The Doll: A Portrait of My Mother

Written by Ismail Kadare John Hodgson (trans.)
Review by G. J. Berger

Winner of the inaugural Man Booker International Prize and other prestigious awards, Ismail Kadare is Albania’s most well-known novelist and poet. This short biography, translated from Albanian, features Kadare’s relationship with his mother. She was small, reserved, vain, with skin as white as porcelain. Hence, he calls her “the Doll” and never gives readers her first name.

More a series of loosely connected short sketches than a full-fledged biographical novel, The Doll opens at her death in 1994 then jumps back to her marriage in 1933. As was the custom, she moves into the centuries-old, large house of her new in-laws. Boredom, the perpetual strife between the Doll and her mother-in-law, and the home’s constant need for repairs made his mother declare, “The house is eating me up!” Kadare reminisces about his education, relatives and friends, the courtship of his wife, and early efforts at writing. Kadare’s early literary success prompts the Doll to fear he will disown her. In Kadare’s mid-career, he and his wife seek asylum in France, but the Doll stays home.

Kadare’s writing is spare and filled with interesting turns of phrase and observations. Both Stalin and Kadare’s grandmother died in 1953. Yet, he writes, the “most sensational” event of the year “was the arrival of condoms in the city pharmacy.” A writer’s life in a communist country bent on stamping out all unauthorized expression is ever precarious: “So I was a soldier of a death squad summoned… to assault and slaughter” my own writings. Overall, this quiet study of a difficult relationship reveals his personal life to any fan of Kadare. For those unfamiliar with his work, this serves as an intriguing introduction to an important writer.