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BESIEGED

 
 

All is Fair in Love and War! 

   

 

  

 

From Edirne to Brusa, from Anatolian hamlets to the corners of the Empire in the 15th century, the soldiers of Islam have arrived to lay siege to the last remaining stronghold of Christendom in Eastern Europe – a lone fortress high in the Albanian hills.  The determined Ugurlu Tursun Pasha will stop at nothing to destroy the Albanians - even if it means a Cadmean victory of sorts - the near-complete annihilation of his own soldiers.

Ismail Kadare’s novel The Siege offers a  panoramic display of the mighty Ottoman army from details of sartorial finery to the moral debauchery of the troops as well as glimpses into the Machiavellian maneuvering and day-to-day mechanics of war.  The refined Ottoman scribe Mevla Celebi is our guide through this most catastrophic of military campaigns – his task is to write “an immortal record of the campaign.”  He describes a Pasha who finds time amidst the mass burials of his own troops to sample the delicate pleasures of the flesh and note that a concubine’s voice “…was as sweet as…rahat lokoum....” and who can calmly discuss the possibility of committing genocide as if he were discussing poker hands or astrological charts.  The novel spans it all then – from Turkish Delight to the exploration of ideas about how history is recorded….

The Siege also lays bare the full folly of religion, ethnic pride and armed conflict.  Interestingly, Kadare tells his story mainly from the standpoint of the Ottoman attackers.  The Albanians holed up with scarce supplies contribute their version of events, but it’s a passive and shorthand view of things which mainly depicts an army waiting for the grace of God to intercede on their behalf.  Told in elegant if straightforward prose - with the occasional longueur - The Siege also recounts the subtleties of diplomacy, including the unholy alliance between the Sublime Porte and la Serenissima which supplies the Ottoman troops with much-needed provisions via the Italian coast.

Kadare, who won the inaugural 2005 Man Booker International Prize, completed The Siege in 1970.  His novel recounts the historical resistance that the Ottomans met in Albania but also alludes to the corruption that existed within his own country’s government under Communist rule.  A dual novel then, The Siege is both history and a mirror held up to Kadare’s own society, a melancholy dirge about wartime misery and a triumphal hymn to the human spirit.  Also, interestingly, the translation is twice-removed from the original -  David Bellos's fine English translation was made from French translations and not from the Albanian original.  He is the winner of the Man Booker Translator’s Prize. 

 

 
Read: The Siege, Ismail Kadare 

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