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• 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:
• Sunday, October 02nd, 2011

Haruki Murakami, one of Japan’s most famous and acclaimed contemporary writers, was born in Kyoto in 1949 but grew up in Kobe. His parents were both teachers of Japanese literature. He majored in theatre arts from Tokyo’s Waseda University in 1975.

Since his childhood, Murakami has always been influenced by Western culture and literature and loved classical and jazz music to the extent that while still at university, he opened his coffee/jazz bar, “Peter Cat”, with Yoko, his university mate, who later became his wife. He ran the bar from 1974 to 1981 and sold it when he started earning his living from writing.

Haruki Murakami became a keen marathon runner in his thirties and in 2008 wrote a non fiction about it called : What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

Haruki Murakami is a translator of books from English into Japanese, a novelist, who also writes non fiction, short stories and essays.

In 2006 Murakami received the Franz Kafka prize from the Czech Republic for his novel, Kafka On The Shore and won the Yomiuri Prize for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, published in Japanese in 1995 and in English in 1998.

The title of the novel refers to “a mechanical cry of a bird that sounded as if it were winding a spring”. Kumiko, the wife of the main character, gave it this name. The protagonist-narrator says: “We didn’t know what it was really called or what it looked like, but that didn’t bother the wind-up bird. Every day it would come to the stand of trees in our neighbourhood and wind the spring of our quiet little world. An ominous cry.

Toru Okada, the main character, was also called Mr. Wind-Up Bird by May Kasahara, his eccentric, insubordinate, adolescent, death-obsessed neighbour.

Toru Okada is a young, unemployed married man in his early thirties, without ambitions, who is having problems finding his way in life. His quiet existence topple’s over when his cat, Noboru Wataya, named after the evil brother-in-law he abhors, who later in the story is named Mackerel, disappears and his wife, Kumiko, the bread winner of the couple, leaves him for no apparent reason. Pandora’s box is now wide open. There is a strange succession of happenings; people start coming his way with their bizarre stories and predictions followed by enigmatic occurrences and peculiar persons. Their stories or fates are sometimes interwoven to ease the plot by making it less complicated.

The procession of mysterious characters who start appearing and disappearing in Toru’s banal life are eerie. There is Malta Kano, who is a clairvoyant of sorts, Creta Kano, who was initiated by her elder sister and claims to be a “prostitute of the mind”, then there is Nutmeg Akasaka who is a clothes designer and becomes a medium, and her only child, Cinnamon, who becomes mute at the age of six. There is also Noboru Wataya, the malevolently weird and popular politician with diabolical powers, who happens to be Kumiko’s brother. And not to forget the odd Mr. Honda, an old friend of Kumiko’s family and his strange will and his colleague, lieutenant Mamiya, who is now an old man and was in Manchukuo during the second world war and his gruesome story while in outer Mongolia when he was captured by Mongolian and Russian soldiers and was forced to watch his colleague being skinned alive by the Mongolian soldier.

The second world war atrocities are described in detail in various parts of the novel, as is also the massacre of the animal zoo and the savage and inhuman baseball execution in Manchuria.

A world of Kafkaesque surreal events unfolds in front of Okada’s eyes and he finds himself fluttering between reality and make-believe in a very strange universe with a stifled, bewitching atmosphere. Especially that Okada is of a compliant disposition and lacking identity which makes him easily drawn into each character’s sphere. Like lieutenant Mamiya, Okada is going to experience the isolation of a dry well in a forsaken backyard of a deserted, cursed house near his home in order to try to get to his inner subconscious, search himself and understand things in the hope of saving his wife, Kumiko, and bringing her back.

Things start happening as he goes through the well wall in his “predawn dreamlike illusion in the well” and finds himself in a bedroom hotel. He comes out of this experience with a bluish black mark on his cheek which gives him psychic powers.

In one of his interviews, Haruki Murakami mentions that the subconscious is a subject of great interest to him, especially that it is a “terra incognita” for him. He also mentions that he is attracted to wells, not for going down them, but for looking inside them.

He goes on to say that he likes to write weird stories despite the fact of being a very realistic person himself. Maybe it’s a sort of an escapism from reality, being a “loner” as he typifies himself. Referring to his young readers, he says he hopes that his books “can offer them a sense of freedom – freedom from the real world”.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is an entertaining rich story, abundant in intricacies and brimming with an outstanding literary imaginativeness. A modern fantasy tale that takes place in suburban Tokyo, a few years before the end of the twentieth century. Some parts of the novel are intense and others are perturbing historical scenes of the second world war, during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria.

Despite the untied loose ends, the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is an easy to read page turner and a captivating novel.