The Concert

Ismail Kadare

translated from the Albanian
Harvill Press 1994
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001
With Nixon about to visit China, relations between Enver Hoxha's Albania and Mao's China are clouded. Rumours abound, but with opaque and secretive governments involved no one — not even the listener at the Pole — really knows what is happening. Why was a tank column ordered to surround a Party committee? Are the delayed Chinese freighters going to arrive after all? And how did Lin Biao really die? Politics pervades Kadare's The Concert but, though it touches on totalitarian horrors such as the Cultural Revolution, its focus is more on the life of the privileged "middle class" in Tirana. The result is a "comedy of communist manners", a light-hearted but at the same time biting portrait of a society controlled from the top, where orthodoxy inhibits thought as well as speech.

Silva comes from a good communist family: she works in the Ministry of Construction, her husband Gjergj is a diplomat, and her brother Arian commands a tank unit. But Arian is arrested for refusing to surround a district Party committee, while Gjergj is carrying letters backwards and forwards to China. And her friend Sk├źnder Bernema, a writer (and obviously Kadare's alter ego, since several of his short stories and sketches are included), visits China as part of a writer's delegation — even though he can't meet any Chinese writers, since they are undergoing rural re-education.

Connected to these figures are others: the clerk Simon Dersha, who is awe-struck that he has dinner with Minister D; the Minister himself, trapped by an old indiscretion into treason; Ekrem Fortuzi, from a humbled bourgeois family, who has taught himself Chinese and makes a living doing translations; the engineer Victor Hila, who steps on a Chinaman's foot, resulting in X-rays being carried backwards and forwards between Beijing and Tirana; Silva's workmate Linda, who is keen on her friend Besnik; Mao, dreaming megalomaniac dreams at the end of his life; and Juan Maria Krams, a professional "international communist", following the affairs of the assorted splinter groups and trying to make up his mind whether to go with the Chinese or the Albanians in the event of a split.

Some of these characters have no more than bit-parts, but none of them descend to pure caricature and we become involved at least a little with them all. It is this that drives The Concert, which doesn't have that much of a plot but nevertheless manages to keep one turning the pages without any problems at all.

August 2001

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%T The Concert
%A Kadare, Ismail
%M Albanian
%F Vrioni, Jusuf
%F Bray, Barbara
%I Harvill Press
%D 1994
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0002712261
%P 444pp