Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Successor by Ismail Kadare

When the Albanian Communist Party came to power Mehmet Shehu was the closest person in terms of power to Enver Hoxha—he was his right hand man and the second most powerful person in Albania. Hoxha, ruled with an iron fist and a bit of paranoia. For forty years he ruled Albania and Shehu remained the second in command and his personal friend. Despite being second in command his power was kept in check by Hoxha who did not want to yield too much control to anyone.

Shenu was a committed communist, known to be brutal in his dealings with those deemed enemies of the state. Although he always walked behind and not alongside Hoxha, he held a number of responsible positions in the government.

Shehu had in 1961 been one of the group that helped forge a Chinese-Albanian alliance and he also was involved with the break with the Soviet Union.

" ...Albania, which stood apart from Khrushchev revisionism and received strong financial incentives from the PRC ( People's Republic of China), severed relations with the USSR." Modern Chinaby Jonathan Fenby

By 1981 the relationship between the two comrades showed strains. Shehu was to be his successor. By this time Hoxha was legally blind and wary of anyone whose power he distrusted. On December 17, 1981 Shehu is found dead in his bedroom with a bullet wound to his head.

While the official story was suicide many rumors swirled about then and subsequently to that time. Some thought that he was murdered by Hoxha's henchmen and there was even a story about the murderer being Hoxha. Other tales pin the murder on other people.

Officially the government announced that his death was a suicide and that he had been experiencing a nervous breakdown prior to taking his own life. Since suicide was a crime in Albania and he was also accused of being a spy for Yugoslavia, the CIA and KGB he was buried in a wasteland. His wife and two sons were arrested and imprisoned.

It is this story that Ismail Kadare uses as the fictional account of the suicide/murder of Shehu. Instead of referring to Hoxha by name he is called the Guide and Shehu is the Successor. In his fictional account no one knows who murdered the Successor and it is this not knowing that unleashes a morbid fear. Anyone can be accused and found guilty.

Everyone has a theory of why the Successor fell out of favor: Is it that he opposed the Guide's isolationism, is it because the Successor's daughter became engaged to the son of a once upon a time upper-class family? In time the engagement is broken off .There are numerous possibilities and a number of candidates for the position of murderer.

In this chaotic atmosphere the Successor is now posthumously forgiven for his daughter's transgression and reinstated into the Guide's favor and reinstated as a Party member in good standing.

As the story continues a cadre of candidates appear, each with a possible motive. Hasoben, the police minister, had been seen arriving and departing from the Successor's residence. There were two men who purported to have carried the body down a staircase. The architect responsible for the renovation of the Successor's house confesses to his wife that he killed the Successor. He feels that he is responsible for his death because his renovations were so perfect that they dwarfed the grandeur of the Guide's house. Perhaps jealousy caused the death? And unbeknownst to the architect a secret tunnel is beneath the residence

When an autopsy is ordered, everyone involved —including the pathologist, is fearful. Suppose the pathologist comes to the wrong conclusions about the death? The Guide is a man who is anything but consistent in selecting friends or foes. Hadn't he turned against Yugoslavia when that country opted to sever bonds with Stalin, hadn't he stayed with Russia after Stalin died only to leave Russia for China and then leave China? The same way he treated his alliances with countries he treated political allies. There were purges, the reinstatement at a later date,the torture of people who were designated as the enemy, torture and burials. Living under his leadership meant never quite knowing if what you said or did might be something worthy of being purged. No wonder the pathologist is terrified.

The scenes between some of the characters not only chart their terror and increasingly insecure feelings, but also mirror what a universe is like when one person can hold groups of people in his grip. Until a person is selected by the Guide as the murderer their world lacks form. Kadare's portrait of a country caught in this trap is a potent reminder of what tyranny looks like. At one point in the story the Successor shows the Guide a dimmer in his renovated house. The dimmer acts as a perfect metaphor for a dictatorship—when the Guide turns the dimmer one way the room is ablaze with light, but when he turns it the other way the room darkens.

As a coda—1991 marks the fall of Communism in Albania. It also marks the date of the release of Bashkim, Mehmet Shehu's youngest son. He had been imprisoned since 1981. Upon his release he began a search for his father's burial place and on November 19, 1991 Sehu's remains were found.

Eastern European Challenge

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