute, were you permitted to read forbidden or dissident writers such as Pasternak, Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva, Mandelstam?  

KADARÉ

I read Gogol and Pushkin and certain novels of Dostoyevsky’s, in particular The House of the Dead and The Brothers Karamazov.  

INTERVIEWER

What about in Albania?  

KADARÉ

In Albania all these writers were forbidden. From time to time I managed to find a volume when I traveled abroad. I read Orwell and Kafka. I think the latter is more important. I liked 1984 but didn’t care for Animal Farm because allegories of the animal kingdom don’t touch me much. What happened in totalitarian countries was worse than anything that literature has ever invented.  

INTERVIEWER

Orwell was unique in England. At the time when the majority of the intellectuals were sympathizers or fellow travelers, he understood the nature of totalitarianism and exposed it.  

KADARÉ

I could not understand how Sartre could defend the Soviet Union. During the Cultural Revolution in China he was told that thousands of writers, artists, and intellectuals were persecuted, tortured, killed. And he became a Maoist!  

INTERVIEWER

What a posthumous triumph for Camus, whose reputation has gained in recent years! He turns out to have been right on every political issue, while Sartre was always wrong. Camus stood firm despite all the pressures exerted on him, which was not easy in those days.  

KADARÉ

I have great respect for Camus—he was exemplary. Most Western intellectuals who lived here, free, unthreatened by totalitarian dictatorship, expected us to show courage and risk our lives. In China it was even worse than it was in Albania. Why didn’t Western intellectuals protest?  

INTERVIEWER

You returned to Albania in 1960 and published the novel that was to make you famous—The General of the Dead Army. Was the story based on a real incident, a fait divers?  

KADARÉ

Enver Hoxha had just broken with the Soviet Union, accusing Khrushchev of revisionism, of making advances towards the West . . . attracting the interest of the West by pretending to cultural liberalism. Opposition to my novel came from the official critics after its publication. They blamed me for not being optimistic, for not expressing hatred toward the Italian general, for being cosmopolitan, and so on.  

INTERVIEWER

Your second novel, The Monster, tackled the theme of political anxiety. How was that received?  

KADARÉ

The Monster is the story of a town in which one fine morning the Trojan Horse appears. Inside the horse there are characters from antiquity—like Ulysses—who just wait for the day the town will fall. But I did something odd: Troy does not fall; the horse stays there forever. The people live in permanent anxiety. They say, How are we going to live? This has been going on for three thousand years and the horse is still there. He is eternal. What can we do? They whisper about plots, threats, and life is not normal. Because the totalitarian regime is founded on this paranoia about threats from outside, it needs an enemy to justify repression.  

INTERVIEWER

This novel was banned. So what did you live on? Because if one was not an official writer, a member of the Writers’ Union, one could do nothing.  

KADARÉ

Though they published me and banned me by turns, once you were published and acknowledged as an author, you became a member of the Writers’ Union and you received a monthly salary, which was the same for everybody, whether a genius or a crook. This salary was one thousandth of the royalties I would have received for the number of books I sold.  

INTERVIEWER

In such a climate of repression, how did you manage to have The General translated and published in France?  

KADARÉ

In Albania, as in all Eastern European countries, there was an organization responsible for translating a number of books into a few important foreign languages. So they translated my book into French. By chance the journalist Pierre Paraf saw it, liked it, and recommended it to a French publisher.  

INTERVIEWER

After its great success in the West, did you feel a little more secure, protected by your international fame?  

KADARÉ

Yes, but also more watched, because I was considered dangerous.  

INTERVIEWER

Let us move on to your influences. First of all, your interest in Greek tragedians, particularly Aeschylus about whom you have written a long essay, “Aeschylus or the Eternal Loser.” Why him?  

KADARÉ

I saw parallels between Greek tragedy and what was happening in totalitarian countries, above all the atmosphere of crime and the fight for power. Take the House of Atreus, where every crime leads to another until everybody is killed. There were horrible crimes in Hoxha’s circle. For example, in 1981 the prime minister, Mehmet Shehu, committed “suicide”—murdered by Hoxha. For my part, I was somewhat protected from prison by my international fame, but not from the dagger—they could kill me and say that it was a suicide or a car crash.  

INTERVIEWER

I’m going to become the devil’s advocate, if I may, and suggest that in such a society survival itself becomes suspect, as in Stalin’s Russia. We can mention those who perished, like Mandelstam, or committed suicide, like Tsvetayeva, or stopped writing, like Pasternak—reduced to translating Shakespeare—and endless others. In 1970 you wrote a six-hundred-page novel, The Long Winter, which was not based on a myth or a historical event but on the current political situation in your country. Your book seemed to be an attack on revisionism and therefore a defense of Hoxha. What reason did you have for writing the book? After all, you could have just gone on writing the sort of covert, allegorical stories you had written.  

KADARÉ

From 1967 to 1970 I was under the direct surveillance of the dictator himself. Remember that, to the great misfortune of the intellectuals, Hoxha regarded himself as an author and a poet and therefore a “friend” of writers. As I was the country’s best-known writer, he was interested in me. In such a situation I had three choices: to conform to my own beliefs, which meant death; complete silence, which meant another kind of death; or to pay a tribute, a bribe. I chose the third solution by writing The Long Winter. Albania had become an ally of China, but there were frictions between the two countries that later led to a break. Like Don Quixote, I thought that my book could accelerate this break with our latest “ally” by encouraging Hoxha. In other words, I thought that literature could accomplish the impossible—change the dictator!  

INTERVIEWER

That book is the only one, to my knowledge, in which you tackle the political situation directly. Otherwise you have used various camouflages—myth, allegory, humor. I’m thinking of The Pyramid and The Palace of Dreams, set respectively in ancient Egypt and in Ottoman times. In The Pyramid, Pharaoh Cheops wants to build a pyramid that would be bigger and last longer than any other—an enterprise that justifies and legitimizes every sacrifice, every oppression. In The Palace of Dreams, the control and classification of dreams goes wrong. Did your readers in Albania understand the allusions to the Soviet empire and to the Pharaoh Hoxha?  

KADARÉ

Yes. They saw clearly that I was alluding to the Communist empire, which is why they banned The Palace of Dreams.  

INTERVIEWER

Were you influenced by writers who used the same stratagems, such as Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita, Zamyatin in Z, which inspired Orwell’s 1984, as well as Hrabal and Kundera, or Kafka in The Castle and The Trial—the prototypes of an oppressive and closed system?  

KADARÉ

I had read them and I was conscious of certain similarities. At the same time, I was anxious to not use banal ruses. I had to be convinced that it would be real literature, with a global vision. In this sense The Palace of Dreams is a success.

INTERVIEWER

The Soviet gulags have produced a rich witness literature in the works of Solzhenitsyn, Natalia Ginzburg, Nadezhda Mandelstam, and others. Were there gulags in Albania?  

KADARÉ

Yes, but fewer, as the country was small. Hoxha built thousands of antinuclear bunkers in case of an atomic war breaking out, but they were utterly useless, as he knew—his purpose was to create a fear-psychosis.  

INTERVIEWER

Despite his suspicious attitude towards you, Hoxha made you a member of Parliament. Why?  

KADARÉ

It meant nothing at all. The list of MPs was drawn by him, and if anyone refused he was eliminated, killed. No one ever refused, and it involved no work whatever. Once a year Parliament was convened, and Hoxha dictated what he wanted—no discussion, no debate. The deputies were chosen from among workers, scientists, writers, so that Parliament appeared representative of the population.  

INTERVIEWER

After the success of your books in the West, you could have left the country. Were you ever tempted? In your book The Albanian Spring, published in 1992, you say that several times you nearly stayed in France.  

KADARÉ

I did not leave because the reprisals on the relatives, friends, even acquaintances were terrible. In 1983 I came to France with the intention of staying. Then I realized that it was not possible. There was the risk of a complete break with my country, my language, all those I loved. My French friends advised me to go back, and I did.  

INTERVIEWER

The sad novel you wrote later, The Shadow, explains this déchirement—the choice between exile and freedom on the one hand, oppression and tyranny on the other. Were you afraid of exile?  

KADARÉ

No. The writer is always to some extent in exile, wherever he is, because he is somehow outside, separated from others; there is always a distance.  

INTERVIEWER

So why did you leave after the fall of Communism?  

KADARÉ

I left in 1990, when Albania was oscillating between democracy and dictatorship. I thought that my departure would help the cause of democracy. I said that if the country chose dictatorship I would not return, and that threat stimulated the struggle for democracy. I had come to France for the publication of The Palace of Dreams, and I made a public statement. The media reported it and that played a decisive role in favor of democracy.  

INTERVIEWER

The people wanted to elect you president, like Havel in Czechoslovakia, but you refused. Why?  

KADARÉ

I did not hesitate a second to refuse. My case was different from Havel’s; I wanted to remain a writer and free.  

INTERVIEWER

It is quite a dilemma: should one resist dictatorship, become a dissident, as did some writers in Czechoslovakia; or leave the country, as did German writers when Hitler came to power—they left in droves.  

KADARÉ

One shouldn’t be naive! The circumstances were different in each country. You can’t compare Albania under Hoxha with Czechoslovakia. We did not have a Dubcek, the Czech Spring, and all that followed. If Havel had been in Albania, he would have been shot immediately. That is why there were no dissidents in Russia under Stalin. No one could do anything. In Albania, as in Romania, Stalinism lasted until the very end. When Havel was in prison, he had his typewriter, access to world media, everyone talked about him. Those who compare our situation with Czechoslovakia have no idea of Stalinist repression.  

INTERVIEWER

So you really survived by miracle?  

KADARÉ

Not entirely. Every regime needs to save face with respect to the international community, and if you are a famous writer the regime has to be careful. Hoxha wanted to be considered a poet, a Sorbonne student, a writer, not a murderer. The only thing that a writer could do under such a dictatorship was to try to produce true literature. That way one does one’s duty for eternity. To expect anything else is cynical and criminal. The Albanians had in me a writer who connected them with the world. I dominated our cultural life and I was safeguarding Albanian culture with my work, for there was on one side what I was creating on the other the Communist product, which was worthless. When a book of mine was published, in fifteen minutes it was sold out—every copy was immediately bought. People knew that it would probably be banned, so they rushed to buy it before it was. Sometimes the book was banned before distribution, but by then thousands of copies were in circulation and people passed them on to one another.  

INTERVIEWER

Were you not supposed to submit your manuscript to the Writers’ Union for inspection, which was the case in Russia?  

KADARÉ

No. In Albania there was no prepublication censorship; since there was so much terror, self-censorship was enough. This was one of Hoxha’s idiosyncrasies—as I said, he took himself for an intellectual. So it was the publishers who decided whether to publish a book or not. When I handed in the manuscript of The Palace of Dreams I knew it was a dangerous book. The publisher read it and said that he could not risk publishing it. So I told him that I accepted the responsibility: If they start bothering you, tell them that you were impressed by my celebrity, and that I bullied you into it. In such circumstances they always punished the author, not the publisher. That is in fact what happened. He said to the authorities that considering my prestige he had not dared to refuse my manuscript.  

INTERVIEWER

So writers like you gave signals, but people in the West did not want to believe how dire the situation was in Eastern European countries.  

KADARÉ

In Albania everybody knew that I was an antiregime writer. And the fact that the regime couldn’t condemn me gave courage to others. That is the fundamental function of literature: maintaining the moral torch. In 1988 France made me an honorary member of the Institut de France, a very great honor. A French journalist interviewed me on the radio, asking me frankly if I was free to write what I wanted. I answered, No, because freedom in our country is different from here. What else could I say? I could not speak more openly against the regime. What I was trying to do was give a chained people a certain nourishment—a cultural richness comparable to that of the free peoples of the world.  

INTERVIEWER

Can you explain what you mean by true literature?  

KADARÉ

You recognize it immediately, instinctively. Every time I wrote a book, I had the impression that I was thrusting a dagger into the dictatorship, while at the same time giving courage to the people.  

INTERVIEWER

In view of what has happened in Yugoslavia, I would like to ask you about religious intolerance. Half the Albanians are Muslims, including your family. Did you receive a religious education? Is there a danger of Islamic fundamentalism in Albania now that religious practice has become free?  

KADARÉ

I don’t think so. My family was Muslim in name, but they did not practice. No one around me was religious. Besides, the Bektashi sect of Islam that is practiced in Albania is very moderate, even more so than in Bosnia. So I don’t think we need to worry on that score.  

INTERVIEWER

To come back to the professional side of things, how do you divide your time between Tiranë and Paris? And your day, wherever you are?  

KADARÉ

I am more in Paris than in Tiranë because I can work better here. There is too much politics in Tiranë, and too many demands. I am asked to write a preface here, an article there . . . I don’t have an answer to everything.

As for my day: I write two hours in the morning, and I stop. I can never write more—my brain gets tired. I write in a café around the corner, away from distractions. The rest of my time is spent reading, seeing friends, all the rest of my life.  

INTERVIEWER

Is writing easy for you or difficult? Are you happy when writing, or anxious?  

KADARÉ

Writing is neither a happy nor an unhappy occupation—it is something in-between. It is almost a second life. I write easily, but I’m always afraid that it may be no good. You need a stable humor; both happiness and unhappiness are bad for literature. When you are happy, you tend to become light, frivolous, and if you are unhappy your vision becomes perturbed. You have to live first, experience life, and later write about it.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you write on the typewriter or by hand?  

KADARÉ

I write by hand and my wife kindly types it.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you rewrite a lot?  

KADARÉ

Not much, just small adjustments, but no drastic changes.  

INTERVIEWER

What comes first—the plot, characters, ideas?  

KADARÉ

It depends. It is different for each book. The process is mysterious, vague. It is not the characters, but a mixture of everything. Take The Palace of Dreams. In an earlier novel, The Corner of Shame, there is one page where the idea of dream-control is for the first time introduced. Later I thought it was a pity to use it so briefly, or perfunctorily. So I wrote a short story on the theme, without any hope of publication. But two chapters were published in a collection of short stories. When I saw that the authorities did not notice it, I was emboldened and expanded it into a novel. So you see, the genesis of a book is mysterious.  

INTERVIEWER

Those who read your work in the original Albanian remark upon the beauty of your prose. Is style a conscious preoccupation for you?  

KADARÉ

I am meticulous, even demanding, about language. For example, I always write poetry because poetry forces you to work on the language. There are two kinds of linguistic richness: the first is similar to that of precious stones—metaphors, similes, little discoveries—the second is in the whole. The great felicity is a perfect mixture of the two, when a text is beautifully written and the content is substantial too. But there is no conscious stylistic effort on my part.  

INTERVIEWER

What are the things that prevent you from working? Hemingway said the telephone was the big work-killer.  

KADARÉ

In Tiranë no one dared use the telephone except for the most anodyne purposes because the phones were tapped. But as I said, I only write two hours a day, and it is not difficult to be isolated for that length of time.  

INTERVIEWER

Your last novel, Spiritus, had a very good reception in France, and I hope it will be translated into English soon. Have you started a new novel?  

KADARÉ

No. Is there any hurry?