The first Albanian novel I read, in a French translation published in the 1980s, was Ismail Kadare's story of his boyhood in southern Albania, Chronicle of the City of Stone. A magical summoning of the city of Gjirokaster, full of agas' wives, loafing Italians and "little Christians", when it appeared in English, John Updike in the New Yorker called it "thoroughly enchanting".
It was certainly Kadare's least contentious book. His first published novel in Albania was The General of the Dead Army, later filmed with Marcello Mastroianni in the role of the Italian general sent to Albania to repatriate the remains of Italian soldiers killed during the war.
Through the 1960s and 1970s there followed a stream of publications, some half-tolerated by Albania's Stalinist ruler, Enver Hoxha, many rapidly banned: Broken April, his ruthless account of Balkan vendetta, The Palace of Dreams, a vision of tyranny seeking to archive the unconscious, The Pyramid, a meditation on the structure of dictatorship, and, more recently, Three Elegies for Kosovo in which an Albanian and a Serb rhapsodist sing the glory of their respective princes as they fight the Turkish sultan at the 14th century battle of Kosovo: never talking politics, they hurl their antagonism at each other through identical songs.
Parable, allegory and metaphor: as a southern Albanian Kadare is grounded in the Epirote song tradition that some scholars claim as a pattern for the chorus of Greek tragedy. His voice is unique: he is nothing like what we mean by a "contemporary" writer, though he has always reacted to his times. To read him is instead to see the pendulum of centuries of Balkan history, and of Europe's past and future, swing back and forth. Today, tomorrow, are no more than a nanosecond.
His childhood was an intensive course in the tidal movements of history. Under the purple mountains of Epirus, he watched three armies march and counter-march: Italians, Greeks, and Hitler's Wehrmacht. He copied out Macbeth at the age of 11, and as soon as he understood that a "great universal literature" existed, "nothing else had the power to force my spirit".
Because he survived Hoxha, he has been criticised for not being enough of a dissident. But to read his novels is to find an army of writings to challenge Hoxha's pillboxes that encircled a country and pinned down a people. Occasional criticism that since Albania's communist era ended he has found less to write about is rejected. "I was led from literature to freedom," he has said, "not the other way round," and his latest novel, Spring Flowers, Spring Frost (2002) is about a country shocked and riven by its new freedom.
But the strongest recurring image is that of graves being opened in The Red Pashas, and of corpses being exhumed in both The General of the Dead Army and in a later novel Spiritus. By the simplest of narrative devices, the dead are brought back into contact with the living, because those who have gone must still be interrogated.