The General of the Dead Army

Written by Ismail Kadare
Review by Helene Williams

Winner of the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005, Kadare’s debut novel (originally published in 1970) embodies the problem of a state which belongs to no one, and to everyone. Albania has been invaded repeatedly through the ages, including by both Italy under Mussolini and Germany under Hitler during the Second World War. Twenty years later, the families of the fallen invading soldiers demand that the bodies be located, exhumed, and returned to their homeland. Careful political and religious negotiations have prevailed, and the unnamed general of the unnamed country (presumably Italy, from the few clues Kadare offers), accompanied by an unnamed priest, sets out on this dirty, humbling, and nearly-impossible task.

The work is slow, cold, wet, and grueling; the general spends his days marking off names from his long list of missing and presumed-dead soldiers, and arranging for their bones to be transferred to small boxes in a large warehouse. His nights are spent drinking, mainly with the priest, but at times with wary locals or a competitive lieutenant-general who is scouring the country on a similar mission. It is during these times we learn what the general thinks about raising this dead army and what opportunities he’s missed in life. The reader senses that this mission is his last opportunity to make a name for himself; if he succeeds, perhaps then he can join the only two named characters in the book, who, though minor figures, play notable roles in the story.

Although some readers may feel as if nothing happens in this book (and indeed, those seeking action/adventure are urged to look elsewhere), the internal psychological machinations reveal a great deal about the aftermath of war for both the invaded and the supposed victor.