Continuing the theme of international literature, this week I review Agamemnon’s Daughter by Albanian writer Ismail Kadare (1936- ). The book contains Agamemnon’s daughter (a novella) and two other stories: The Blinding Order and The Great Wall.
In Agamemnon’s daughter, the main character is an unnamed television journalist who gets invited to attend the May Day Parade. The invitation comes as a surprise to him and to his colleagues. At the parade, he keeps bumping into acquaintances with different histories who either rose or fell during the current regime. But where does that leave him? He also bumps into his ex-girlfriend whose dad is named a successor to the current leader.
He compares her to Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia who was sacrificed in order to give her dad the right to demand anyone’s life in the future. The second story: The Blinding Order is set at the time of the Ottoman Empire. A country suffers many troubles caused by the evil eye of some citizens which pushes the Sultan to come with a decree called the Qorrfirman (the blind decree). It states that anyone who owns evil eyes should be blinded for the greater good of the nation. Blinding offices are opened around the country to carry out the decree and citizens get to choose their preferred way of punishment from gouging out their eyes to staring at the sun for several hours.
The story follows the family of Aleks Ura, an Albanian descent whose future son-in-law works in one of these offices. How would this decree reflect on the family and the citizens in general? When will it start and how will it end? The third story: The Great Wall is set in China at the time of Timur the famous Mongol leader. To defend the capital Beijing from the invading nomad conqueror, the Chinese emperor decides to rebuild the collapsed Great Wall. But is this the real reason behind the reconstruction? The three stories share one theme: living under a totalitarian regime and how it affects the lives of its citizens. And who is better to present the theme than Kadare who lived under the communist regime for more than half a century?
Many of Kadare’s books were banned immediately after their publication in his native country. After publishing a political poem in 1975, he was sent to the countryside to do manual work for a while and forbidden to publish any novels. That’s when he started camouflaging his work and publishing them as novellas. Around that time, Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxa initiated Kadare’s elimination process but backed off due to Western reaction.
His book Agamemnon’s Daughter was smuggled out of the country by his French publisher in 1986 under the guise of an Albanian translation of literature work by a German writer. In 1990, Kadare fled to France with his family only to return back to Albania in 2002.
Criticism of Kadare includes his membership to the Party of Labour of Albania in the 1980s and being Islamophobic. However, Kadare is considered by some as one of the most important European writers of the 20th century and a universal voice against totalitarian regimes. His work was translated to many languages and his latest award was the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 2020. Agamemnon’s Daughter won the Man Booker international prize of 2005.