Monday, August 21, 2006


In Ismail Kadare's novel, "The General of the Dead Army," a proud but nameless Italian general arrives by airplane, in Albania in the mid-1960s with the mission of retrieving the buried bones of Italian soldiers killed during World War II. The general, accompanied by a military priest and the weighty expectations of the dead soldiers' families, embarks on the grisly quest with a listing of the missing soldiers, official maps, and anecdotal evidence from surviving infantrymen to help locate his "dead army."
The general and the priest, with an Albanian work crew in their command make their way around the countryside, exhuming Italian remains. The general's anxiety grows in tandem with the body count; he is haunted not simply by the macabre nature of the work and the animosity he senses from the Albanians around him, but most profoundly by the guilt he assumes for the soldiers' deaths. Thus begins his unraveling, marked by nightmares featuring corpses and hallucinations that amalgamate reality and fear. In one particularly tender, demented scene, the general maps ingenious new strategies for famous battles past, for himself and his army of dead men.
Seasoned by years in command, however, the general maintains a facsimile of lucidity and remains honorable to his task. After more than 12 months of searching, and with the majority of bodies accounted for - minus that of the highly sought after Colonel Z - the general and priest prepare for their final descent from the treacherous Albanian mountains, to the capital. Before reaching Tirane, however, they encounter a wedding festival, which the general insists on attending despite the priest's protest. The stop is the general's undoing, as he's confronted by a bitter crone with the bones of the infamous Colonel Z, who hanged her husband, raped her daughter, and terrorized countless other Albanians as leader of the notorious Blue Battalion. The general's brief reprise of happiness is toppled, and in a fit of rage and realization, he kicks the Colonel's bagged bones into a rushing creek, hence wrecking his hope of receiving a hero's return.
Like the General, who begins to see beyond the skin of the living, beyond to their bones beneath, the discerning reader can see the skeletons of archetypes that give form to "The General:"
"As soon as I see someone - anyone at all - I automatically begin stripping off his hair, then his cheeks, then his eyes, as though they were something unnecessary, something that is merely preventing me from penetrating to his essence; and I envisage his head as nothing but a skull and teeth- the only details that endure."
This perspicacity ensues the general's fall, complete in nearly every sense - psychologically, emotionally, ethically - except, ironically, mortally and, ultimately, morally. That the stage for this plummet is a wedding celebration - a typically triumphant occasion - is no coincidence. The juxtaposition of the merry fest, eerily set in the seasonably stark season of winter, against the general's hexed union with his long-sought prize, at the hand's of a "witch", no less, throws into the relief the velocity and depth of his descent, and the tragic nature of human traditions like warfare. In fact, cycles repeat relentlessly throughout The General. Here time is incessantly predictable: swings in the general's mood; his forays between city life and the remote, frigid "underground"; bodies roused from rest then bagged, boxed and buried again; and, mostly enduringly, Albania's own embattled biography.
The seasons, too, are regimentally obedient, with the chilly, wet months of fall and winter conspicuously consuming all but three paragraphs of the general's 252-page, year-long stay Like the weather, the Albanian countryside is ominous, to the general's eyes, with its "menacing mountains" and their "jagged," "hostile" peaks. Collectively, these elements give the general a sense of isolation, as does his cultural ignorance. Unlike the priest, he doesn't speak Albanian and makes no effort to. He characterizes the language as "harsh" and "a fatal tongue," and views the Albanians - from their physical form, to their manners, to their rituals -with deep disdain. Early on he states that he "hates" them, and wishes to avenge his soldiers' deaths, and throughout he outwardly resents the curious stares of the peasants who witness the exhumations. Not surprisingly, when the Albanians' voices are allowed into the narrative, they emerge as warm, passionate, lively people, further belying the general's narrow view of his hosts. However even their stories - tracing the fate of the prostitute, the deserter, and the partisan sniper - echo the ubiquitous howl of death.
It is perhaps ironic justice that, Kadare's use of archetypal elements give "The General a universality, a particularly unique quality for a work by an artist living in a recluse nation. By enabling both "us" and "them" to recognize and understand the nuances of the general and his journey, Kadare's use of archetypes cleverly undermines the novel's ostensible claim at an inherently opposed "we" and "they."
Recently, the very hypothesis of Ismail Kadare's General was re-enacted, this time by the grieving relatives of Greek soldiers who fell in Albania during World War II. Unlike German and Italian soldiers, with whom Albania was allied during that war, Greek soldiers represent an enemy and occupying force that attempted to re-annex Northern Epirus and denude Albania of its southern provinces. As a result, the corpses of Greek soldiers have been left to decompose, being turned over by the occasional plow and exhumed to prove that even beyond the decomposition of the flesh and the passing of time, hatreds may still remain, hatreds as tragically Greek as Kadare's own masterpiece, given that Creon-like, up until now, the authorities, despite signing an agreement with Greece, have refused these soldiers, a proper burial.
One of the Albanian workers hired to assist in the exhumation was caught robbing the remains and as a result, was fired. Technically, it is illegal in Albania to perform exhumations without a license and the disgraced grave robber reported to the authorities that he was engaged to desecrate Albanian graves. As the exhumation was accompanied by an Orthodox priest who sang the trisagion, various Albanian members of Parliament, enmeshed in the throes of nationalist hysteria, accused the Orthodox Archbishop of Albania of grave desecration, spying for Greece, being a traitor and called for his removal from the country. The hapless priest, has now been jailed.
The bare bones of paranoia lie just under the surface of the topsoil in Albania and can be stripped down to their essence by anyone, let alone a general. The president of Albania, Alfred Moisiu, whose father was an officer in the oppressive Zog regime and then the totalitarian regime of Enver Hoxha and fought in the battle for Elbasan where Italian troops halted the advance of the Greek army towards central Albania, is absolutely opposed to the proper burial of the Greek soldiers. Circles close to him report that the construction of proper cemeteries to house the remains of the fallen and long forgotten soldiers is considered to be as tantamount to extending the Greek borders up until that spot and it will be a long time before the jagged, hostile and unforgiving terrain that has seen so much misery over the course of the twentieth century, will give up our dead to us. "Us" and "them" is as a reality of today's Albania as it is in the fiction of Kadare.
This sad situation of affairs, which has seen Albanian paranoia seek a scapegoat in the Orthodox Church that has done so much to ensure the cohesiveness of Albanian society as a multi-faith one and has furthered the process of reconciliation in such a damaged and fragmented community is a fitting postscript to Kadare's piece. In keeping with the general outlook of his compatriots, for all his efforts to make isolationist and xenophobic Albania more accessible to the western world, his world-view, as set out in "The General of the Dead Army," is one where isolation is externally imposed, rather than stemming from an internal, barren solitude. Thus, in an inversion of the clichéd symbolism of the Albanians nationalistically employed to the effect that they purport to be "son's of the eagles", he states: "Like a proud and solitary bird, you will fly over those silent and tragic mountains in order to wrest our poor young men from their jagged, rocky grip." The postcript however, written by his compatriots, belies that assertion. There are some dead who threaten to rise up from their slumber in accusation. Though it would be safer to entomb them and bury their righteous anger under tones of marble, Kadare's compatriots are too terrified to go near them. In the final chapter, no general is required to seek out his army and bury it. It is the dead, who will find their general and demand the dignified respite they so richly deserve even as their descendants languish in prison, stating, as Sophocles' Antigone did two thousand years ago: "I intend to give my brother burial. I’ll be glad to die in the attempt, - if it’s a crime, then it’s a crime that God commands.”
It is unknown what weregild for perceived wrongs will have to be paid before the members of the Albanian parliament overcome their fear of ghosts and the guilt of the brutality of their own Colonels Z. If it is the prelate of the Albanian Orthodox Church, the leaders of Albania, all of which have done much to oppress the minorities of that country and whose economic mismanagement and corruption are of a scale to make a South American dictator blush ought to remember the words of John Donne, as the dead come knocking at their door, searching for an Antigone to bury them: "No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

First published in NKEE on 21 August 2006