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.
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….
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.
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.
Siege, Ismail Kadare