JANUARY 9, 2018
AT THE END of World War II, the Communist Party took over Albanian territory with the hope of restructuring its sociopolitical, religious, and cultural landscapes, a mission they pursued until the early 1990s. The most significant change to the Albanian community was the streamlining of religious beliefs into a supposed unified Albanian identity. To ensure this, the Communist Party severely regulated any public activity, restricted private life, and sent all transgressors to internment camps outside the capital, Tirana. Such is the historical moment in which award-winning Albanian author Ismail Kadare’s new novel A Girl in Exile: Requiem for Linda B. takes place. Kadare is best known for his hyperlocal novels, which explore in unconventional ways the horrors and hardships of civilizations. Freshly translated into English by John Hodgson, A Girl in Exile (originally published in 2009) is the gripping account of a playwright’s tragic struggle with the effects of his creative work, as understood through political upheaval, narrative interchangeability, and a magnetic relationship.
The story kicks off with Rudian Stefa, a successful playwright, walking to the Party Committee building after having been mysteriously summoned for questioning. Investigators bring to his attention the suicide of a young woman called Linda B., who was found with a book that Rudian had autographed. Thinking Rudian is somehow involved with Linda’s death, the investigators try and find out more information about his relationship to her. Oddly, he’s never met her. He only met her friend Migena, who came to get his book signed for Linda and with whom he subsequently gets involved romantically.
Dumbfounded and inexplicably guilt-ridden, Rudian is increasingly troubled by the circumstances surrounding Linda’s death. Almost obsessively, he tries to understand why Linda committed suicide, but everyone, including Migena and the investigators, tells him that it’s better if he doesn’t know. In the process, his relationship with Migena, which began with a passionate encounter at the book signing, disintegrates to radio silence. Kadare takes us through Rudian’s entire psychic sphere, successfully designing a character that immediately draws readers in and that, unfortunately, because he is himself a storyteller, may know a bit too much about character creation to dutifully play one for Kadare.
What was he better off not knowing about? he wondered. He was now angrier at himself than at the girl. He had heard these words and accepted them meekly. He should have responded in totally the opposite way.
That Rudian is a famous playwright is no coincidence. Awaiting approval for his new play by the Party Committee, Rudian is a writer whose work has consumed him entirely, and for whom each event that punctuates his life has a cause and effect, no contingency. His world is a large stage on which characters ebb and flow, deaths occur, political upheavals wreak havoc, and, more importantly, anonymous passersby fall in and out of love before him. Often, Rudian is found seated at his regular table at the same cafes, looking at the same view, drinking the same Vietnamese coffee he cannot stand, and thinking about the characters he has yet to imagine. It’s this beautiful attachment to the importance of everyday life that opens up a large space for the possibilities of storytelling, and Kadare makes sure to remind his readers that Rudian is an expert storyteller with a rampant imagination. In several instances, Rudian quasi-usurps Kadare’s authorial power, grows frustrated with the stubbornness of the investigator, and ultimately suggests alternate dialogue to modify the scene as written by the author:
Rudian waited for him to continue, and imagined him producing phrases along the lines of, To tell the truth, I was a little surprised too. Or, Yes, why did you mention that girl? How easy it would have been to keep the conversation going. Any playwright could do it. But the investigator showed no curiosity.
Readers are asked to consider what it means for a character to be frustrated with the conversations he is forced to have with other characters in the book. Such frustration implies a deeper, more unusual dissatisfaction with the author. Here, Rudian is unhappy with the ways in which Kadare has decided to write out the dialogue between him and the investigator. As a writer himself, Rudian has reservations as to whether Kadare truly understands what it takes to be a writer, especially when he underestimates the writer he has created for his novel:
Who knows what this idiot investigator and all these other fools are thinking. Do they imagine that writers are such sissies that, if they hurt a sparrow, they suffer pangs of conscience for months? Cretin. Didn’t he know how cruel writers can be? If their roles were reversed, Rudian Stefa wouldn’t interrogate with this delicacy.
With a mind prone to narratological daydreams, Rudian often misses the play right in front of him, or the novel for which he is the protagonist. When it is announced that Linda has died, Migena disappears for days, giving Rudian no news and knowing full well that her disappearance will raise suspicions about her involvement in the death. When she returns, Migena attempts to tell her story. However, she can only divulge it in small increments, like acts in a play, forcing her audience — in this case Rudian — to grow increasingly anxious about the ending and to manifest this anxiety through a series of unresolved speculations. The result is a frenzied text crowded by the winding inner workings of Rudian’s mind. On the one hand, readers see the world through the first-person point of view, with direct access to the way in which Rudian interacts with the people who cross his path. On the other hand, readers are thrown back into a more general narrative language that is not exactly in the third person and not quite in the first:
Speak up. What’s the matter? He thought back to his own questions. Oh God, those questions he’d asked her at their last meeting, like an interrogator. Something is on your mind. We’ve talked about it so often. Tell me, what’s the matter? I can’t bear your tears. Nor those enigmatic phrases of yours: I don’t know who you are, my prince or someone else’s.
These internal interjections punctuate the text repeatedly and sometimes function as dialogue, though the dialogue is not formatted in the traditional sense. Often, it’s hard to differentiate who is speaking. It would appear that Kadare has created one tongue through which all his characters come into language, and they can either claim ownership of sentences or remain ambiguous when they so choose: “If you don’t want to speak, don’t bother, he thought, and sat down, turning his back to the writer.”
The narration includes conversations characters are having in real time, such as when Migena finally tells Rudian the truth surrounding Linda’s death, and readers will notice the progression in Migena’s storytelling style. It begins as a straightforward conversation between her and Rudian and quickly turns into a more telepathic kind of discourse that mixes together their thoughts. In some ways, this overlaying of voices illustrates perfectly both Rudian’s complete submission to the lust he feels for Migena and the confusion surrounding the information about Linda available to Rudian and readers.
To make matters even more ambiguous, the text features an interpolated tale similar to the ones in Cervantes’s Don Quixote that takes readers into the world of one of Rudian’s plays. In this story-within-the-story, a defendant is on trial for killing a ghost for a reason the ghost is better off not knowing. The play functions as an alternate iteration of Kadare’s story as Rudian would have written it: “The dual-natured ghost, although present in a single reality, in fact acted in two dimensions, which did not overlap in any way.”
The ghost operates as the spectral presence of the author, the ultimate puppet master determining the language all his characters will use. But the ghost is also Linda, who is present throughout the book without ever truly participating in the development of the story. She exists in a different narrative dimension, outside of the book but intrinsically linked to its resolution. Here, we are reminded of psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva’s work, which suggests that the cognitive being is constituted through two linguistic planes: the symbolic and the semiotic chora. The latter is that which functions before the moment of enunciation, while the former manifests through words and signifiers. During an imagined conversation Rudian has with Linda, he thinks,
Linda, as if understanding his bewilderment, said something linguistically incomprehensible, but which conveyed, more or less, the idea that from now on she inhabited a different realm, one that obeyed different laws.
It’s clear here that the dimension Linda inhabits has not yet arrived at the linguistic shore and basks ever so gently in the hazy aura of the ineffably semiotic, while Rudian, so tragically attached to the words he uses, is stuck in the symbolic plane, forced to use language to communicate with that which is fated to elude him. The push and pull of these characters gives the text its dynamism, and Migena, a casualty of this impossible relationship, is stuck in the middle, as mediator or vessel through which Linda can be with Rudian and through which Rudian can let his imagination run wild, wordless, amorphous.
Beautifully, the text addresses the cruelties of dictatorship through Linda’s exile from the main city, showing the rise and fall of a character whose potential may have outshone that of the other characters in the book. Nonetheless, despite the political oppression festering within the text and a hasty resolution to the enigma that takes up the totality of the novel, Kadare creates a compelling narrative environment that is fully self-reflexive and autocritical. Rudian’s world rises above the dictatorial climate and gives power back to the writers, who, in the end, are left with the only option of creating characters to carry them to and from the linguistic shore.
Michael Valinsky’s work has been published in i-D Magazine, Hyperallergic, OUT Magazine, BOMB Magazine, NewNowNext.com, and Kirkus Reviews, among others. He is the author of .TXT, Zurich: 89plus/LUMA Publications, 2014.