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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Successor

Ismail Kadare

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To purchase The Successor

Title: The Successor
Author: Ismail Kadare
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 207 pages
Original in: Albanian
Availability: The Successor - US
The Successor - UK
The Successor - Canada
The Successor - India
Le Successeur - France
Der Nachfolger - Deutschland
Il successore - Italia
  • Albanian title: Pasardhësi
  • Translated from the Albanian into French by Tedi Papavrami, translated from the French into English by David Bellos

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Our Assessment:

A- : fairly effective totalitarian mystery

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent A 27/1/2006 Michael Church
Independent on Sunday A 8/1/2006 Murrough O'Brien
The Nation . 29/5/2006 John Banville
New Stateman . 23/1/2006 Julian Evans
The NY Rev. of Books . 25/5/2006 Christian Caryl
The NY Times . 26/11/2005 Richard Eder
The NY Times Book Rev. . 13/11/2005 Lorraine Adams
The Observer A 17/1/2006 Ian Thomson
The Spectator . 14/1/2006 Francis King
The Sunday Times . 8/1/2006 Tom Deveson
The Telegraph . 29/1/2006 David Isaacson
The Telegraph . 29/1/2006 Jane Shilling
The Times . 14/1/2006 Misha Glenny
VLS . Winter/2006 Ben Ehrenreich

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "Nothing "happens" in this fable, which comes to resemble Kurosawa's Rashomon as it approaches its denouement, but we are gripped every step of the way. It also recalls Kafka: in the brisk and hallucinatory narrative tone, and in the pervasive obsession with reading the signs -- does a twitch of the Guide's eyebrow indicate a change in political line? But the excellence of this book lies in the uniqueness of Kadare's vision, and in his ability to reflect pulsating human reality in the grip of an invincibly dehumanising force." - Michael Church, The Independent

  • "(A) magnificent addition to his menacing, lyrical, darkly funny oeuvre. (...) (T)he prose never panics. It muses and meanders; the focus does not so much shift as glide from character to character. As a result, the reader feels a progressive tightening around the chest: you want to get out, you almost want to scream." - Murrough O'Brien, Independent on Sunday

  • "The book, then, is a sort of existential whodunit, a cross between Dostoyevsky and Georges Simenon at his most bleakly enigmatic." - John Banville, The Nation

  • "Kadare's political whodunnit sheds light not just on the 20th century -- on Hoxha, Stalin, Hitler, Bokassa, Amin, Pinochet -- but on every age. The nation portrayed is not just Albania (.....) There is certainly nothing run-of-the-mill about Kadare's biting parable of tyranny." - Julian Evans, New Stateman

  • "His most recent book, The Successor, also happens to be one of his best. " - Christian Caryl, The New York Review of Books

  • "It is a story uncannily suited to the nightmare universe the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare has created over so many years that it is almost as if his writing had made it happen. Mr. Kadare carries mystery past itself into a morass where the whys and whoms become irrelevant, and time runs sporadically backward as well as forward." - Richard Eder, The New York Times

  • "While public conjecture gathers and dissipates and returns in different shapes, Kadare gives us the intimate interior monologues of his characters. (...) This novel finds its truth in the imagined words of a dead man, setting the individual over the many. It valorizes the imagination by arguing that the truth of a man is not always found in what he does or says but in his numinous interior, the place all great literature celebrates." - Lorraine Adams, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Using eyewitness reports, among them Bashkim Shehu's, Kadare brilliantly recreates the atmosphere of shadowy fear, rumours and recrimination in Albania during the early Eighties, when Nexhmije Hoxha appeared to be running the troubled Balkan outpost singlehandedly. (...) The Successor provides a mesmerically readable parable about the abuse of state power. (...) Though David Bellos's translation is occasionally marred by cliches ('...), the novel succeeds admirably." - Ian Thomson, The Observer

  • "(I)t combines all the readability of a crime novel with the innovatory adventurousness of a work created by a writer who, even in his late sixties, never repeats others, much less himself. (...) My only dissatisfaction is with the translation. I know no Albanian but I cannot help feeling that something is amiss." - Francis King, The Spectator

  • "All this is skilfully fitted into the format of a whodunnit. (...) The Agatha Christie business risks becoming wearisome through repetition, but Kadare develops ingenious variations on the theme. (...) This is not a novel of character, but we learn just enough about the cast to keep the narrative going and our sympathies fully engaged. (...) Above all, Kadare creates a haunting sense of the absurd." - Tom Deveson, The Sunday Times

  • "As a tale of the totalitarian, in which citizens fear to confess their thoughts even to their spouses, this is resoundingly 20th-century stuff. (...) Amusing chinks of political satire shine through this dysfunctional Hades." - David Isaacson, The Telegraph

  • "In fact the novel itself has precisely this quality of an ancient epic, with its startling imagery, its spare and beautiful language and the paradoxical power of Kadare's narrative to offer consolation, even when describing human pride and folly at its most bleakly destructive." - Jane Shilling, The Telegraph

  • "Kadare’s engagement with the Shehu story results in a crisp reflection on the nature of state terror; on the emotional background to political crimes; and on how fear eats the soul. (...) Kadare is a great author so it sad that, 15 years after the fall of communism in Albania, his work is still translated into English via French and not directly from Albanian. This results in some awkwardness and offers further evidence of the decline in interest among British publishers in embracing foreign literature. Had Kadare not won the International Booker then this strange, enlightening novel would have been denied us." - Misha Glenny, The Times

  • "Kadare's latest novel represents his most straightforward attempt to grapple with the crimes hidden in the fog of Hoxha's regime. The path it takes, though, is hardly unkinked." - Ben Ehrenreich, Voice Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ismail Kadare's The Successor is based on an actual event, the death of Mehmet Shehu, the designated successor to Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, in 1981. In the night of 13 December he died of a gunshot wound -- but it's unclear whether it was suicide or murder. Kadare revisits the case from a variety of perspectives (including, ultimately, the Successor's own, from beyond the grave), making for a creepy portrait of an isolated totalitarian society that is dominated by nothing so much as uncertainty.
       The Successor had fallen out of favour shortly before his death, suggesting a reason for him taking his own life, but other indications (and rumours) point towards murder. The matter is further clouded by the fact that there seems little interest in actually determining the truth: the preference -- on this and almost all matters -- seems to be to maintain that state of uncertainty (and to muddy the waters, if necessary). The Guide -- Hoxha himself -- is the one with apparently almost complete control -- able to sentence anyone to death, or push the country in any new direction -- and yet even he embraces uncertainty:

     Knowing the secrets of everybody around you was indisputably a blessing, but not knowing them was close to being sublime. He'd only recently come to understand that, and it left him in a state of great calm.
       The case goes through quite a few twists and turns, the (dead) Successor eventually complaining: "I have been exhumed so often -- lugged here and there, flung unceremoniously into sacks and plastic bags with lumps of earth and shingle -- that part of me has gone missing". Actions ostensibly to uncover truth such as autopsies and house-searches are as likely to be cover-ups. Among the mysteries: a door leading to a secret passage (through which a murderer could have escaped) that is secretly walled up after the death of the Successor.
       The novel is presented mainly through the individual stories of those affected, from the family to the likely next successor all the way to the Guide himself.
       The Successor has a family, and his daughter's engagement was one of the factors that might have caused his downfall. The girl, Suzana, longs for male companionship and intimacy, putting her doubly at odds with her parents, as both Albanian tradition and Party loyalty frown on how she goes about it. It is, in particular, the parents' devotion to the Party that prevents this from being a normal family unit, Suzana recognising that:
the mystery of their parents' bond with the Party would forever remain inaccessible to her and her brother. It was a bond stronger than the ties of blood, and by the same token stronger than the knot of marriage.
       Once the Successor is gone, the family becomes something approaching a non-entity, investigators turning up in their house without announcing themselves, and conducting experiments without warning. It comes as no surprise that the family is eventually removed from the house, given only a short time to collect their possessions.
       Others also figure in the story, including the architect (who recognises that he has betrayed himself and his art through his conformity -- "It was our collective smokescreen") or the pathologist who wonders why he was chosen to conduct the autopsy but reminds himself: "henceforth he should not try to answer that or any other question."
       And there's also the next in line to succeed, whose fate is also not surprising (in its complete arbitrariness):
     Adrian Hasobeu's birthday ought to have marked the very summit of his career, but a few hours of the day were all that was needed to finish him off.
       Kadare very nicely evokes the prevailing all-consuming condition of uncertainty. There can be no straightforward murder-mystery here, as the rules simply don't apply. The rules are invented and changed along the way, and even though some (such as the Guide) have far more power even they are not in control. It makes for a fascinating picture of a society that is not so much corrupt as simply ruined, cause leading to unexpected and arbitrary effect. Along with some good personal touches -- Suzana and the architect's individual concerns, in a society that has little room for them -- it makes for a surprisingly full and well-rounded picture of Albania under Hoxha.

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The Successor: Reviews: Ismail Kadare: Other books by Ismail Kadare under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Albanian author Ismail Kadare was born in 1936. He was the first winner of the Man Booker International Prize (2005).

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