Ismail Kadare's THE SUCCESSOR, winner of the Man Booker International Prize for 2005, lays bare with devastating intensity the nightmare of life under the totalitarian regime of an aging and merciless dictator. This short novel will grab you by the throat and refuse to let go until you've finished, leaving you breathlessly contemplating how life can be lived on such impossible terms.
In Kadare's horrifying world, nothing is fixed - truth, reality, even time are all relative, subject to the manipulation and caprice of a single individual. Kadare's story revolves around the mysterious nighttime death of the Successor, the man designated as Number Two in the Albanian government and modeled after the real-life Mehmet Shehu. Number One is known only as the Guide, a solitary and all-powerful dictator (modeled on Enver Hoxha, the country's former dictator) whose growing sightlessness is mirrored by his growing paranoia. What really happened on the stormy night of the Successor's death? Did he commit suicide as first thought, or was it murder? What about that rumored tunnel running from the Guide's residence to the Successor's and the surprising discovery that its door could only be opened from the Guide's side? What of the role of Hasobeu, the minister of the interior and presumptive successor to the Successor, who was seen twice after midnight outside the Successor's home on the night of those fateful events? What did the Guide actually want of Hasobeu? As well, what was the role of the Successor's over-reaching architect, who surely knew of the tunnel's existence and blames his artistic vision for the Successor's death?
The entire capitol holds its collective breath for the Guide's decision - suicide or murder, and if the latter, who would be the designated perpetrator. Time passes, roles change, the Successor's family is evicted from their home, the Successor's daughter laments that her romantic life has been sacrificed for her dead father's welfare and that of the State, Hasobeu faces his political downfall in the face of the Guide's "black beast," and everyone else tries to gauge which "truth" will affect them least. In the end, the shocking facts are suggested, but like everything else in Albania's megalomaniacal world under the Guide, who can know for sure? Not even the Successor's ghost can assure us unequivocally of what happened.
Comparisons of THE SUCCESSOR to Kafka's THE TRIAL and THE CASTLE seem inevitable for their similar content as well as their Eastern European origins. Yet where Kafka assumed the viewpoint of innocent and unsuspecting citizens trapped in a faceless bureaucratic maze, Kadare carries us into the seat of power and, more particularly, to those surrounding and even aspiring to occupy it and their families. From that vantage point, THE SUCCESSOR harkens back to the spiritual and emotional desolation of books like Garcia Marquez's THE AUTUMN OF THE PATRIARCH and NOBODY WRITES TO THE COLONEL. And just as the Patriarch and the Colonel transcend the world of South America, Kadare's Guide represents not just Albania, but self-preservation-seeking theocracies and dictatorships everywhere, from Afghanistan under the Taliban (read THE SWALLOWS OF KABUL by Yasmina Khadra) to Cambodia under Pol Pot, Uganda under Idi Amin, and the Soviet Union under Lenin and Khrushchev (read almost anything by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn).
It is difficult to know what may have been lost in translating this book second hand from the French translation of the original; perhaps one day a direct translation will be available out of the Albanian. Regardless, this edition as translated by David Bellos retains more than enough power and sense of dread to justify making THE SUCCESSOR accessible to English readers. This is a compelling fictional account of life beholden to tyrannical whimsy in a place where (to paraphrase Karl Marx and turn his indictment of capitalism back onto Soviet-styled regimes) all that is solid has already melted into air and all that is sacred has already been profaned.
As Ismail Kadare says so eloquently in his dedication, "...any resemblance between the characters and circumstances of this tale and real people and events is inevitable." Amen, sadly.