The Siege

Ismail Kadare

translated from the Albanian
Canongate 2008 [1970]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2010
The Siege tells the story of the Ottoman attack on an Albanian fortress in the fifteenth century. It presents the perspective of the besiegers, though between each chapter is a brief statement from the defenders' perspective, written as extracts from a chronicle.

The principal viewpoint is that of Mevla Celebi, the official chronicler of the army, who is having problems fitting the realities of war into the conventions demanded by his genre. Another key figure is his friend the Quartermaster General, who worries not only about boring topics such as food supplies but about such abstractions as taxation and the fates of nations — and dangerous matters as how the sultan really came into his inheritance. Other perspectives include that of the commander himself and those of his four wives.

The narrative is descriptive, with some gripping accounts of battle: an initial direct assault, attempts at mining, the hunt for the aqueduct that provides the fortress' water, a night attack on the camp by partisans, and more. There are also accounts of key debates on the council of war, where the commander has to manage the different factions, and vignettes of the camp life of ordinary soldiers.

These descriptions of events are realistic, but there is no attempt to avoid anachronism in either the dialogue or the thoughts of the protagonists, where more abstract ideas surface. The chief engineer and the Quartermaster General, for example, debate the ethics of advances in military technology. Without losing the power of the underlying story, this turns The Siege into a much broader rumination on war and power.

The Siege was originally published in 1970 in Albania under Enver Hoxha, where the superficial story — Albanians successfully holding out against a powerful aggressor — must have helped the more complex and not obviously "politically correct" ideas past the censors. As with Kadare's other work, The Siege transcends this background.

April 2010

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%T The Siege
%A Kadare, Ismail
%M Albanian
%F Vrioni, Jusuf
%F Bellos, David
%I Canongate
%D 2008 [1970]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781847671226
%P 329pp