BookBrowse Reviews Agamemnon's Daughter by Ismail Kadare

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Agamemnon's Daughter

A Novella and Stories

by Ismail Kadare

Agamemnon's Daughter by Ismail Kadare X
Agamemnon's Daughter by Ismail Kadare
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  • Published:
    Nov 2006, 240 pages

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The three tales (one novella & two short stories) collected here realize the theme of fear as an instrument of power with consummate art

From the book jacket: Albania: the waning years of Communism. The narrator, working for the state-controlled media agency, has taken as his lover Suzana, the daughter of a high-ranking government official, rumored to be soon appointed the dictator’s successor. Suzana’s father has forced her to end the affair, which could damage, if not ruin, his career. Still, the young man has received an invitation to attend the May First Parade on the Party platform: an enviable privilege. While the usual ceremony of the regime’s self-glorification unfolds, our narrator suddenly sees—between the flags, the propaganda streamers, and portraits of the country’s leaders—the ghostly image of Agamemnon, the terrifying general of the ancient Greeks. A hallucination or just his imagination? Instinctively he senses that his "sin" of loving will result in his own downfall, as Agamemnon’s was caused by sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia.

In this spellbinding novel, written in Albania and smuggled into France a few pages at a time in the 1980s, Kadare denounces with rare force the machinery of the dictatorial regime, drawing us back to the ancient roots of Western civilization and tyranny.

Also included are "The Blinding Order," a parable of the Ottoman Empire about the uses of terrror in authoritarian regimes, and "The Great Wall," a chilling duet between a Chinese official and a soldier in the invading army of the horrifying Tamerlane.

Comment:  A casual glance at the book jacket would lead most prospective readers to assume that Agamemnon's Daughter was the latest contribution to the genre of myth/history retold from the woman's point of view.  However, this is far from the case - the story of Iphigenia, Agamemnon's daughter, is merely the powerful allusion through which Ismail Kadare examines the regime of his home country of Albania in a story that he wrote in 1985 - a time when Albania had been ruled by a chronically xenophobic, all dominating dictatorship for 40 years, and there was no reason to believe that it would not continue to be ruled in the same way for the foreseeable future.

There are a number of variations on the story of Iphigenia, but the general gist is that Agamemnon, eager to set sail for Troy, finds his fleet stuck in harbor due to unnaturally contrarian winds caused by an angry Artemis.  Agamemnon is advised that the only way to appease the touchy goddess is to sacrifice his daughter.  Iphigenia is duly summoned and Agamemnon gets ready to sacrifice her, at which point she is miraculously transported away, and an animal deposited in her place.

There is no such happy ending for the protagonist of Agamemnon's Daughter, in fact, there is no particular ending at all, except that we instinctively know that eventually it will end badly.  This is one of those stories in which very little actually happens, but we come away weighed down with the weight of oppression and deprivation all the more so because there is simply nothing that our protagonist can "do", seeing as every aspect of his country's life is controlled by a dictatorship that has long ago taken control of every physical aspect of the country, and is now intent on wiping out the last elements of free thought, the defining attribute of humanity, from among the people.

Agamemnon's Daughter was smuggled out of Albania by Kadare and his French publisher in 1985, at a time when "exfiltration" of literary manuscripts was strictly forbidden under Albanian law.  It was eventually published in 2003.  A companion novel, The Successor, was written in Paris in 2002 and published around the same time.

The second story is also a love story set in a malevolent world, and is in my mind more powerful than the title story.  The Blinding Order (written in 1984), set in the Ottoman Empire, is a parable of an out of control totalitarian regime ruling by fear and cruelty, in which the sultan degrees all carriers of the "evil eye" be blinded - as neighbors turn on neighbors with increasing degrees of paranoia the story goes full circle to reveal the illogical brutality of such regimes. 

The third story, which seems a little out of place, relates a conversation between a Chinese official and a member of the 14th century Mongol conqueror Tamurlane's invading army.

Most of us are used to reading books that combine the bitter with the sweet, but there is little if anything sweet to grasp on to in these three stories - there is no spoonful of honey to help the medicine go down but just like The Swallows of Kabul, these stories are written with a humanity that will touch your soul, if you give them a chance.

Albanian writer Ismail Kadare was born in Gjirokaster, Albania in 1936; his father worked in the civil service.   He studied at the Faculty of History and Philology at the University of Tirana, graduating with a teaching diploma in 1956, before moving to Moscow to study at the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute, where he stayed until 1960 when relations between Albania and the Soviet Union soured.  More at BookBrowse.

This review is from the January 4, 2007 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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