Can you ever truly know your mother? In the novel The Doll, Ismail Kadare thinks you can’t

Can you ever truly know your mother? In the novel The Doll, Ismail Kadare thinks you can't

12 February 2020

Within the genre of the childhood autobiography — Maxim Gorky and Leo Tolstoy are both prime examples — it’s customary to end the book with the mother’s death. Seen through this lens, Ismail Kadare’s autobiographical novel The Doll (translated by John Hodgson), is back to front. It begins with Albania’s preeminent writer summoned back to Tirana where his mother is in a coma, moribund, “as if made of paper”. Introduced to us as he is saying goodbye, Kadare imbues his mother with a fragility, a doll-like brittleness that reflects her role as the book’s eponymous character.

Retracing his mother’s life from a young bride in the 1930s under King Zog I, to her death in post-Hoxha Albania, Kadare’s The Doll is a thoughtful study of mother-son relationships and the role of the home, played out against the agitated events of 20th-century Albania. Written in succinct, chronological chapters, it is both a coming-of-age story charting the beginnings of an ambitious young writer, and a nostalgic mediation on loss and suffering — the latter forming familiar thematic territory for Kadare.

Kadare — who won the Man Booker International prize in 2005 — begins the tale of his mother in 1933, in his hometown of Gjirokastër in southern Albania. At 17-years-old, she is married off and placed under the watchful eye of her mother-in-law and her jury of peers. Exacerbated by the household’s cold, prison-like atmosphere, this territorial dominion becomes overbearing for the naive and vulnerable “doll” whose suffering develops into an engulfing unhappiness.

It is in this same house that Kadare is raised, whose inquisitive reckoning with his mother begins from a young age: “I felt that my mother was less like the mothers in the poems and more a kind of draft mother or an outline sketch which she could not step beyond,” he writes. “Even her white face had the frozen and inscrutable quality of a mask.”

“Even her white face had the frozen and inscrutable quality of a mask”

“Mask” is an important word here. While it casts his mother in a fixed, one-dimensional form — like an actor in a Greek tragedy or a Pirandellian play — it also alludes to a unnavigable perplexity that the author can never truly untangle. Interactions between the boy and his mother — like many in the Kadare household — start and finish with misunderstanding. As he notes in a conversation with Russian poet, Andrei Voznesensky, the Russian words for mother (mat’) and darkness (t’ma) are all but anagrams. It is out of this darkness — this maternal unknowability — that Kadare’s authorial match is lit.

The Doll offers a compelling portrait of the artist as a young man, as we see the precocious boy effloresce into the writer he dreamed of becoming. It comes, or so Kadare conjectures, at the cost of his mother’s life force: “Sometimes it seemed to me that everything that had harmed “the doll” in life became useful to me in my art”, he writes. “She surrendered the freedom and authority of a mother — in short, turned herself into a doll — to give me all possible liberty as a human being, in a world where freedom was so rare and hard to find, like crusts of rationed bread in the time of the Germans, which she broke off from her own small portion and secretly gave to me.” Kadare frames this neither as sacrifice nor as exploitation, but as a tragic bond, unknowingly conceived and impossibly broken.

Kadare writes candidly — sometimes comically — of his writerly “big-headedness” which stretched to adding price tags and laudatory advertisements to the covers of his unfinished novels. When he has a collection of poetry published, much is made of his “taxi ride” to see his publisher in Tirana, both by himself and — with a pinch of neighbourly nosiness — his community.

In Moscow, as a student of literature, he receives “lectures against the Joyce-Kafka-Proust trio” in favour of socialist realism, a direction he fails to take. “Rarely did I not love someone I was given instructions to avoid”, he later adds. These aphoristic exhalations line his largely matter-of-fact prose with poetic seams. While keeping his modernist ancestors close (Kadare frequently refers to George Orwell and Franz Kafka), as well as his literary luminary, Shakespeare, we see Kadare seeking out his own voice. Fuelled by his “feverish desire” to be original, he recounts writing his novel This is Victory back to front — an early foreshadowing of The Doll, perhaps.

“She surrendered the freedom and authority of a mother to give me all possible liberty, in a world where freedom was so rare and hard to find, like crusts of rationed bread”

The Doll is one of Kadare’s slimmer novels, though as with the majority of his works, from The General of the Dead Army (1963) to A Girl in Exile (2010), it focuses on personal stories within a wider — and sometimes blurry — political lens. The Second World War, the death of Stalin, and the Soviet-Albanian split under Krushchev, all mark the decades, albeit as minor ornaments to the central structure. Less “historic” events are covered with greater lucidity and are more illuminating, namely the arrival of condoms to Albania, leading some to suspect the contraceptives were “a test to identify any weakening of the class struggle after the death of Stalin”.

In an interview with the Paris Review in 1998, Kadare named Naim Frasheri and Gjergj Fishta as the “giants of Albanian literature”. Though a busy conversation surrounding his absence on the Nobel Prize for Literature winners’ list continues, he himself is widely considered Albania’s literary giant of the 20th century. The Doll, which will likely live a clandestine existence compared to his other works (The General, Palace of Dreams, The Concert), is an exquisite example of childhood memoir. By never seeking to resolve the “riddle of the doll” he resists the tendency for unequivocal resolution. But the novel is not just about the unique unknowability of his mother — it also touches upon the more universal unknowability of others; both as a source of melancholy and as an artistic gift.

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