The Doll by Ismail Kadare review – a fascinating study of difficult love

The Albanian author explores his relationship with his mother and bittersweet memories of home

At first acquaintance, Ismail Kadare’s autobiographical novel can be read as an elegant, slightly bittersweet coming-of-age memoir, touched with nostalgia for a homeplace that is now long lost. That homeplace is the Albanian city of Gjirokastra and, more specifically, the house of Kadare’s parental ancestors, a cold but historic stone edifice that divides the two women who must share it. On the one hand, Kadare’s grandmother, its original mistress, refuses to leave the place, attempting, so it seems, to grow into the very fabric of the building. By stark contrast, his mother – the Doll of the title, who enters this dilapidated pile as a defenceless young bride – is altogether overwhelmed by having to endure her disdainful mother-in-law’s dominion, claiming that “this house eats you up”. It is here, in the midst of a conflict that is mostly tacit but nevertheless deeply felt, that the precocious teen grows into a would-be litterateur, writing one “novel” after another that consist mainly of the “big-headed” young author proclaiming his incipient genius. He even decorates each tome with its own price tag in the old, pre-communist currency and “advertisements” of its brilliance and originality.

The Doll is full of compelling details of life in a changing Albania, as the citizenry come to terms with various hues of communist rule under Soviet-backed Enver Hoxha. One of the funniest accounts is of the day, in 1953, when condoms arrive for the first time in the pharmacy: “There were contradictory instructions permitting and prohibiting them. It was suspected they might be a test to identify any weakening of the class struggle after the death of Stalin. But then it was realised that the measure was at the insistence of the Soviets and was linked to women’s rights (Rosa Luxemburg, etc), and after some hesitation by the party committee over whether communists should be advised to avoid the pharmacy and leave those bits of rubber to the increasingly depraved bourgeoisie, everything calmed down.”

The Doll is rich with such touches, alongside many of Kadare’s familiar concerns – with the folkloric roots of modern life, say, or the absurdity of Albanian politics. However, the poignant observation, bitter irony and misspoken fear running through the narrator’s central relationship with his mother, a woman secretly terrified of being disowned as unworthy the moment her son achieves the fame he so desires, are what dominate this fascinating study of a difficult love.

• The Doll by Ismail Kadare, translated by John Hodgson, is published by Harvill Secker (RRP £12.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15.


John Burnside

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare – review
Alberto Manguel enters a dreamworld where history and fiction come together

Alberto Manguel

21, Sep, 2012 @9:55 PM

Article image
A Girl in Exile by Ismail Kadare review – learning to live with the dead
Melodrama, tragedy and myth illuminate the relationship between individual and state in a fine novel from the Albanian writer

Ian Sansom

19, Mar, 2016 @7:30 AM

Article image
Deviation by Luce d’Eramo review – the woman who entered Dachau by choice
This strange, compelling autobiographical novel, first published in 1979, explores an unfamiliar aspect of the Third Reich

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

31, Jan, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen review – confessions of a literary outsider
The Danish writer reflects on success, addiction and divorces in three volumes of compulsive autofiction: Childhood, Youth and Dependency

Liz Jensen

16, Oct, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Love by Hanne Ørstavik review – a chilling study of emotional distance
This is an eerie, devastating little book about a mother and son in the far north of Norway

Justine Jordan

20, Nov, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri review – a fascinating shift
Lahiri’s first novel to be composed originally in Italian focuses on a narrator adrift, free from the anxieties of biography and geography

Tanjil Rashid

06, May, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Legends of the fall: the 50 biggest books of autumn 2021
From new novels by Sally Rooney and Colson Whitehead to Michel Barnier’s take on Brexit, Bernardine Evaristo’s manifesto and diaries from David Sedaris – all the releases to look out for

Justine Jordan and Katy Guest

04, Sep, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Fresh voices: 50 writers you should read now
Which debut novel should you reach for this spring? Here’s our guide to the most exciting voices in fiction, politics, SF, graphic novels and more

31, Mar, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
The best books for summer 2016
From Essex serpents to chimpanzees, political satire to the best new thrillers … leading writers reveal which books they will be taking to the beach

The Guardian

09, Jul, 2016 @6:00 AM

Article image
Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare review – an Albanian student in Moscow
This novel about a young writer’s time at the Gorky Institute of World Literature draws on the Albanian author’s own experience

Jane Housham

21, Aug, 2015 @3:15 PM