“As enigmatic as the woman it celebrates” – The Doll by Ismail Kadare

Officially a novel, with suspiciously memoir-like attributes, The Doll is the latest of Albanian writer Ismail Kadare’s works to be translated into English.

The Doll of the title is Kadare’s mother, who went by this nickname. Nominally, then, the book is about her, but it’s also about Kadare’s father, his childhood home, his best friend, his wife and the beginning of his literary career. Kind of like a memoir, in other words.

Category ambiguity aside, it’s an evocative, captivating story. Every word of this short book is there for a reason. The considered, precise language (translator John Hodgson has done a fine job) leads smoothly through various – no doubt carefully selected – life events with The Doll being the thread which holds it all together.

My mother, otherwise so hard to fathom, made no secret of her absolute dislike for our house. This was perhaps an understandable reaction for a seventeen-year-old bride entering this vast building. Her first thought, if only in passing, would have been that a house like ours would take such a lot of work – especially for a girl who, as I later learned from her sisters’ stories, had often been scolded for a lack of housewifely zeal.”

Events are embellished with just enough context to convey their significance. The Doll, also referred to as ‘Ism’s mother’ by his friends, remains an enigma, vaguely unhappy in the traditional, old house. When she comes to the forefront, it is to reveal worries that seem absurdly naive. Now that her son is famous, will he replace her with a more suitable mother? In another passage, she proposes a wife for her son, earning his ridicule because he has already met the girl and considers her a bit loose. Kadare counters by inviting his girlfriend to lunch – a bold and unconventional move, we learn afterwards.

This lunch was linked to the whole mystique of sharing bread at a table, of eating together, something which goes far beyond eating, involving the most elevated conception and sworn covenant of the protection of a guest… Inadvertently, Helena had acquired a prerogative, that of a guest before that of a bride.”

When Kadare defects to France his mother learns the news by radio broadcast. Shortly afterwards, police raid their apartment. “Are you the person who will put me in prison?” she asks.

Perhaps like the Doll herself, The Doll leaves much unsaid, creating a tension finely balanced for maximum strength with the minimum amount of material. It’s a category-defying feat of literary engineering by a writer who is totally in control.

Any Cop?: As enigmatic as the woman it celebrates.

 

Lucy Chatburn

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