The Doll is an autobiographical story, with his beloved, inscrutable mother at its heart

Ismail Kadare is a kind of lapidary artist who carves meaning and pattern into the rocky mysteries of his native Albania. Born, like his frenemy the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, amid the blank-faced mansions and feuding clans of the ‘stone city’ of Gjirokaster, the novelist has always framed the terror, secrecy and confusion of the regime as a family affair. The usual comparisons with Kafka and Orwell underplay the sheer, gut-twisting intimacy of politics and power in his work. It baffles outsiders who want to label Kadare either a brave dissident or a complicit stooge. Ideology be damned: this is, and always was, strictly personal. The Doll even wonders whether ‘tyranny is a real thing or something one projects oneself. The same goes for enslavement.’

Having so often portrayed Albania’s body politic as a dysfunctional household, Kadare (now 83) reverses the flow of the metaphor. The Doll is an autobiographical story, with his beloved, fragile and inscrutable mother at its heart. Sensitive and elegant under her kabuki-like panstick mask, she brings some wealth but little prestige from her own Dobi clan when, in 1933, she marries into the grand but down-at-heel Kadares. Centuries of pride and grudge have seeped into the ancient stones of their Gjirokaster mansion, with its hidden chambers and ‘famous dungeon’. Just as, with Kadare, a nation becomes a (damaged) family, so a secret-ridden dynasty may become a country: ‘The state had laws, and so did the house. In short, each took care of its own.’

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