In times of war, soldiers are called upon to fight and die for their country. In times of peace, their sacrifices are recalled, fondly or otherwise, and the memory of a nation evolves. In Ismail Kadare's General of the Dead Army, the Italian dead in Albania from World War II are called upon to serve once more as living soldiers dig and search for the missing dead, seeking to catalogue and organize the men left behind. The General, a nameless man who initially functions as a heroic figure with great purpose and nobility, succumbs over the years of searching to the despondency of intent that must one day afflict all those who have fought or served for their country. Kadare uses the General as a tool to chip away at the concept of military service as something entirely noble, showing us that in the end what remains of a valiant army is dirt, death, bones, confusion, destroyed communities and broken lives.
The General arrives in Albania accompanied by a Priest and a list of the dead he is supposed to find. The work is slow, and promises to be slower months go by and only a few men are recovered. Along the way, the General and the Priest discuss the morality of their actions as they disrupt communities and unearth sad tales of soldiers through discarded diaries, moldy letters, and the recollection of the Albanians. The General begins to see the Albanian country-side as a tactician might; he plays the World War II battles through his mind over and over in an attempt to figure out the best strategy to win the war. He becomes obsessed with the dead army he is unearthing, his thoughts, deeds and words turning to morbidity:
As soon as I see someone - anyone at all - I automatically begin stripping off his hair, then his cheeks, then his eyes, as though they were something unnecessary, something that is merely preventing me from penetrating to his essence; and I envisage his head as nothing but a skull and teeth - the only details that endure.
Kadare writes strictly from the point of view of the General, with minimal excursions or detours. At times a diary or letter from a dead soldier is inserted into the text, a device used to further enhance the feeling of uselessness and dread that surrounds the Italian soldiers. The description of Albania's countryside is functional and unsentimental, a soldier's view of terrain and cover. At times, Kadare's short, sharp sentences sever the mounting bleakness of the text, removing the reader too far away from the immediacy of the General's actions. Generally, though, the unadorned writing keeps us close and personal with the General as he falls from his heights of self-confidence and is forced to pay for the violence of his nation's armies.
Albania is a small country, poor and down-trodden. Kadare, himself an Albanian, writes from the perspective of an outsider looking in. The General does not understand the Albanian people or their culture, and in many ways he does not want to. The Priest reminds him again and again that his grisly task of digging up the dead is unwanted in Albania, even something of a taboo. That Albanian soldiers are dug up as well; that other bodies are ruthlessly disturbed to comfort the mind's of Italian families, the General is not concerned about. Kadare is wise to leave the Albanians largely to their own devices. He is not interested in glorifying the culture at the expense of the Italians, but neither does he make of them a single dull note. Their thoughts and feelings are kept to an ominous whisper, something we are aware of without ever really experiencing and this is the fault of the General, who tries, even as his mind is shattering from the magnitude and length of his task, to remain above the concerns of the peasants and common-folk.
General of the Dead Army is Kadare's first novel, written in the 1960s. Since then he has written many other books, each of which has added to his international fame, culminating in his being awarded the inaugural Booker International Prize in 2005. General of the Dead Army is a brilliant first novel, though the seams of its creation are still somewhat visible, and here and there are the cracks of unfortunate literary choices. Yet the novel is overwhelmingly solid, able to withstand the slight fractures of its creation. The glory of war is often explored; the guilt, less so. Kadare's novel is short, bleak, and depressing, and ultimately what hope there is lies outside the vagaries of war and military toil. For all that, it is a strong novel, and one that seems even more necessary today than it did when it was first written.