November 2006

Aysha Somasundaram


Agamemnon's Daughter: A Novella and Stories by Ismail Kadare

Agamemnon’s Daughter includes a novella of the same title and two short stories, "The Blinding Order" and "The Great Wall."  Each one, translated from French, explores the political infrastructures of the timeframes they describe. The translation into English is well executed with none of the acrobatics or awkwardness which occurs when text is reworded. The novella titled Agamemnon’s Daughter dwarfs the later stories in length and detail. 

In the novella, Agamemnon’s Daughter, the narrator describes a totalitarian, Marxist-Leninist regime -- Albania of the 1980s; the setting is the day of a state sponsored May Day Parade which launches the narrator into reverie as he mulls over his failed romance and the climate of repression in his nation.

Kadare deftly interweaves references to Greek Antiquity -- in Suzana’s reluctant sacrifice of her relationship with the narrator in service of her father’s growing ascendancy in the political food chain --  with incisive political commentary and critique. The narrator grafts the murder (in some versions sham sacrifice) of Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter, onto his analysis of the police state in which he resides. Particularly compellingly, the narrator’s vantage point is one of a relative insider, if frustrated dissenter. While the narrator critiques the government, he remains aware his fate is inextricably tied to the vagaries of state’s policies. Kadare ably evokes the paranoia bred by repressive regimes; his approach is layered and complex. Personal devastation, the loss of a lover, is the backdrop for meditation on a nation’s decline -- one that is scholarly and mythic. The novella succeeds in transitioning between these two elements; only the narrator’s intermittent ruminations on female sexuality -- Suzana’s -- feel stilted.

"The Blinding Order" explores similar themes of tyranny and repression but within the framework of a parable. Set during the "reform" period of the Ottoman Empire, the narrative focuses on an edict issued to blind any possessors of "the evil eye" and lists the alternative methodologies for blinding or “disoculation”: A general unease -- everyone ostensibly has eyes and enemies --pervades the Empire. In the parable, the citizenry are left confused by the abstractness of the order and then somewhat bemused with its implementation. Kadare’s description of the governmental machinery created to enforce and execute the order is particularly interesting. While its functionaries would be convenient scapegoats for the atrocities committed under the auspices of the order, Kadare avoids placing blame any group or individual. Instead, "The Blinding Order" explores the violence of inattention and complicity; the way the absurd and objectionable gradually recede into the mundane.

The final, briefest and most quietly contemplative of the narratives is threaded with the voices of  two narrators a Mongolian nomad, Nomad Kutluk, and a Chinese army officer, Inspector Shung. The former being the invader slated to penetrate the Great Wall and the second entrusted with reinforcing and repairing the Wall. Neither occupies a position of privilege. While each man merely follows the directives of his superiors, personal views and blind spots color their perception and the reader’s. 

One is left feeling that the three narratives compiled in Agamemnon’s Daughter offer subtle, shifting perspectives as to the appetites of men -- both personal and political. In "The Great Wall," Inspector Shung says, “It was one among the hundreds of misleading images this world provides us with, which can only even be seen in hindsight.” This phrase beautifully elucidates what fuels Kadare’s novella and short stories, a desire to decipher, describe and thereby end political duplicity and tyranny.

Agamemnon’s Daughter: A Novella and Stories by Ismail Kadare
Translated from the French of Tedi Papavrami and Jusuf Vrioni
Arcade Publishing, Inc.
ISBN: 1559707887
Pages: 226