the observer Sun 15 March 2009
"Surely you know as well as I do that great massacres always give way to great books." This throwaway remark is addressed to Melva Celebi, a nervous Turkish scribe, at the beginning of the long Ottoman siege of a seemingly doomed Albanian fortress in the early 15th century. But the tale goes against the tide of history; despite the invaders digging tunnels under the city walls, cutting off its water supply, catapulting plague-infected rats over its ramparts and launching wave after wave of bloody frontal assaults, the Albanian Christians hold out. How, then, can Celebi summon the adjectives "worthy of appearing in a battle epic"?
Kadare's captivating novel, which oscillates between the perspectives of those inside and outside the besieged city, brings to life the tiny details usually absent from the official record, such as the blistered and torn feet of the soldiers and the arduous job of digging and maintaining latrines, as well as asking more searching questions about how history is written and remembered. Celebi's task is to create "an immortal record of the campaign", yet in his compatriots he cannot help noticing "unworthy" traits.
First published just after the Prague Spring, The Siege could be seen as an appropriate allegory for that historical moment, when Kadare's native Albania felt under siege from Soviet Russia. Equally, there's obvious resonance with today's rhetoric about a "clash of civilisations", although this is unsatisfactory; far from being home to a recognisably Christian culture, Albania in this case is an exotic place where fairy worship is still as commonplace as worship of the cross. Most of all, this tale is a testament to the timelessness of calculated human brutality.