The Ottoman Empire during the 15th century lays siege to a Christian fortress on a plain surrounded by the mountains of Albania. The Siege tells the story of the weeks and months that follow: the events that unfold within the camp of brightly coloured banners and hastily constructed minarets as tens of thousands of men begin to fill the plain below the citadel. One character in the novel says, ‘You cannot call a country conquered until you conquer its heaven.’ This novel describes how the citadel refused to be conquered, the elation and despair of the battlefield, the constant shifting strategies of war, and the predicament of those whose lives are held in the balance.
The story is told through the personal narrative of one of the defenders and partly through the eyes of an Ottoman chronicler, Mevla Celebi. ‘Great massacres always give birth to great books. You will give birth to writing a thundering chronicle redolent with pitch and blood.’
This gripping narrative of war is also a meditation on human relations, human folly, ambiguities of power, and the meaning of history. The thoughts and sufferings of 15th-century warriors are barely distinguishable from those in our own time.
The vividly portrayed characters are unforgettable. The technician blunders. The astrologer makes mistakes and is sent below ground. The poet who wanted to see the action suffers for his foolhardy adventure. The harem of women who are attached to the Ottoman Pasha endure and wait.
Images leap through writing that is direct and enigmatic, and above all, flawless, beautiful and unpretentious. David Bellos’s translation of The Siege is outstanding.
This novel is a masterpiece. It is worth noting that in 2005, Ismail Kadare was the first Man Booker International Prize winner.