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The Siege

Ismail Kadare

(Canongate; US: Feb 2009)

Red Dawn is a deeply silly movie, but it contains at least one home truth. When a group of American resistance fighters capture a Soviet soldier, their leader (a grizzled Patrick Swayze) decides to shoot the prisoner. His brother is horrified, and asks what separates the guerillas from their occupiers if they resort to summary execution. Swayze‘s response is simple: “We live here—they don’t.”


Ismail Kadare’s masterful account of a 15th century Ottoman assault on an anonymous Albanian fortress has little in common with Swayze’s ode to right-wing paranoia, but both demonstrate a certain shared appreciation of patriotism. The Siege, written in 1970, is a parable of Balkan nationalism, an elegant metaphor for Albanian Dictator Enver Hoxha’s Cold War showdown with the Soviet Union. It also serves as a stark reminder of the power of resistance in the face of a foreign enemy.


By rights, Kadare’s beleaguered Albanian garrison ought to have surrendered as soon as the Sultan’s emissaries offered terms. Not only were they outnumbered and outmatched by the Balkan superpower, most Albanians would have probably been better off under the Ottomans’ suzerainty. Albania’s material culture was far-outstripped by the Ottomans’; the Sultan’s army and civil service offered any loyal subject ample opportunity for advancement and personal enrichment, and voluntarily joining the preeminent power in the Near East would have been much easier than fighting a losing war amid the crags and valleys of High Albania. Even the defenders‘ Christian faith wasn‘t much of a obstacle to peaceful assimilation—the Ottoman Sultans were famed for their religious toleration.


So why fight? Why did an outnumbered garrison endure bombardment, thirst, starvation, and assault when their enemies were prepared to offer such favorable terms? Why bother resisting when a successful defense only delayed the inevitable Ottoman victory?


Kadare doesn’t offer any definitive answers, though his harrowing account of the siege suggests a few possible reasons for the Albanians’ obstinacy. But if you don’t have the patience for his characters’ meandering digressions into the nature of patriotism and national identity, Kadare’s account of the campaign is a satisfying piece of storytelling in its own right.


The book’s descriptive force has survived translations from Albanian to French and then again from French to English, and its spare, powerful prose is a tribute to both Kadare and the translators. Most of the book’s action takes place within the Ottoman camp, and the author has a keen eye for the rituals and forms of early-modern warfare. Passages describing the army’s methodical approach to besieging the fortress are frightening in their depiction of Turkish military efficiency. Occasional interludes from the perspective of the besieged only serve to emphasize the precision and immensity of the Ottoman war effort.


From bloody assaults to long interludes in camp among the functionaries and officers of the Ottoman army, The Siege encompasses the scope of a long, drawn-out blockade. Perhaps the most evocative and frightening scene of the entire book takes place in a collapsed mine, as Turkish sappers and Janissary soldiers slowly suffocate to death after the Albanians discover their attempt to dig under the walls. Stuck in the midst of it all is a hapless court astrologer, banished to the tunnels after the desperate Albanian garrison foiled his predictions of imminent victory. 


Written at the height of Cold War tensions between Albania‘s dissident Communist leadership and the Soviet Union, the book was initially interpreted as a straightforward appeal to Albanian nationalism. Kadare also suggests a few ominous parallels between the Ottoman high command and the author’s political contemporaries in Albania and the Soviet Union, one of the book‘s few missteps. In the ‘70s, The Siege’s political undertones may have felt fresh and vital, but now they seem strangely anachronistic. After reliving the savagery of a medieval campaign, the implied comparison between communist apparatchiks and Ottoman functionaries feels crudely ahistorical.


“Allah must have been very angry when he created this land,” remarks the Ottoman general as his army marches through Albania, and by the book’s end, most readers will sympathize with his assessment. Yet the Albanians thought it was worth fighting for, and perhaps that’s all that matters. After all, they lived there—we don’t.

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