FIRST PUBLISHED IN 1978, only to be pulled from the shelves in Enver Hoxha’s repressive Albania, Ismail Kadare’s The Traitor’s Niche, recently translated by John Hodgson, immerses the reader in a fictionalized Ottoman Empire, a significant creative locus for the author. With narrative action situated partly in Istanbul, partly in Albania, and partly in present-day Greece, the novel transports the reader across all parts of the empire, from the center of power to the tempestuous periphery, where locals rebelliously defy the Sultan’s will. The novel relentlessly exposes the impact of authoritarianism, showing how it crushes the human spirit — including, perhaps most perniciously, the souls of those who aspire to be autocrats. Reading the book today, one can understand the response it provoked from the communist censors, since its critique, though displaced in time, is clearly directed at Hoxha’s regime. Yet the story is also a more encompassing parable of authoritarianism that is relevant far beyond its immediate historical moment.

Kadare has often stated that he views literary landscapes as separate from day-to-day historical realities: literature, in short, has its own time and space. Although some of the author’s works, such as his 1977 novel The Great Winter, are set in the everyday world of Communist Albania, most of his best writings explore alternative historical realities. Chronicle in Stone (1971) inhabits the perspective of a young child growing up in 1940s Albania; Broken April (1978) explores a highland society ruled by an ancient law code; The Three-Arched Bridge (1978) depicts a medieval world governed by superstition and magic. Yet one locale drew his imagination persistently, especially when writing under the dictatorship: the 19th-century Ottoman Empire. In The Palace of Dreams (1981), for example, Kadare exaggerates the historical realities of the Ottoman state in order to conjure a quintessential totalitarianism.

In The Traitor’s Niche, the author again evokes an atmosphere of fear, terror, and authoritarianism. When someone betrays the empire, he is decapitated by Tundj Hata, the emperor’s obedient servant, who ceremoniously carries the head back to the capital. There, it is displayed in the eponymous Traitor’s Niche, in a major public square, as a warning against future rebellion. The caretaker of the Niche, Abdulla, is tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that the heads do not decompose too quickly. He inspects them on a daily basis, his tour occupying the attention of all nearby observers, since he embodies the terrifying power of the empire. Yet when Kadare leads us inside Abdulla’s own head, we meet a considerably less imposing creature: a traumatized man, brutalized by his job into sexual impotence, as dead inside as the heads he tends to on the wall. Ironically, Abdulla experiences a strange sense of his own head’s dislocation from the rest of his body.

As in The Palace of Dreams, the Ottoman Empire evoked in The Traitor’s Niche is a characteristically irrational authoritarian regime. Over the course of the novel, the Albanian Ali Pashë Tepelena and the Turkish Hurshid Pasha vie for supremacy in order to avoid being decapitated and sent to the Niche. Dispatched to rule over the Pashalik of Ioannina, the empire’s European territories, Tepelena rebelled against the Sultan in 1820 — at which point Hurshid Pasha, general and grand vizier, was sent to quell the revolt. The fact that eventually both men end up on the wall, even though Pasha defeats the Albanian and brings the province under imperial control, reflects the deep arbitrariness of Ottoman power at its height.

In his writings, Kadare often depicts the Hoxha regime as fundamentally irrational, basing life-or-death decisions on arbitrary whims. In The Palace of Dreams, the same mercurial despotism prevails, in the form of the omens that determine whether a person lives or dies. In The Traitor’s Niche, Hurshid Pasha is placed in the Niche for mysterious and largely unexplained reasons, possibly (it is implied) because of a dream omen. Though he commits suicide in order to escape being mutilated, his body is exhumed and decapitated by a state intent on perpetuating its bloody spectacle of power.

Hurshid Pasha’s head replaces, on the wall, that of Tepelena, on whose story Kadare dwells at some length. This subplot is likely a key reason why the book was pulled from the shelves in communist Albania. Kadare offers a complex depiction of Tepelena that calls to mind Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part II, a film — made during World War II though not released in the USSR until 1958, five years after Stalin’s death — that was banned by the dictator because Eisenstein’s depiction of the lonely, embittered, and tyrannical Ivan hit a bit too close to home. In the figure of Tepelena, Kadare similarly captures the psychic burden tyranny imposes on the tyrant himself: an angry, jealous man, who seeks the love of his followers but finds himself fundamentally unloved, Tepelena is abandoned by everyone save his wife, Vasiliki, his sole companion and confidante during his dying hour.

Kadare has often said that he remained alive in communist Albanian only because Hoxha enjoyed his own portrayal in The Great Winter. Yet the dictator likely saw parts of himself in Ali Pashë Tepelena as well. Jealous of the love that the 15th-century warrior Skanderbeg inspired among Albanians, Tepelena, though a cunning and strong leader, does not really respect his people. He is unloved because he merely wants to dominate. Kadare exposes the dictator’s loneliness with great compassion, but this does not prevent him from seeing how Tepelena dehumanizes and instrumentalizes others even as he confronts his own mortality.

Reading The Traitor’s Niche today, 40 years after its initial publication, we can view the novel as an ode to rationality, due process, and government checks and balances. In this text, as in many of his works, Kadare champions the value of art and the imagination — cultural and psychological forces that require total freedom, the very thing dictators oppose. In stifling freedom, authoritarian leaders are also stifling the imagination: they seek gray automatons that follow their commands rather than autonomous subjects with independent personalities.

Kadare also shows a unique talent at peering inside the mind of a tyrant. As in The Palace of Dreams, the author does not simply demonize the power-hungry dictator. Rather, he depicts a deeply flawed individual led astray by the seductive allure of power and its trappings. The fact that a common man like Ali Pashë Tepelena could be as monstrous and dictatorial as the Sultan himself is a significant revelation, because it shows how easily we might all become complicit in the denial of freedom. Just as Hoxha eventually succumbed to a delusional paranoia, so Kadare shows us vestiges of this innate suspiciousness in the Sultan, in Tepelena, and even in Hurshid Pasha. The fear that Pasha experiences turns out to be completely justified when an order for his head arrives. The irrationality of authoritarian power is so extreme that there is an almost surreal quality to the orders of the novel’s dictators. In The Traitor’s Niche, as in all his best works, Kadare powerfully evokes — and critiques — the sheer, irascible strangeness of unchecked power.

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Ani Kokobobo is associate professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas.