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Ismail Kadare: novel set in the early-19th-century Ottoman empire. Photograph: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty

The Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare review: severed heads, living and dead

Nationhood, tyranny and memory are the themes of the Albanian writer’s 1978 novel

Originally published in 1978, The Traitor’s Niche is the latest novel by the great Albanian author Ismail Kadare to be translated into English. Part sardonic black comedy, part earnest political allegory, the book is set in the early-19th-century heyday of the Ottoman empire, long before Kadare’s homeland achieved its national independence in 1912. The niche of the title is occupied by the severed heads of those who have offended against the central government, displayed in a prominent public square in Constantinople to deter the populace from thoughts of rebellion.

The story’s co-protagonists are a pair of state employees: Abdulla is a soldier charged with guarding the niche and its contents; Tundj Hata is a courier who conveys the severed heads to the capital from various restive provinces, including, of course, the perennially troublesome Albanian outpost.

Abdulla goes slowly but inexorably insane. He is periodically seized by “a thrilling paroxysm of self-destruction, an obscure subconscious desire to throw off the ungainly tangle of his limbs and become only a head”; whereupon he grows thankful for the invention of “necklaces and chains, scarves and helmet straps”, which he believes “had been devised to prevent heads from being detached”. To compound matters, he begins to have problems in the bedroom department. As his condition deteriorates, he becomes increasingly obsessed with occupying the niche himself, his internal monologue becoming more and more feverish all the while – speculating, for example, on the dimensions of the testicles of certain state grandees, which he imagines “hanging like cheeses in muslin”.

In the meantime, we follow Tundj Hata on his rounds as he traverses the empire, equipped with his trusty copy of the Regulations for the Maintenance of Heads and accompanied by two assistants who use honey, ice and salt to preserve their grisly consignment.

Tundj Hata loves his work. He amuses himself by talking to the heads, gloating over the demise of their former owners, and does a lucrative sideline in displaying them to rural peasants he encounters along the way. When one enterprising vizier tries to avoid the ignominy of being displayed in the niche by having himself buried five fathoms deep, our hero duly exhumes him. Upon arrival at their destination the heads are subjected, ludicrously, to medical treatment, before being passed on to an embalmer. The imperial bureaucracy’s procedural rules are itemised with droll matter-of-factness:

“As everybody knew, diplomatic bags, important delegations and the heads of executed men entered the capital through only the Seventh and First Gates . . . There was no way messengers with state correspondence or heads could pass through the Second or Fourth Gates, which were used for meat and vegetables . . ..”

Aside from the gallows (or should that be guillotine?) humour and the wry send-up of the mechanical banalities of governance, this novel is principally concerned with those signature Kadare preoccupations: nationhood, tyranny and memory. Kadare’s engagement with these themes earned him the inaugural Man Booker International Prize for a body of work in 2005; they are reprised in subsequent works, such as 2009’s A Girl in Exile, which first appeared in English in 2016.

Though The Traitor’s Niche is set at a time when national independence seems “a terrible, unimaginable thing, like giving birth to an entire world”, the upheavals to come are subtlety signposted by the oppressive apparatus itself. We encounter, for example, a government department charged with erasing national feeling among imperial subjects, first by crushing rebellions and then by systematically eradicating their national culture, language and memory, to reduce the recalcitrant territory to mere “terrain”. For all his gleeful officiousness, even Tundj Hata is not immune to a flickering moment of doubt, in which “the palaces and columns and towers of the capital looked small to him, like children’s toys”. The imperial edifice, so permanent and impregnable, appears fleetingly vulnerable, an unwitting glimpse of a distant future.

Resonances with recent history abound. When the leader of a failed uprising, the regional tyrant Ali Pasha, ruminates wistfully over his own failure to mobilise popular support behind his national movement, one is reminded of Ryszard Kapuszinski’s Shah of Shahs (1982), in which the oblivious hubris of a doomed despot (the late shah of Iran) is anatomised with withering frankness. When, abandoned by his people and facing certain death at the hands of the Ottomans, Ali Pasha opts against exile (“He had sworn never to abandon his old crone of a country: the two would go down together”), we are invited to ponder an uncomfortable truth about murderous thugs such as Colonel Gadafy and Saddam Hussein – that they were, in the final analysis, unswerving patriots.

More pertinent still are the parallels with the regional trouble spots of our contemporary geopolitics: Syria in smithereens, the Kurds agitating in Turkey and the Chechens in Russia. The correlation of the map to the territory is ever in flux.

Houman Barekat is co-editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, which is forthcoming from O/R Books