Ismail Kadare: Albania’s winner of the 2020 Neustadt Prize for Literature

October has been a good month for emerging Europe’s giants of literature.

Following on from Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk being named the winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature on October 10,  the University of Oklahoma’s award-winning magazine of international literature and culture World Literature Today, announced on October 16 that Ismail Kadare had been named the 26th laureate of the renowned Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

Awarded in alternating years with the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature, the Neustadt Prize recognises outstanding literary merit in literature worldwide.

Born in Gjirokastër in 1936, Kadare is an Albanian novelist, poet, essayist and playwright who has written a large body of work. He rose to fame in Albania on the strength of his poetry and published his first novel, The General of the Dead Army, in 1963. He has won many international awards – including the inaugural Man Booker International prize in 2005 – and is often cited himself as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

It was the French translation of The General of the Dead Army, by Isuf Vrioni, published by Albin Michel in 1970, led to Kadare’s international breakthrough. The novel was not received well by the critics in Albania at the time. “This novel was published by the bourgeoisie and this can not be accepted,” said a report by the secret police at the time. Albanian writers close to the country’s communist regime united against the Kadare, and after offending the authorities with a political poem in 1975, he was sent to do manual labour deep in the countryside as a punishment. He was also forbidden from publishing any more novels. In response, after his return to Tirana, Kadare began to camouflage his novels as “novellas” and publish them as such.

One of these was The Palace of Dreams, an anti-totalitarian novel written and published in the heart of a totalitarian country. The novel was harshly condemned in an Albanian Writer’s Plenum and Kadare was accused of making allusions to communist Albania in it, citing several ambiguous passages as proof for these claims. As a result, the work was banned. Kadare was also accused by the president of the League of Albanian Writers and Artists of deliberately evading politics by cloaking much of his fiction in history and folklore. It has been alleged that Albania’s communist leader Enver Hoxha even initiated the process of eliminating Kadare, but backed off for fear of adverse reaction in the West.

Long a champion of international democracy, in 1990 Kadare went into political asylum in France.

He has written, “I became familiar with literature before I knew freedom, so that it was literature that led me to liberty, not the other way around. Faith in literature and the creative process brings perfection.”

Kapka Kassabova, a writer of poetry, fiction, and narrative nonfiction, nominated him for the Neustadt Prize. She is a native Bulgarian who writes in English.

Robert Con Davis-Undiano, World Literature Today’s executive director, said that Kadare is “one of the world’s great writers and a champion of democracy and free speech.”

Highly respected within the literary community for its recognition of excellence, the Neustadt Prize is often referenced as the “American Nobel” for its reputation as a lead-up to the Swedish Academy’s annual selection. Any living author writing from anywhere in the world is eligible for the Neustadt Prize. The jury is comprised of acclaimed international authors, and that fact helps shield the award from external pressure by booksellers, publishers, and others who may have interest in influencing the outcome.

The Neustadt Prize is the first international literary award of its scope to originate in the United States and is one of the very few international prizes for which poets, novelists and playwrights are equally eligible. Winners are awarded 50,000 US dollars, a replica of an eagle feather cast in silver and a certificate.

A generous endowment from the Neustadt family of Dallas, TexasDenver, Colorado; and Watertown, Massachusetts, ensures the award in perpetuity.