"Kafkaesque" is the cliche promiscuously affixed to literature of bureaucratic despotism or to any old dark night of the psyche, but for Ismail Kadare's novel "A Girl in Exile: Requiem for Linda B.," the cliche won't do. This bantam masterwork by Albania's most eminent novelist has been fired in the forge of actual horror: Albania's Stalinist dictatorship, which ravished the citizenry from 1945 to 1991. Kadare's mellifluous fever dream is a portrait of madness: the madness of the Stalinist state and the madness of men and women in the clamp of the state's machinations. In his renderings of the totalitarian inferno and a terrified conformity, Kadare is the offspring not of Kafka, but of Victor Serge and Eugène Ionesco, two witnesses whose defiant, absurdist influences flare throughout this book.
The plot unfurls simply enough. At the end of the last century, playwright Rudian Stefa gets summoned by the Party Committee. A young woman he does not know, Linda B., has been found dead by suicide with an inscribed copy of Rudian's newest book on her person. Because Linda and her family were members of the former bourgeoisie, her death must be investigated. The politburo's lifeblood is rabid paranoia and robust suspicion of conspiracy; it considers even a girl's self-destruction — clearly a spiritual injury in the teeth of unstinting anguish — a threat to the Leader. Rudian's lover, Migena, knew Linda intimately, and so Rudian labors to comprehend how and why he and his work might have contributed to her death.
Again and again, in multiple contexts, Kadare's characters utter the words "for no reason," as if to underscore the malignant absurdities of living under ceaseless surveillance and in ceaseless fear of being fingered for crimes they aren't aware of having committed. To be denounced by a fellow citizen — without evidence of wrongdoing and without knowing the charges — is to meet one's end almost immediately. "Snares, treachery everywhere," says the narrator. In such a state, even having coffee in a café can be interpreted as seditious by the prying commissars, and Kadare gives us a chilling cafe scene between Rudian and an investigator, a scene in which each cup of coffee might be Rudian's last.
At one point, the investigator says, "Honestly, I don't understand you," and Rudian replies, "I don't understand you either." Words have turned nonsensical; Stalinism had first to torture language before it could torture people. Once the executives of state make nonsense of language, they can make nonsense of morality, and then anything goes. The Stalinist dictatorship contorts the postmodern absence of meaning into a stomping bureaucracy, dispensing enigma everywhere. Indeed, Migena's name is an anagram for "enigma." Kadare's characters would be right at home inside the purgatorial world of "Waiting for Godot."
Rudian lives in a miasma of confusion. Struggling to make sense of Linda's fate, he and Migena miss each other's points and grasp after elusive logic. Rudian thinks, "Everything was so obscure," and how could it be otherwise? "It was all very complicated" is the default conclusion of Kadare's characters. The regime functions with such inscrutability that even its own assassins never wholly comprehend their orders: "They muttered about it day and night. Why were some so cosseted, while others got it in the neck?"
With nuanced accuracy, Kadare shows how communism is herdthink, the utter nullity of the individual, the pervasive negation of soul and will and mind, added to the burden of labor in service only to the state. In one of Rudian's plays, characters aren't permitted to say "good morning," only "glory to labor."
At a time when parts of the world are indulging nostalgia for communism, Kadare's novel confronts the infuriating impossibility of art in an autocratic, anti-individualist system. The manuscripts of Rudian's plays languish with the philistines of the Party Committee, awaiting approval or dismissal after being autopsied for any suggestion of subversion or insurgence.
Kadare has always been a spare stylist of limpid force, and John Hodgson translates this novel as he did three others by Kadare: with impressive fealty to the author's darkling rhythms of prose and plot. The final pages here are unforgettably stirring in their alloy of pathos and surprise. Rudian "was surrounded by a void, and in this void, before his very eyes, something was happening with which he could not interfere." But this something, this void, interferes with him, as it does with every Albanian, from the capital to the countryside, sentenced to a bristling dread.
William Giraldi is the author, most recently, of "The Hero's Body: A Memoir."
A Girl in Exile
Requiem for Linda B.
By Ismail Kadare
Translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson
Counterpoint. 185 pp. $25