At the heart of the Ottoman Empire, a niche is carved into ancient stone. Here, the sultan displays the severed heads of his adversaries. People flock to see the latest head and gossip about the state of the empire: the province of Albania is demanding independence again, and the niche awaits a new trophy.
The Traitor’s Niche is a surreal tale of tyranny and rebellion, in a land where armies carry scarecrows, state officials ban entire languages, and the act of forgetting is more complicated than remembering.
...the novel transports the reader across all parts of the empire, from the center of power to the tempestuous periphery ... The novel relentlessly exposes the impact of authoritarianism, showing how it crushes the human spirit ... Yet the story is also a more encompassing parable of authoritarianism that is relevant far beyond its immediate historical moment ... In The Traitor’s Niche, as in all his best works, Kadare powerfully evokes — and critiques — the sheer, irascible strangeness of unchecked power.
The event that informs the novel is the rebellion of Ali Pasha, the Albanian governor who tried to break away from the Ottoman Empire and was killed by the Sultan’s forces in 1822. The focus is not on the uprising so much as its grisly souvenir: Ali Pasha’s severed head, which is preserved in ice, transported to an appointed plaza in Constantinople and displayed as a warning to would-be insurgents ... The book’s political intentions are shrewd and unmistakable. By depicting the corruption and whimsical cruelty of the Ottoman Empire...but it would be wrong to think of this novel as an Orwellian political allegory.
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. The fleeting thoughts and impulses of Kadare’s characters flutter uselessly around the hard, indelible fact of the state: of its organs and deliberations ... In Kadare’s Istanbul there are newspaper headlines and tourists, a royal theater, couriers traveling by carriage, who don’t belong to the historical period. Are they anachronisms or elements of the surreal or slyly placed hooks that tether the narrative to another period, perhaps our own?