Filed under: Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction | Tags: albania, balkans, book reviews, books, ismail kadare, lit, literature, ottoman empire, reading, the siege
Ismail Kadare’s The Siege is not, strictly speaking, a historical novel, but it does give a broad sense of life, and life during war, during the time of the Ottoman Empire. As with Kadare’s other novels, The Siege takes place in his native Albania; and, more specifically, is set at an unnamed citadel belonging to Skanderbeg (an ethnic Albanian member of the Ottoman army, who left Islam in favor of Christianity, and the Turks for the Albanians). Strange though it may sound to say that this novel, which has no narrative thrust other than that of shifting levels of despair, succeeds because of its plotting, The Siege works because there is a tension to the story even as we suspect that it will lead to no real conclusion. Kadare sometimes gives in to an excess of dreaminess in his writing, but here keeps that tendency in check in favor of describing the council meetings and varied attempts to break the citadel’s defenses, and following the lives of those members of the Ottoman army waiting out their lives beyond the walls of the citadel.
The Siege is told largely from the view of the Ottomans, with short – two-page – narratives inserted between chapters, describing the Ottomans’ latest actions from the view of an Albanian inside the citadel. This means much description of the minutia of siege warfare, from deciding which soldiers to send over first, to when to pull back, to how the successes and failures of an attack can change the careers of the men making the decisions. This may sound dull, but Kadare is pitch-perfect in this novel, giving his characters the space to battle over their preferred strategies, and thereby giving the reader a chance to, as it were, join the negotiations. In focusing not only on the details of the siege, but on the decision-making process, Kadare also offers an extensive exploration of the idea of power, and of what influences the men fighting this battle.
There are few characters who maintain their role throughout the novel – who aren’t sentenced to death, or demoted to the lowest ranks of the army, for a loss, an accident, or a wrong decision – but even those who do maintain their position (most notably the pasha – the army’s leader – and Çelebi, the chronicler assigned to turn the siege into myth) are keenly aware of their precarious position and the odds that they will lose their power far more quickly than they gained it. When assigning punishments, decreeing that men should go “down below” to dig a tunnel underneath the citadel, the pasha recognizes not only that he holds these men’s fate in his hands, but that someone else holds his:
He hastily initialled the sentences but added in the margin, “Send below”. As he scrawled those words, which meant “to the tunnel”, he felt the well-known sensation of the powerful of the earth who can cast another man into the abyss. The idea that his own fate was also in the hands of another did not hold him back, but, on the contrary, put fresh energy into his view. He had long known that the world is but a pyramid of power, and the loser would always be the man who gives up the exercise of his own power before the other. (124)
Kadare also explores the minor, and often failed, assertions of power the men make, their attempts to break into the Pasha’s inner circle where they can be heard with the other top men of the army. In Kadare’s vision, even the secretary recording these meetings is seeking opportunities to declare his own strength:
The Pasha had spoken. In the utter silence that ensued all that could be heard was the scratching of the secretary’s quill as he put down on paper everything that had been said. They were all accustomed to this sound which was always identical, whether the words being transcribed were sharp or smooth, scorpion bites or soft summer wind. Those among the council members who were familiar with administrative accounts realised that the secretary was making his quill squeal more than was necessary. To judge by the serious face he made at such times, it wasn’t hard to guess that these silent pauses in which his pen scratching was the overriding sound gave him his sole opportunity in life to assert his own importance. Once someone started talking again, his very presence would be forgotten. (201)
There’s a sense of the forgettable to the events of this novel. As anyone with a rough understanding of the history of the Ottoman empire can guess, this siege won’t be successful; it is nothing more than a footnote in history, months of war that are of note only as a part of the tide that will eventually overwhelm the Albanian defenders. The scribe who spends so much time observing soldiers and battles for the account he will eventually write is confronted not only with the question of whether this will be read and remembered, but by the fact that what he records is not really the truth. Throughout the novel, men make note of the things the scribe won’t write in his chronicle – the aspects of warfare that are so wholly ugly they’ll find no place in the glorious chronicle of this siege.
Kadare perfectly captures the deadening effects of war, how its horrors become commonplace; the political machinations that go into decisions down to the level of what soldiers should be eating; how power is claimed and used and, in time, lost; and the circular nature of war, the way that one army will so easily replace the last. By showing so much of the siege through the chronicler’s eyes, Kadare also questions how memory is shaped, and what aspects of war will be remembered, and which should be remembered. The Siege is a remarkable novel, one worth repeated visits for its unsentimental look at mythmaking and the nature of war.
“In the raging storm of battle the crocodiles charged the ramparts again and again, but fate…” It was a hard sentence to finish off, and he had a headache. He was tempted to write “…did not smile on them”, but “smile” seemed the wrong word here. How could there be any smiles in the midst of such horrible butchery? He put his quill down and stared pensively at the pages he had written in a hand now weakened by age. One day, they would constitute the sole remains of all this blood spilled beneath a burning sky, of those thousands of dreadful wounds, of the roar of the cannon, of the yellow dust of forced marches, of the unending, nightmarish ebb and flow of assailants beneath the castle walls, of men clambering up ladders under showers of hot pitch and arrows, falling to the ground below, then clambering up again alongside comrades who don’t even recognise you because you are already disfigured by your injuries. Those pages were going to be the sole trace of the soldiers’ tanned hides, of these innumerable skins on which sharp metal, sulphur, pitch and oil had drawn monstrous shapes which, when the war was over, would go on living their own lives. To cap it all, these pages would also be the sole remnants of the myriad tents which, when they were dismantled, as they would be in a few weeks’ time, would leave thousands of marks on a wide empty space, looking as if it had been trampled by a huge herd of bizarre animals. Then, next spring, grass would grow on the plain: millions of blades of grass, utterly indifferent to what had gone on there, with no knowledge of all that can happen in this world. (294)