Essays on World Literature: Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare. By Ismail Kadare, Translation by Ani Kokobobo. New York: Restless Books.
Ismail Kadare, Man Booker Prize winner, has written and published over twenty novels since the mid-20th century. The prominent Albanian author of the 20th century, Kadare’s works have been translated into multiple languages, including Spanish, German, French, and English. Despite the availability of his fiction novels in English, Kadare’s various essays were all written in his native Albanian. For the first time, however, a collection of them has been translated into English and published.
Essays on World Literature combines three of Kadare’s essays: “Aeschylus, the Lost,” published in 1985; “Dante, the Inevitable,” published in 2005; and “Hamlet, the Difficult Prince,” published in 2006. The book is separated into four parts: a brief preface, by translator Ani Kokobobo, and the three essays. Within these essays, Kadare explores the importance of literary and dramatic tragedy on Balkan, particularly Albanian, culture and history. Within the “Translator’s Preface,” Kokobobo introduces the essays and the important role they play in connecting Albanian culture, Kadare’s literary oeuvre, and traditional world literature, claiming, “These essays treat world literature as a system of interconnected networks that extends beyond national boundaries . . . As Kadare reveals by connecting Albania and the Albanian culture to the tradition of world literature, no cultures or literatures are ever fully isolated” (location 57). With a brief explanation of Albania during Hoxha’s regime and an introduction to the essays and their impact, Kokobobo effectively leads readers into a clear understanding of the organization and the content of Essays on World Literature.
By writing Essays, Kadare provides readers with a map of Albanian history, going back through the Ottoman occupation to the culturally rich Illyrians. This history lesson, however, is delivered through the lens of literary masterpieces by historically acclaimed authors. In every connection Kadare makes, he illustrates the importance and interconnectedness of world literature with Albanian culture, and vice-versa. Whether tracing the birth of tragedy or the relationship between The Divine Comedy and communist Albania, Kadare uses respected authors, philosophers, and literary works to defend every claim and opinion.
In the first essay presented, “Aeschylus, The Lost,” Kadare delves into the mastery of the Greek tragedian Aeschylus. While reviewing the role Aeschylus played in developing and establishing tragedy as a genre, Kadare explores the ways in which Aeschylus’s contributions to literature have dwindled from the many dramatic tragedies written during his life in ancient Athens to the mere seven that survived throughout history. Without Aeschylus, Kadare claims that “[d]ramaturges would have had to devise other means for expressing the despair of human consciousness” (location 160). His focus on the importance of Aeschylus for the growth and development of tragedy is a key element in Essays. Throughout the rest of “Aeschylus, The Lost,” Kadare examines the evolution of tragedy and Aeschylus’s role in developing the genre. In doing so, Kadare draws parallels between Dionysian parties as a possible origin of tragedy and the marital and funerary celebrations of Balkan people.
Perhaps the most important parallel Kadare draws in Essays comes in the form of explaining the censorship of the Greek tragedians. While exploring the possible reasons for the loss of much of Aeschylus’s literary contributions, Kadare describes the decline in approval for dramatic tragedies and the desire for comedy and satire. He also examines the role of totalitarian rule over artistic expression. He effectively connects dots from Ancient Greece to modern day Europe, showing an interconnectedness in world history, world literature, and Albanian literature and culture, despite the isolation of Albania throughout much of the twentieth century.
In “Dante, The Inevitable,” Kadare examines Dante’s The Divine Comedy in relationship to Albania. In examining Dante’s banishment and difficulties, Kadare brings light to the experiences and cruelties experienced by Ezra Pound and Ernest Koliqi. He then describes how, although many other literary masterpieces were censored or outlawed, Dante’s work was more accessible in Hoxha’s regime. According to Kadare, “In the midst of Albanian communism, the most vicious regime, the most faithless and alien to Dante, the poet’s work was being translated more fully and more masterfully than ever” (location 1604-1608). He continues that the reason for this is because “his translators, like the rest of Albania, were experiencing one of his three states, that of hell” (location 1608). In this essay, Kadare masterfully connects the work of Dante, while continuing to refer to Aeschylus’s tragedy, with the political and cultural reality of Albania. Kadare makes the connection most clear when stating “The Divine Comedy is the only work of literature in the world that simultaneously, and with the same intensity, reflected both the darkness and the light of communist Albania” (location 1793).
Perhaps the most relevant connections Kadare makes in “Hamlet, The Difficult Prince” is the cultural connection between Balkan blood feuds and vengeance with the revenge tragedy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Throughout Essays, Kadare draws attention to the blood feud tradition that has existed for most of Albania’s history. In detailing the many iterations of the drama throughout history, Kadare claims that “The story of Hamlet is about how mediocrity is bred, which leads us to realize that mediocrity has its share of import in either the destruction or the immortalization of great art” (location 2930).
In Essays, Kadare provides a path for exploring the connection between Albanian history and culture in conversation with world literature. He ultimately reflects on the Balkan tropes and themes present throughout the literary canon, making connections that vary from clear and concise to slightly tenuous. What Kadare does provide, masterfully, is an alternate view of the importance of world literature to Albanian culture and Albanian culture to world literature. Essays on World Literature is an informative and thought-provoking collection that encourages readers to see the works of Aeschylus, Dante, and Shakespeare in conversation with the obscure and poorly recognized historically significant Illyrian civilization that became modern Albania.