When the sponsors of the Man Booker Prize announced last year that they would create a new international version of the prize, they were greeted with a combination of excitement and skepticism. The Booker - as it was known for more than 30 years until 2002, when a change in sponsorship brought a new name - has become Britain's most prestigious literary award, garnering the winner far more attention than the Pulitzer or the National Book Award in America.
The original prize, given to the best novel published in the Britain, Ireland, or the British Commonwealth each year, already has an impossibly broad range of work to consider - more or less all English-language fiction published outside the America. The International Man Booker, which will be awarded today to Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, expands the field still further: Awarded every two years and worth L60,000, it can be given to any "living author who has published fiction either originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language."
The definition covers just about all of the world's important writers, and the International Man Booker Prize is clearly conceived as a kind of rival to the Nobel. Indeed, the shortlist of 18 finalists, announced in February, was largely composed of writers who have either been to Stockholm (Gunter Grass, Naguib Mahfouz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez) or are perpetually rumored to be headed there (Philip Roth, Milan Kundera). But since the International Man Booker is not swathed in the mystique of the Nobel, it raises, in more pressing form, the questions that the Swedish prize should provoke (but seldom does).
Does it make sense to judge writers as different as these - with their different languages, traditions, audiences, expectations - against one another? Can all of world literature be genuinely appreciated and evaluated in translation, as though English were the natural second language of every writer? And can any panel of judges, no matter how distinguished - the first International Man Booker judges were the English critic John Carey, the Iranian memoirist Azar Nafisi, and the Argentinean Alberto Manguel - claim the authority to rank writers of such varied genius?
The choice of Mr. Kadare as the prize's first winner only makes all these questions more pressing. Mr. Kadare is certainly a worthy recipient of the award - he is one of the most frequently mentioned Nobel laureates-in-waiting - but he is also an exceptionally hard writer for an English speaker to understand fully. Mr. Kadare's difficulty owes to the very exoticism that makes him so intriguing to Western readers. Albania is one of the most unfamiliar parts of Europe, an isolated Balkan country of some 3.5 million people who speak a language unrelated to any modern European tongue. David Bellos, a translator who has turned several of Mr. Kadare's novels from French into English, recalled in an essay on "The Englishing of Ismail Kadare" that, when he sought help from an Albanian speaker, he could find only a handful of them in all of Britain.
The country's remoteness only increased during the Cold War, when it was sealed off from the West by the Stalinist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. Hoxha is, in fact, the only Albanian other than Mr. Kadare that most people might possibly have heard of. Mr. Kadare has told a bitterly comic story about how his daughter, after mentioning to a new acquaintance that she was from Albania, was asked: "Oh, isn't that the country where they have that terrible dictator named, what is it, Ismail Kadare?"
Mr. Kadare was born in 1936, in the southern Albanian town of Gjirokaster, and has been a leading literary figure in his own country since the 1960s. His writing began to emerge from Albania in the 1970s, thanks to French translations; even now, only a dozen of his more than 50 titles have been translated into English, most of them not from the original Albanian but from the French versions published by Editions Fayard.
Mr. Kadare is much more a French phenomenon than an English one (he has lived in Paris for the last 15 years), which makes him a strange choice for an English-language prize. Still more than language, however, what makes Mr. Kadare deeply foreign is the Albanian context of his fiction - the recent and ancient history, the political complications, the cultural references and assumptions. Reading Kadare in English, and particularly in the United States, means reading him through a glass darkly.
Translation is always a matter of misprision. But in Mr. Kadare's case, the difficulty of fixing an accurate context extends to his personal history. One of the very first things the International Man Booker Prize announcement says about Mr. Kadare is, "He has lived in France since 1990, following his decision to seek asylum stating that: 'Dictatorship and authentic literature are incompatible. ...The writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship.'"
But the tacit suggestion that Mr. Kadare was a dissident, like Vaclav Havel or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, is very misleading. Mr. Kadare could never have survived and published under the Hoxha regime without some degree of cooperation, the complete details of which are not yet entirely clear. Mr. Kadare himself only claims that his writing was ipso facto an act of defiance. "Every time I wrote a book," he has said, "I had the impression that I was thrusting a dagger into the dictatorship."
Several of his books were banned, but others were supportive of the communist regime. In a 1997 article in the the Weekly Standard, Stephen Schwartz quoted some abjectly propagandistic early verse ("The long mountain caravans were waiting, / Waiting for a leader, / Albania was waiting / For the Communist Party.") Rather embarrassingly, ever since the announcement, the comments forum on the Man Booker Web site has been full of abuse and accusation (e.g. "It is absurd to prize a writer, the favourite of the bloody communist dictator Enver Hoxha").
This is not to pass simple judgment on Mr. Kadare, who produced major literary works - some of them, like "The Palace of Dreams," openly subversive - under a tyranny that made his country into the North Korea of Europe. It is simply to note that he and his books do not fall easily into the categories Western readers are likely to bring to them. And this is just as true of literary categories as political ones. Early readers of Mr. Kadare sometimes compared him to Garcia Marquez, hoping to capture his work's forthright rejection of narrow realism in favor of parable. But in fact Mr. Kadare is nothing like Garcia Marquez; his work owes far less to magic realism than to Kafka, and to Albanian epic and myth.
The Kafkaesque side of Mr. Kadare can be seen in "The Palace of Dreams," published in Albania in 1981 and immediately banned, for reasons that become obvious after a few pages. An unabashed homage to "The Castle," the novel plunges its bewildered protagonist, the young Albanian nobleman Mark-Alem, into a bizarre bureaucracy charged with the recording and interpretation of every dream dreamed in the Ottoman Empire.
The Turks, Albania's overlords until the early 20th century, are easily legible as the communists, and the palace itself is a kind of perfected secret police: "That wearing interrogation night and day, that interminable report, the pretense of seeking precise details about something that by its very nature cannot be definite - all this ... could only be called brain-washing. ... Or undream, in the same way as unreason is the opposite of reason."
Mr. Kadare's preoccupation with memory and truth, though it obviously reflects his experience under totalitarianism, also stems from his deep concern with Albanian history and how it is recorded and falsified in legend. Novel after novel centers around a ballad, a ghost story, or a heroic tale that is misinterpreted through selfishness or stupidity. In "The Three-Arched Bridge," a medieval capitalist plays on local superstitions to put his competitors out of business, even to justify a murder. In "Elegy for Kosovo," a pair of 14th-century minstrels, one Serb and one Albanian, keep singing their antique songs of mutual hatred, even when their nations are allied in a desperate struggle against the Turks: The needs of the present, Mr. Kadare shows, can be thwarted by the iron grip of the past. The implications for the Balkans today, when memories of the 600-year-old Battle of Kosovo still inflame nationalist hatred, are quite deliberate.
All this should not suggest that Mr. Kadare is a grimly political writer. Misinterpretation is also a wellspring of comedy, and a dry, absurdist humor is seldom absent from Mr. Kadare's fiction. In "The File on H.," he goes even further, making raw slapstick out of the mutual incomprehension of provincial Albanian officials and a pair of Western anthropologists. Surely an Albanian writer winning an English-language prize, which allows him to sell his books to an Anglo-American audience that can only partly appreciate them, is just the kind of irony Mr. Kadare would approve of.