The Successor by Ismail Kadare
Translated from Albanian to French by Tedi Papavrami and from French to English by David Bellos
It's Albania in the 1980s, and the Successor's career has taken the ultimate downturn with his death. But was it the suicide of a traitor, as the government claims, or murder? And if the latter, what could be the motive?
Kadare's book is partly a fictionalised account of the death of Mehmet Shehu, 'the Successor' to Enver Hoxha, the leader of the country from 1944 until his death in 1985.
"Partly", in that it's about far more than the dying days of the communist regime in that country.
It's also about tribalism and what power does to those who have it. It's about paranoia and fear.
The book includes some neat swipes at an international intelligence network that doesn't even know the most basic facts about the country.
And Kadar also points up the similarities between religious and political beliefs.
In terms of conveying the atmosphere of suspicion and fear, it is superb. Infinitely better than Orwell's 1984, for instance. Kadar's dark, cynical humour helps.
The let-down is in the central part of the novel, where he concentrates on the Successor's daughter and her relationships. That in itself is not a problem, but it gets a bit much when he keeps having her say "dearest heart" to her brother (actually, another woman uses the phrase a little later on too). It's tempting to feel that one has been thrust back into a 19th-century novel.
Is this perhaps a problem that has been caused or exacerbated by the double translation? That could be the case, but then again, the rest of the book doesn't seem to have such a problem.
Perhaps Kadar is just one of those authors who struggles when it comes to writing dialogue for the opposite sex? However, the denouement is, most certainly, a surprise, and the first and final two chapters in particular are excellent.