Roth, Grass, Updike, Lessing, McEwan, Spark, Garcia Marquez. It read like a rollcall of modern literatureâ€™s titans and anyone scanning the shortlist for the inaugural Man Booker International prize could have been forgiven for missing the giant of Albanian letters nestling among them. But on Thursday Ismail Kadare, a political exile whose work had to be smuggled
out of Stalinist Albania in the 1980s, was being compared to Homer as he beat his better-known peers to the prestigious Â£60,000 prize. Kadare said last night he hoped his prize would show the Balkans could produce more than conflicts, civil wars and ethnic cleansing. â€œI was astonished when the call came,â€ he said yesterday from his flat in Paris, where he sought political asylum in 1990. â€œThe shortlist alone made up an extraordinary literary family.â€
Among others nominated for the award were John Updike, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Muriel Spark, GÃ¼nther Grass, Philip Roth and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Kadare has been a leading figure in Albanian cultural life for more than four decades. Translations of his work, including novels, story collections and verse, have been published in more than
Initially a journalist and poet, Kadareâ€™s first novel, a sweeping epic of postwar Albania called The General of the Dead Army, was published in 1963 and allowed him to write full time. Despite spending half a lifetime denouncing the repressive regime of Enver Hoxha in his work, the 69-year-old author insists he is not a political writer. â€œBeing critical of a regime is a normal state of affairs for a writer,â€ he said. â€œThe only act of resistance possible in a classic Stalinist regime was to write - or you could go to a meeting and say something very courageous, and then be shot. I think I was very lucky to be able to publish from time to time. A lot of writers were simply crushed.â€ Half a dozen of Kadareâ€™s books were banned. â€œThat ended up being counterproductive for the regime,â€ he said, â€œbecause all those people who had already read them them started studying them seriously to see just why they were so subversive. So book bans actually played a big role in the emancipation of the country.â€
Professor John Carey, chairman of the judging panel, said Kadare mapped a culture, â€œits history, its passion, its folklore, its politics and its disasters. He is a universal writer in a tradition of storytelling that goes back to Homerâ€.
Kadare insisted he was not a Balkan writer any more than he was a political writer. â€œThese labels make no sense,â€ he said. â€œAll writers come from a country, a region, a continent, but their work cannot be reduced to that. â€œMy country was difficult and isolated, yes, dictatorial. But it is a place that is appropriate to literature. Itâ€™s an epic zone. Itâ€™s where great epic poetry was born. And I think I address some universal themes.â€ Prof Carey said Kadare wrote about terrible events firsthand: â€œI think that is one thing for me that gives him an edge over writers from more peaceful backgrounds.â€ The judges were also impressed by his â€œgreat rangeâ€ of subjects and tone: â€œHe also, I think, has a beautifully sympathetic imagination.â€ Kadare said he read Macbeth at the age of 11. â€œWhen you start so young with literature, you understand very little of politics. Thatâ€™s what saved me, I think.â€
As a young man he studied at Tirana University and at the Gorky institute in Moscow. â€œIt was a school that produced conformist, dogmatic communist writers - the very worst kind,â€ he said. â€œFortunately, I had already been inoculated by good literature. So I had an entirely negative training, and thatâ€™s probably the best kind there is: my formal literary education was â€˜I will never, ever write like thatâ€™. â€œ The prize was launched to recognise a living author who has contributed significantly to world literature. It will be presented every two years for a body of work, and can be won by an author of any nationality, as long as their work has been translated into English. Kadareâ€™s work was translated first into French after a brave Parisian editor travelled to Albania in the mid-1980s to smuggle out copies of his manuscripts.
His visionary, hyper-imaginative prose was seen as akin to Latin-American magical realism â€” a term he dislikes intensely. The prize will be awarded at a ceremony in Edinburgh at the end of the month. In his victorâ€™s statement yesterday, Mr Kadare said: â€œI am a writer from the Balkan Fringe, a part of Europe which has long been notorious exclusively for news of human wickedness. My firm hope is that European and world opinion henceforth realise that this region, to which my country, Albania, belongs, can also give rise to other kinds of news and be the home of other kinds of achievement.â€ On the telephone, he was rather less formal. â€œI did something entirely normal,â€ he said. â€œI just did it in an abnormal country.â€