This review first appeared on the Historical Novel Society’s website.
Ismail Kadare (Translator, John Hodgson), Harvill Secker, 2017, hb, 199pp, 9781846558450
Well. I got the distinct impression that this book went woosh! over my head. I have the nasty suspicion that, in the best tradition of European literary satire, I am missing whole realms of political commentary; but it was intriguing as a story.
The book opens at the height of the Ottoman Empire. We are in a square in the ancient Imperial capital; and in this square, in the stonework of the Cannon Gate, has been carved a niche. In this niche is a severed head. The book revolves around the inhabitants of the niche – the current, historical, and potential occupants, plus Abdullah and the Doctor, the civil servants charged with maintaining the integrity of the grisly relics, and the corrupt courier whose job it is to speed newly decapitated heads to their care.
Each of the vignettes are sympathetically done. The baroque madness of the Ottoman bureaucracy is beautifully drawn, and the characters are sketched well. Each time you find yourself hoping against hope that you aren’t meeting the next occupant of the niche. But I missed a narrative thread; the niche itself wasn’t enough of a unifying theme. I wanted something more – to know what brought each person to the point where the threat of the niche, or the consequences of a beheading, transformed their stories. As I say, though; I felt throughout that I was missing something, so don’t take my word for it!