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Author:
• Friday, February 24th, 2012

Ismail Kadare was born in Gjirokastër in Southern Albania in 1936, into a non-religious family. His father was a civil servant and his mother was from a wealthy family. He went to primary and secondary school in Gjirokastër followed by language studies at the University of Tirana in the faculty of history and philology where he obtained a teaching diploma in 1956. He continued his studies at the Maxim Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow until 1960.

Kadare was a member of the Albanian parliament from 1970 to 1982, but after some strife with the authorities in 1975 over a politically satirical poem, he was not allowed to publish any of his work for three years. He was also accused by the president of the league of Albanian Writers and Artists of intentionally avoiding to write about politics by writing mainly about history and myths. This was missing the point that Kadare preferred to use these means as an allegory to tackle the current political issues without fearing the repercussions.

Kadare, who is an eminent figure in Albania since the sixties, sought and obtained asylum in France before the fall of communism in his country. He stated at the time that: “Dictatorship and authentic literature are incompatible…The writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship”. Since 1990 he lives both in Paris and Tirana.

Kadare is a prolific writer. His first collection of poetry was published in 1954 and his first novel, The General of the Dead Army, was published in 1963. He has also written essays and short stories.

His most recent book, Ghost Rider, was published in 2011 and his novels have been published in more than forty countries. In 1992 he won the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca and in 1998 he was the first Albanian to be presented with the prestigious French Legion d’Honneur. In 2005 he won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize and in 2009 he won the Prince of Asturia Award of Arts. He has frequently been a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In Albania The Siege was first called The Drums of Rain, (the title later given to the French edition) but was at last published in 1970 in Albanian under the title The Castle, at a time when Albania was still under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. The English version, called The Siege, was published in 2009.

The story which takes place in the early fifteenth century, is of an imaginary siege of an unknown Albanian fortress besieged by the Ottoman Turkish army during the time of George Castrioti. Historically, George Castrioti, known as Skanderbeg, meaning Lord Alexander or Iskander Bey by the Turks, has been the national Albanian hero who bravely fought the mighty Ottomans during the peek of their strength for more than twenty years, when they were the most feared army of the time. He stood as the fierce saviour of Christianity against Islam. It was the confrontation of two cultures and two different religious beliefs, the crescent against the cross, the nowadays so-called: “clash of civilisations”. The historical fact is that after Castrioti’s death in1468, Albania was defeated and became part of the Ottoman empire and is today a predominantly Muslim European Country.

In The Siege, Tursun Pasha, the commander in chief of the Ottoman army, is commissioned to encircle the Albanian fortress which stands amidst fields, assail its people and subjugate them. His fate depends on the success of this mission. He’d better be successful or else commit suicide to make amends for his defeat. As the Quartermaster says to Saruxha: “If he doesn’t win this campaign, his star will dim for good… I am sure of it. If he is beaten, the best he can hope for is banishment for life. As for the worst… The Quartermaster drew a line with his forefinger under his throat”. Tursun Pasha never confronts Skanderberg whose presence is implied in various parts of the novel. He hardly appears in the arena but is acting behind the scenes through his fighters.

Before every new chapter, there are two pages narrating the viewpoint of the non-characterised besieged. Otherwise the whole story is related from the Turks’ angle by several characters, the nameless Quartermaster General in charge of the logistics, the engineer Saruxha, the architect Giaour, the credulous and nervous historian-chronicler Mevla Celebi, the poet Saddedin, the campaign doctor Sirri Selim and the Pasha’s harem who joined the campaign but whose members are kept confined to their tent and guarded by a eunuch.

The story of The Siege, published in 1970, seems to be meant by the author (and for those who can read between the lines) as an indirect representation of the difficult times the Albanians are going through. It was during the rule of the totalitarian, Enver Hoxha and the threat of the Soviet Russians, who were at Albania’s threshold in Czechoslovakia, during the cold war period.

The author, in his novel, describes masterfully and in great detail the brutality and bloodshed in wars, also all the intricacies of a campaign of this magnitude and all that it involves. He portrays with great authenticity the psychology of the invaders and the besieged in this war of attrition: the sustained attacks by the relentless Turkish army and the steadfastness of the stoic Albanians who will not be subdued.

Although it’s an historical fact that the Ottomans ended up conquering Albania, does that make victory perpetually on the side of the technologically advanced and the brutal? Not always according to the story, which goes against historically verified truth. The author wanted to prove an ambiguous point which is not clarified. Maybe out of patriotism and pride or implying that the Enver Hoxha regime, no matter how powerful, will come to an end one day.

The Siege is an engrossing novel, well written with a lot of food for thought, especially when looked upon from today’s perspective.

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Author:
• Saturday, February 26th, 2011

Susan Isaacs was born in 1943 in Brooklyn, New York. She received her education at Queens college. She worked as a senior editor at Seventeen magazine, which she had to give up after the birth of her first child and worked from home as a freelance.

Her breakthrough came with her first novel Compromising Positions, published in 1978 which was chosen by the Book of the Month Club, became a best seller and was later made into a film. In the 1980s she wrote the screenplay for Paramount’s.

She received Writers for Writers Award, The Marymount Manhattan Writing Center Award and the John Steinbeck Award. She is the chairman of the board of literary organisation, Poets and Writers and was a president of Mystery Writers of America. She is also a member of the National Book Critics Circle, the Creative Coalition, PEN, The American Society of Journalists and Authors, the International Association of Crime Writers and Adam Round Table.

Susan Isaacs, New York Times best selling author and critically acclaimed, has written several novels which were translated into many languages. She has also written essays, screenplays and political articles. She has reviewed books for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and Newsday.

She married a lawyer in 1968 and became a mother of a son who is now a corporate lawyer and a daughter who became a philosopher. She now lives with her husband in Long Island.

Any Place I Hang My Hat was published in 2004.
Her latest novel, As Husbands Go was published in July 2010

Any Place I Hang My Hat is about Amy Lincoln, who is the main character and also the narrator.
Amy Lincoln is an intelligent, hard working, self made, witty young woman. After obtaining degrees from an exclusive boarding school and excellent universities, such as Harvard and Columbia school of journalism, by acquiring scholarships, Amy succeeds in winning a good job as a political reporter in the serious, prestigious weekly magazine, In Depth. She manages to take herself in hand, pull herself out of the dreary and poor beginning she had and propels herself into a brighter future with a promising stature.

Life hasn’t been kind to Amy, she was abandoned by her mother soon after birth and separated from her father, Chicky, who was constantly in prison due to petty theft. Amy was brought up in one of the poor areas in New York by her shoplifter paternal grandmother, Lil, a part time leg waxer in a beauty saloon for privileged women.

Due to the harsh reality Amy had to face since her birth, she became vulnerable as well as lonely but neither helpless nor without resources. Covering a political fund-raising event, Amy discovers a college student, Freddy Carrasco, who claims to be an illegitimate son of a Democratic presidential candidate, senator Bowles. After meeting with Freddy Carrasco, befriending him and listening to his story, Amy’s long buried yearning to find out the whereabouts of her mother and her maternal family, grows stronger. Now that she is approaching her thirties she goes hunting for the truth and seeking answers about her past before starting a family of her own.

Through her quest and using her reporting competence, she finds a way to arrange a meeting with her grandmother and then her mother. After the confrontation, Amy will discover who she is and what she is, which will help her psychologically and mentally to find “a place to hang her hat”. This place will be with her ex-boyfriend, John Orenstein, the documentary film maker, that she has been longing to go back to.

Susan Isaacs explains to her readers the meaning of the novel’s title when referring to her friend Tatty going back to live with her parents after her failed marriages, although they didn’t care about her. Tatty “claimed she’d come back for the kitchen where she made her cakes. I’d often suggested she was still seeking the love these two ought to have had for her, being her parents. But maybe it was simpler. Everyone needs a place to hang her hat.”

In her book the author adopts a great deal of sarcasm, stereotype characters and sometimes very funny passages to illustrate the interesting personality of her heroine. Despite being anticlimactic, Any Place I Hang My Hat is a pleasant, light hearted, easy to read novel.