Ismail Kadare’s The General of the Dead Army
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
“Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
“You! hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, – mon frere!”
– T. S. Eliot The Waste Land
It does not pay to disturb the dead. Because the dead are not simply a collection of loose bones that can be thrust into a body bag. The dead are memory. They are tiny worlds of feeling that have been lulled very gently to sleep and must not be woken again. When you open a grave, when you violate a tomb, you disturb the spirit – not the spirit of ectoplasmic beings that keep watch over us, but the spirit that lurks in the hearts of men. And therein lies a great risk.
This is the central idea of Ismail Kadare’s The General of the Dead Army. The plot of the novel is simple – 20 years after the end of the Second World War, an Italian general is despatched to Albania to recover the bodies of the Italian soldiers who lie buried there. On the surface, this is a petty, administrative task, but it is one charged with great emotional significance, and the difficulties attendant upon it, both physical and psychological prove to be different from and more taxing than the General had first expected.
To begin with, simply retrieving the bodies themselves is no easy matter. The mountain terrain is inhospitable, the bodies have been buried for years and are often hard to locate, there is the risk of infection, and the people of the country are naturally hostile and suspicious. The Italians are the enemy, after all, twenty years of peace have not dulled the local population’s memory of that, and the General himself is acutely aware of being in a foreign land, among a different people. Fortunately, the General and his party come well-equipped with lists and maps, so that their task goes on apace, though it still proves less tractable than they had anticipated.
The larger difficulty is emotional. From the day he is first given the task of bringing these bodies back, the General finds himself drawn into the world of the dead. Relatives and friends of those who lie buried in Albania show up at the General’s doorstep, punctual as ghosts. He is made witness to their loss, forced to share in their memories of that bygone time. As his work in Albania progresses, moreover, the General uncovers not only the corpses of the dead, but also their stories. The story of the whores brought into a small Albanian town to service the soldiers (as told by a local), the story of a young deserter set down in his diary, the story of a group of soldiers guarding a bridge. Spending night after night under canvas with only a gloomy priest for company, the General ends up dwelling almost exclusively on the dead, until he finds himself using their very words in the letters he writes home to his wife. As he relates more and more to the men whose bodies he is recovering, the illusion slowly grows in him that he is in fact the General of an army of dead men, that these corpses in their body bags are his ghost troops. The General’s mission becomes, for him, a way of reliving history. He makes grandoise plans for how he would have won the battles that other generals lost, he finds himself sharing the shame of his army’s defeat all those decades ago, feels the loss of his country’s youth, of all those young men so needlessly wasted, is exposed again to the enmity of the people, to their bitterness, their accusations. All the weight of the terrible history of War lights upon his back.
There is a scene in the novel where the General is holding the remains of a dead soldier in a bag and thinks: “There is nothing in the world as light as you are now. Six or seven pounds at the most. And yet you are breaking my back!”. It is this other, more spiritual weight that weighs heavy upon the General.
Ultimately, The General of the Dead Army is a novel about guilt. The guilt of having sent so many young men to war and not having been able to protect them. The guilt of coming by now, so many years later, to disturb their silence, to take them from the land where they lie sleeping and cart them back to their homelands whether they like it or not. The guilt of all the atrocities committed against the civilian population in the name of the war effort, and of knowing that to those who suffered all those in uniform are the same. The guilt of not having been part of the war effort yourself, not having run the same risks that you exposed others to.
All this guilt, all this emotion, accumulating over two years of work, becomes too much for the General. He ends up a broken man, oppressed by memories and shadows, feeling himself constantly accused, constantly found wanting. He grows supersititous, incoherent; and Kadare, with exquisite skill, follows him into his increasingly disjointed and hallucinatory world, so that the clean narrative of the early part of the novel slowly gives way to a more frantic, more fractured style, where impressions dominate ideas and shadows become living ghosts. The final chapters of the novel are a spectacular read, because they recreate so perfectly the dissonant, panicked state of mind that the General finds himself in.
But if The General of the Dead Army is a fascinating psychological exploration, it is also a deeply metaphoric novel, a lovely meditation on the nature of history and of war. As the General relives the experiences of soldiers and civilians from twenty years ago, Kadare explores the ways in which we come to terms with the past, the wounds it leaves us with. The General’s guilt, his shame, his fear, his anger – these are all emotions we all have towards our own past, except where we are content to leave them buried, the General is forcing himself to dig them up.
The General of the Dead Army is also, of course, a book about the Albanian people, albeit one told from an outsider’s perspective. Again and again, Kadare emphasizes the resilience of the Albanian people, the way that the harshness of both their geography and their history has forged a national character of hardihood, of simple yet stubborn pride.
Comparisons with Gogol, given the book’s plot, are of course, inescapable. But the writer I was often reminded of was Hemingway. That may have a lot to do with the fact that the Albania that Kadare describes feels like a close country cousin of Hemingway’s Spain, but there are other similarities in style and tone – a matter of fact brutality, the lack of overt sentiment, a combination of an appreciation of the great pity of war with a taste for the violent and the macabre. Towards the latter half of the book Kadare’s style changes, becomes more experimental than anything Hemingway ever wrote, more like Kundera without the philosophical digressions, but early on in the book there were entire sections where I found myself remembering For Whom the Bell Tolls.
At any rate, The General of the Dead Army is a fine book – one that leaves you with a deep sense of disquiet and a sadness in your heart that is like music. After I was done with the book I sat and listened to the second movement of Beethoven’s Eroica. It seemed the right thing to do.