Agamemnon’s Daughter

Written by David Bellos (trans.) Ismail Kadare
Review by Phyllis T. Smith

Tyranny is the theme of this absorbing novella and two short stories. Written by Albania’s best known novelist, who experienced totalitarianism firsthand, all three are extremely spare in terms of plot, yet riveting. The novella is set in an unnamed country ruled by a dictatorship. A young man is in love with the daughter of the dictator’s chosen successor. He learns that she must end their romance for political reasons. He watches a May Day parade and ruminates about how through the ages tyranny has demanded the sacrifice of love and sexuality, and deformed ordinary life. The atmosphere of life under totalitarianism is chillingly conveyed as marchers go by carrying banners exalting the leader. Meanwhile, the narrator’s thoughts range over history and mythology. He mourns his own lost love and considers the fate of Iphigenia, sacrificed by her father before the Trojan War, and of Stalin’s son, abandoned by his father to die as a German POW.

In one of the two stories, a parable about terror in the Ottoman Empire, not only are people hunted down and blinded for possessing the “evil eye,” they are expected to understand that this is for their own good. This stomach-churning little horror story, with its catalogue of ways to render people blind, is impossible to put down. The second story is a meditation on the meaning of the Great Wall of China, replete with irony. Did the Mongol invaders need the wall as much as the Chinese did? Did their way of life depend on its existence?

A translation from the Albanian might sound like daunting reading, but Kadare’s writing is straightforward and full of black humor. I highly recommend these deceptively simple tales freighted with historical truth.