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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Traitor's Niche

Ismail Kadare

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To purchase The Traitor's Niche

Title: The Traitor's Niche
Author: Ismail Kadare
Genre: Novel
Written: 1978 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 200 pages
Original in: Albanian
Availability: The Traitor's Niche - US
The Traitor's Niche - UK
The Traitor's Niche - Canada
La niche de la honte - France
Der Schandkasten - Deutschland
El Nicho de la Vergüenza - España
  • Albanian title: Pashallëqet e mëdha
  • Translated by John Hodgson

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Our Assessment:

A- : sharp, dark novel of totalitarianism

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times A 3/2/2017 Mark Damazer
Literary Review . 2/2017 Judith Vidal-Hall
The NY Times Book Rev. . 26/8/2018 Jason Goodwin
The Spectator . 4/2/2017 Ian Thomson
TLS . 1/3/2017 Alev Adil
Wall St. Journal . 15/6/2018 Sam Sacks

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "Kadare penetrates the fear and insecurity of his characters, who are never able to achieve any physical or psychological peace, whether in victory or defeat, or when chaperoning a severed head around the empire, or presiding over a head’s display in the capital. (...) This is a mesmerising story filled with rapidly drawn, memorable characters and vivid descriptions of architecture and desolate landscapes." - Mark Damazer, Financial Times

  • "Nobody conveys the creation of states of fear and their consequences on a population better, though Kadare does so with a sense of irony and a dark humour that often rise to the heights of absurdity, even when describing the most extreme situations. (...) The banning of language and culture; the loss of personality and autonomy; the obliteration of memory; the denigration of native myths and legends: these things will be familiar to many colonised peoples. Kadare captures all this and more in his unique style" - Judith Vidal-Hall, Literary Review

  • "As this riveting novel unfolds -- in brilliant, laconic, grimly comic fashion -- it becomes apparent that the state is, in its own way, a frightful head. A Medusa, perhaps, with the capacity to destroy. Or, as the courier imagines, an octopus, the only creature he can think of whose head is in the middle of its body." - Jason Goodwin, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In John Hodgson’s lucid translation, The Traitor’s Niche is absorbing from start to finish. Kadare’s allegorical burlesque has rarely been so trenchant." - Ian Thomson, The Spectator

  • "The cold, strange landscapes and the richness of Kadare’s fictional world have a literary magic that exceeds any attempts to reduce this novel to a political message. Rather, the author seeks to awaken the existential possibility of articulating our resistance to forgetting" - Alev Adil, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The book’s political intentions are shrewd and unmistakable. By depicting the corruption and whimsical cruelty of the Ottoman Empire, Mr. Kadare smuggles in a damning appraisal of Albanian Communism. But it would be wrong to think of this novel as an Orwellian political allegory. Its evocation of the past feels both contemporary (tourists flock to Istanbul to gawk at the severed head, and you can almost imagine them taking cellphone photos) and outside of time." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

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:

       The Traitor's Niche is set in the early nineteenth century, as Kadare reïmagines Ottoman rule and specifically the subjugation of Albania at the time. The 'Traitor's Niche' of the title is set in a square in the part real (the Hagia Sophia is nearby), part fictional (the Palace of Dreams and the Central State Archive, familiar from other Kadare novels, are other landmarks) capital of the empire. In the niche in one of the walls a carefully tended head is generally kept on display, of enemies of the state -- or servants of it who have failed it. The head is a warning and reminder -- and a sight that attracts many gawkers.
       When the novel opens Hurshid Pasha is away on a mission to retrieve the head of the (historic) Ali Pasha, the ruler of the distant province of Albania whose opposition to central rule the empire cannot tolerate. Hurshid's predecessor, Bugrahan Pasha, had failed in the same mission, and so for now it is his head that occupies the niche -- failure is unacceptable. Hurshid has greater success; he retrieves the head and it is immediately sent off to the capital by courier Tundj Hata -- who makes some money on the way by displaying it for villagers in the isolated regions he travels through, as he understands that:

for remote, buried hamlets, this spectacle was at the same time their literature, theater, art, philsophy, and perhaps love.
       Only once the head is on display in the Traitor's Niche -- "The center of the empire's attention. An extinguished star" -- does Kadare return to Ali Pasha's own life and story, and rebellion. Not the first to rise up against his sovereign, he failed to rally his people behind him, his own cruelty towards them making him too little different in their eyes from the more distant powers: "when he confronted the sultan and was forced to call on their aid, they made no move". The Traitor's Niche is, in part, a commentary on Albanian history too, and Kadare repeatedly addresses the centuries of failed and limited uprising against the greater powers, as well as the situation specific to that time (including, for example, the Greek role and position).
       Kadare describes Ali Pasha's end slightly differently than how it actually happened -- though in both cases his severed head was eventually delivered to the sultan.
       The story then moves beyond Ali Pasha's removal and death, the Albanian territory and its people threatened with the ultimate punishment, called: "Caw-caw", the "process of stripping a land of its national identity". Its five stages culminate in "the eradication or impoverishment of the language" and finally "the extinction or enfeeblement of the national memory" -- Kadare's dark vision of totalitarian rule taken to its extremes.
       Among the main characters in The Traitor's Niche is Abdulla, the keeper of the niche, a young man who is at the center of the story as the novel opens. His life also undergoes a major change during this time, as he gets married -- but finds himself impotent. When Ali Pasha's head is put on display he is still struggling with his predicament -- an impotence he realizes is much more deep rooted than just physically, as he wonders about this man who dared rise up against the all-powerful state, and:
It occurred to Abdulla that he had never rebelled against anything in the world, not even against his own self.
       By the end of the story, Abdulla is no longer keeper of the niche, and Hurshid Pasha's brief time of triumph is also over, the crushing state once again asserting it's dominating power over one and all.
       It's an effective story of how a state can completely subdue all those it exerts dominion over, Kadare creatively describing the potentially complete oppression of its subjects (forced to stop up their chimneys, even, so that the blinding, choking smoke fills their houses ...). While the niche is a memorable center-spot, the regions distant from the seat of power -- the grey nowhere lands -- are also particularly well presented.
       A commentary on the Albania of Kadare's time (it was written in the mid-1970s), The Traitor's Niche feels closer to parallel than parable -- and all too close, still, the historical trappings making for just a veneer of distance while the tools of totalitarianism seem, at least in variations, all too current and familiar.
       An effective, well-told, and disturbing novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 June 2018

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The Traitor's Niche: 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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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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