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Book Review: The Siege By Ismail Kadare

When the world first started hearing the term "ethnic cleansing" coming out of the Balkan countries that made up the former Yugoslavia, once they recovered from the shock of understanding what that reality meant, probably their next reaction was surprise. Where had such a large community of European Muslims come from and what was the basis for the amount of hatred being directed towards them? To properly understand that you would have to travel back close to five hundred years to when the Ottoman Empire was carving its way through the Balkan states in an attempt to follow the Danube river all the way into Europe.

Like all wars where religion is a factor, the ones between the Christian defenders of the various Balkan countries and the Muslim Turkish invaders were pursued with a certain amount of fanaticism on both sides. While some countries were able to mount a fair resistance and even repulse their would be conquerers, others weren't so lucky. While the Ottoman Empire would have tolerated other religions under its rule, there would have also been advantages to converting to Islam in terms of standard of living and comfort. However those who did would have been considered traitors and betrayers by their neighbours, and history doesn't get forgotten easily in some parts of the world. Five hundred years after the fact people were forced to pay with their lives for the so called sins of their ancestors.

I'm sure most people have heard the tale of Vlad The Impaler, who supposedly slew hundreds of Turks by impaling them on stakes, and is the purported model for a certain blood sucking fiend from Transylvania. While Vlad may not have actually drank his victim's blood, there is no denying that the war between the Ottoman Empire and the various Balkan states they invaded were bloody and protracted affairs. Instead of engagements in the field, where the superior numbers of the Empire would prevail, key castles and strongholds were defended, with the result that long and bloody sieges were common. In his recently translated book The Siege, published by Random House Canada, Albanian author, Ismail Kadare, takes us back to the 15th century to witness a Turkish army's attempts to break through the walls of an Albanian castle .
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For many years Albania had been completely cut off from the West, and even when the rest of the Warsaw Pact countries were following Russia's lead and throwing off their communist leadership, Albania remained a sealed book. It's only been since the upheaval in the Balkans that we have had our the opportunity to see what was hidden for all of those years, including the work of writers like Ismail Kadre. The Siege was first published in Albania in 1970, and this edition is actually a translation of a French edition released in 1994 that is now considered the definitive version of the text.

For the majority of The Siege we are camped with the Turkish army outside the walls of the castle under attack and we are party to the innermost thoughts of everybody from the Pasha who is leading the army to the four members of his harem that he brought with him from home. A good deal of the time though, we are witnessing the fighting and life in the camp through the eyes the campaign's official chronichler, Mevla Celebi. Even before the actual battle begins he discovers he is faced with a problem of trying to come up with adjectives that will be suitably impressive to describe the important personages involved in assault.

He must of course reserve the more ornate one for his commander in chief, but what to do about all the other members of the War Council. For the truth of the matter is the majority of them just aren't designed to be recorded for posterity; one has a sty, another asthma, and yet another a humped back. It's as if all the officers of the army were formed in such a way as to make it harder to record his chronicle. Unfortunately it soon becomes obvious to him that those are going to be the least of his worries when it comes to recording events. For instead of being the quick and decisive victory that everyone was anticipating, after the first attack is successfully repulsed by the defenders, both sides have to hunker down for a long siege.

While there is a great deal of finger pointing and acrimony among the besiegers, (the spell caster is put to death, and the astrologer is sent to help dig an underground passage into the castle as punishment for their failings during and before the first assault) up in the castle they're not feeling too relieved. They know this was only the first of many assaults, and they have to be prepared for any sort of subterfuge and trickery on the part of those arrayed against them. In the past water supplies have been poisoned and animals infected with diseases have been released over the walls so they know they must be vigilant.
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The carnage as described by Kadare in the book is horrible as wave after wave of attackers are killed with boiling oil, or set on fire by being covered in pitch and having torches dropped on them. As the chronichler wanders the camp he sees countless numbers of men horribly disfigured and crippled by the wounds they have taken. His mind reels from the smells and the sights of the carnage, as well as the intrigues that continue apace among the captains of war who are supposed to be vanquishing the Empire's foes.

Yet they seem to be more intent on preserving their status within the hierarchy of the camp, and even more importantly, the court back home, than on winning the war. In fact as soon as it looks like they will have to retreat - back to the Empire - they begin to do their best to make sure they start distancing themselves from the Pasha in charge of the army. Like jackals and hyenas they circle their wounded overlord and look for some advantage that will serve them when they are home and off the cursed plains of Albania.

Kadare does a great job in describing the chaos of battle through the eyes of the Pasha as he sends wave after wave of men to crash against the walls of the castle, and we realize that he has no idea of what is going on at the walls. While it looks like the Turkish army is making advances, the reality is that they aren't able to breach the wall and are repulsed time after time until they are no longer able to sustain the siege. While you'd think, as the book is written by an Albanian, we would be feeling a great deal of joy that the author's historical countrymen were able to repulse their invader, instead we can't help feeling sorry for the Pasha. Kadare has been at great pains to ensure that the people on both sides of the wall are shown as human beings, not monsters. We've spent far too much time among the Turkish soldiers, getting to know various ones among them, to not have formed genuine attachments to people like the Chronicler of the battle.

Somehow Ismail Kadare is even able to inject a little humour into the proceedings as well, for he has a fine sense of the ridiculous on top of everything else. Some of the scenes of camp life, the gossip between the soldiers for instance, are very funny, but also a little sad. For it's here you realize these are just simple men taken from their farms to fight in a war they don't really have any understanding of.

The Siege by Ismail Kadare takes you into the heart of war at its most intense and finds something quite extraordinary, the human beings on both sides of the conflict. While there is nothing pretty in the surroundings, there is a haunting beauty to this book in its depiction of men who don't surrender to brutality or fear in spite of the ease which those around them are doing so. When you finish reading the book, the main feeling you have is one of regret; regret for all the lives lost, and regret for the fact that men will insist upon trying to kill each other for something as trivial as power and glory.

The Siege can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

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