The Successor Hardcover – Jan 10 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
In 1981, on a December night, the designated successor to Albania's tyrannical "Guide" died of a gunshot wound; the Albanian news reported it as a suicide, but rumors spoke of murder. The search for the story of that night spirals inward from the speculations of foreign intelligence analysts to the posthumous and fragmentary recollections of the successor himself. Through those, we see his daughter twice forced to abandon love that conflicted with her father's ambitions, and his son clapped in irons when doctrine required it. As Kadare explores the perspectives of those caught in the successor's orbit, past and present, it becomes apparent that he is investigating not only the fate of a man, but the nature of truth when the symbol one becomes outweighs the human one is. Kadare (Broken April) was awarded this year's Man Booker International Prize, given for a body of work rather than a single book; Arcade will re-release six other Kadare novels simultaneously with this one. The successor is based on Mehmet Shehu, destined to take over for dictator Enver Hoxha, and Kadare infuses his character with magical realist horror. Even in this clunky translation (from the French, as opposed to the original Albanian), Kadare stands with Orwell, Kafka, Kundera and Solzhenitsyn as a major chronicler of oppression. (Nov.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
Albanian novelist Kadare received the first Man Booker International Prize, an outgrowth of England's prestigious Booker Prize. May the award draw more readers to this sublimely disquieting artist. Kadare here expands upon an incident late in his nation's Communist era. The designated successor to the Guide (dictator Enver Hoxha) is shot to death in his bed one night. "Suicide or murder?" is the question in everyone's mind. In seven chapters laced with the blackest comedy, Kadare plumbs the souls of those most affected: the successor's daughter (whose engagement her father had recently squelched), the minister of the interior (the nation's ultimate police chief), the architect who remodeled the successor's elaborate house (and knew of a secret passage to the Guide's nearby home), the Guide (who rather relishes skulduggery), and the successor himself as a spirit. Oh, yes, also intelligence agencies everywhere, which must begrudgingly dust off the Albania files. Answers are found to the big question, but not, perhaps, solutions. Meanwhile, the heart's ineradicable darkness is exquisitely, painfully reconfirmed. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
Top Customer Reviews
The Successor drew me to it because of the mix of fact and fiction surrounding a truly fascinating world event: the death of Albanian Prime Minister Mehmet Shehu. It would be very easy to turn a novel based on this event into a mystery novel, as 30 years later after his death, we still don't know the whole story. What are the circumstances, who was involved, why did it happen? But Kadaré doesn't focus on the mystery element. The Successor is not the main focus of the story, but his story rather acts as the backdrop for a book about fear.
Kadaré chooses to describe how such an event in such a society can cause ripples into the everyday lives of everyone. Everything out of the ordinary causes an uncertainty which usually leads to the assumption that something bad is going to happen. Kadaré captures what happens when a regime can cause an entire population to simply lose faith in humanity.
This was my first exposure to Ismail Kadaré. I have since read a few more of his books; he is a true master of dark and chilling but necessary literature.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
"It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." That was how Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union. If Churchill found the USSR mysterious he would have been totally perplexed by life in Albania during the isolated, despotic regime of Enver Hoxha. Ismail Kadare's "The Successor" captures that inscrutable mystery in a masterful fashion.
Ismail Kadare is an Albanian poet and writer. He is also the winner of the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005 and was selected from a list of nominees that included Saul Bellow, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Naguib Mahfouz, Milan Kundera, and Gunter Grass. His latest work published in English, The Successor, is a remarkable book that provides the reader with evidence that Kadare's award was well-deserved.
The "Successor" of the title is Mehmet Shehu. Shehu was, until shortly before his death, Enver Hoxha's right-hand man. Shehu was a commander of a Communist-led partisan brigade during the Second World War and had a reputation for brutality that led to his promotion to a division commander of the National Liberation Army. After the communist takeover of Albania Shehu led a purge of those party members suspected of being aligned with Yugoslavia's Tito after Tito's break with Stalin and the USSR. Hoxha, referred to as "the Guide" throughout the book, took Shehu under his wing and Shehu was known throughout Albania as "Number 2". As is often the case being "Number 2" was a precarious perch to sit on in regimes where aging tyrants (Stalin and Hoxha both come to mind) often struck out at those closest to them as their own mortality seemed to weaken them. Shehu was no exception. On December 17, 1981 after an apparent split with Hoxha over Albania's continued isolation from the world, Shehu was found dead in the bedroom of his newly renovated house. A gunshot wound to the head was the cause of death, one quick ruled a suicide. Shehu's death and the speculation as to the cause of his death form the heart of Kadare's "The Successor".
The book plays out like a parlor room mystery by Agatha Christie but one influenced by Franz Kafka's The Trial and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. Neither the reader (nor anyone in Albania for that matter) knows whether the Successor committed suicide or was murdered. All the doors to the house were locked, but there was a secret passageway installed during the house's renovation. There are a number of possible suspects including the Guide, the Guide's "Number 3" man and successor to the successor, the Successor's wife and daughter and the daughter's former fiancé. Kadare takes us into the tortured mind of all the suspects. They each in their own way have some feeling of culpability for the Successor's untimely death, no mater the cause. As we read the thoughts of each player in this parlor room drama Kadare paints a vivid portrait of life in Albania during the Hoxha regime. The inexplicable, never to be determined cause of death is reminiscent of Kafka's The Trial. The world of party purges where one, like the Successor, ends up accepting ones unhappy face as a result of a system he was partly responsible for bears a stark similarity to the atmosphere portrayed by Koestler in Darkness at Noon.
Kadare's prose is very well crafted even though this edition is a translation from the French which in turn is a translation from the original Albanian. It must be hard to retain much of the original flavor of a novel after two translations but despite that hardship the chapters and scenes shift from real to dream-like in an almost unspoiled fashion. This shift lends an aura of surrealism to the story, one that seems perfectly appropriate to a society for which surrealism was the norm rather than the exception.
Kadare's Successor is a wonderful, thoughtful book. For anyone interested in Kadare's work, his Three Elegies for Kosovo was also one I found immensely enjoyable. Although both books deserve to be read, I think that my having read the somewhat more accessible Three Elegies for Kosovo first enhanced my enjoyment of The Successor. However, The Successor stands up perfectly well on its own.
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.
Kadare has been fortunate in his translators. Most of his books have been translated from the Albanian into French and then from the French into English - in this case by David Bellos. This is the eighth novel of Kadare's that I have read and between them there have been at least seven translators - but they all capture Kadare's unmistakeable clean and simple style.
The Successor is apparently a small book. The cover shows a head in silhouette while a hand with a gun points from the left. "Just another predictable little thing in a predictable genre," were my initial thoughts. The cover illustration is apposite, however, and remains so throughout the book's short duration.
But in fact The Successor then reveals itself as a vast work, despite its obvious brevity. It's about nothing less than a whole country, its politics, its very identity in a world that is changing around it.
The country is Albania and Ismail Karade is clearly born of its very soil. At least that truth is reliable. But how would we describe a successor who does not succeed, a guide who has lost the power of sight, an architect whose plans are ignored and a young woman engaged to be married who is not in love? Things are often not what they seem to be.
The Successor has been shot, hence the cover. And yes, The Successor is a whodunnit, but in no way is it predictable. When a whole nation identifies with and is driven by the political choices of its leadership, how can it ever change organically from within? The figurehead has to go, even if he has already gone! And if change was the product of poor judgment, then should history record a suicide? And from whose perspective do we assess success? And who has the right to change history?
In his preamble, the author humorously sets the tone by announcing that "any resemblance between characters and circumstances of this tale and real people and events is inevitable." Thus, in a short book about a feud within an inner circle, Kadare creates a poetic world that mirrors reality, whose delicately-drawn images beautifully construct much larger ideas. The poignancy of a secret door that can only be opened from the outside is an idea that will last for a long time in a reader's memory. The Successor is a great little book.
From Kadare's introductory caveat in The Successor (" . . . any resemblance between the characters and circumstances of this tale and real people and events is inevitable") and the first sentence ("The Designated Successor was found dead in his bedroom on December 14"), the reader can quickly deduce that the novel is both historical and political. The simple plot presents the death as a mystery. Was the Successor's death suicide (the party line) or was it murder? It seems as though the Successor chose "to have himself hauled away by two black oxen . . .". Details are sparse, varied, and presented in flashback by potential murders and others. The country is Albania, but the year is not given. Most characters have titles but no names. The exceptions are a truly fictional daughter (the actual Successor had only sons) and another would-be successor Adrian Hasobeu. At this point, the reader who cannot tolerate ambiguity can consult the book jacket or more elaborate resources. Since this is a fictional account, facts might not be that important. The text explains, moreover, that Albania is governed by a Communist dictarorship; parnoid suspicion rather than truth reigns. Truth is not to be found, but the book presents an engaging read by holding out the bait. While the mysterious death of a leader is more prevalent in Communist countries, such deaths also occur in democracies--John F. Kennedy. Documented facts do not reveal the facts about such deaths. The style of this novel suits the subject well. It is a cross between The Trial and Rashomon (other reviewers have made the comparison). Kadare combines Kafka's nightmarish landscapes with subjectivity and folktale elements.
Like the Successor, Ismail Kadare is also hauled around by two oxen, but one is black and one is white. Because he had close but reputedly necessary Communist party connections, Kadare has received some controversial press from Albanians and other informed individuals. Interesting information about Kadare can be found on blogs. In the final analysis, however, he does write well.