Book Review: The Doll by Ismail Kadare

By Linda Romano

Many people may  not be familiar with Albania, a small country bordering Greece on the western part of the Balkan Peninsula, or of Ismail Kadare, a renowned Albanian poet and novelist. In Kadare’s autobiographical novel, The Doll, this lack of familiarity does not prevent us from identifying with the common question of how our childhood, and especially our mothers, impact our life. At seventy-eight, Ismail Kadare explores the relationship with his mother and her influence on the political writer he became. Kadare not only survived but flourished in a country under communist dictator Enver Hoxha, where writers were routinely exiled, imprisoned, or executed. Many of his novels were made into movies in both Albania and France, where he briefly lived before his mother died and just before Albania became a democracy, in 1992.

Translated from the Albanian, The Doll is unpretentious, but metaphorically poetic. An attentive read is required to observe how elegantly Kadare weaves his family history, the politics of communist Albania, and what drove his literary ambition. He makes us aware that we cannot escape the constraints imposed by the political systems that govern our lives, not unlike the current American experience where the reaction to the global pandemic intertwined the personal and the political that cost the lives of many.

Kadare bookends the novel with his mother dying and recalls the childhood image of his mother as a doll. In the opening, he observes her frailness and inability to understand him as she lies in a coma, which is how he felt towards her throughout his life. The doll, he clarifies, is not the doll-sweetness from childhood stories but frail, like a paper doll, and self-restrained like the white-painted faces of kabuki that he once saw performed in Japan. Kadare carries out the metaphorical image of a doll-like mother throughout the novel to depict the emotional distance that existed between them.

At her funeral, he describes her as the doll in a toy box. Standing by her coffin, he speaks of his appreciation and love towards her:

“At least for these minutes I would like to reassure you once more that the misunderstandings between us did not hinder me in any way, but were perhaps more necessary than any kind of rapport. Because, as I’ve tried to explain to you so many times, a gift may manifest itself in its very opposite— that is as an absence of something rather than an abundance.”

Perhaps his feeling of absence is triggered by the lack of personal freedom in a communist society, and it is through this lens that Kadare views the relationship with his mother, which may be difficult for a Westerner living within a democracy to understand.

Instead of directly speaking of communism, Kadare uses the poetic metaphor of setting as he describes his three hundred-year-old house with its secret entrance and forbidden dungeon that he was never allowed to enter. Kadare writes, “Houses like ours seemed constructed with the specific purpose of preserving coldness and misunderstanding for as long as possible.” As a child, Kadare recalls the sensation of terror when he asked his mother the reason for her tears; “the house is eating me up,” she explained. The house belonged to his father’s family, and as part of the custom, her mother-in-law lived on the second floor and never left the house, making his mother feel constantly watched, never free or independent. His father took on the task of  house repairman, Kadare speculates, as a way to restore dominance of the home, while he also played judge to settle the acrimony between his mother and grandmother.

The poetic metaphor of setting and identity is again shown when Kadare had recently returned home from his literary studies at the Gorki Institute in Moscow. His parents move from their house in Gjirokastra to a two bedroom apartment in the capital city, Tirana. Faced with an excess of furniture from the old house to fit into the new, his mother shows distress in parting with anything, which surprises Kadare. He imagines she would have gladly left the old house and its belongs just as he thought he could erase the image of Albania from his memory forever when he lived in the enchanted city of Moscow as a student. His mother’s reaction reminds him of his own experience, that our home becomes a part of who we are, that it never leaves us, and that we cannot fully disconnect from our past.

The Doll is a dedication to mothers in how they influence our lives with all their strengths, fears, and frailties. Kadare believed his mother, with her doll-like frailty, even within the constraints of a communist society, induced the writer’s gift within him. “She surrendered the freedom and authority of a mother—in short, turned herself into a doll—to give me all possible liberty as a human being, in a world where freedom was so rare and hard to find.”

Linda Romano grew up on the south side of Chicago and currently lives in California’s Silicon Valley working as an engineer. She received a PhD in Materials Science at the University of Illinois and is presently pursuing an MFA in Nonfiction at the UC Riverside Palm Desert Program. She is working on a memoir about her upbringing and life as an engineer while raising two children. Her favorite pastime is enjoying the outdoors, especially on a bicycle.

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