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 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.
The violent and corrosive nature of state repression assails you, gnaws at you and depresses you on every page. The state in question is the Ottoman Empire of the 1820s — a sprawling multilingual, multinational tyranny ... a severed head — actually several severed heads — takes centre stage. Those that the sultan decrees are special traitors merit special treatment. Their heads are put on public display in The Traitor’s Niche, set in a wall in a forbidding Constantinople square: 'Perhaps nowhere else could the eyes of passers-by so easily grasp the interdependency between the imposing solidity of the ancient square and the human heads that had dared to show it disrespect.' ... It is a fable while also a portrait of subjugation. Kadare, however, will not have all traces of spirit defeated, whether individual or collective. Albania will not be undone.
The book opens at the heart of the Ottoman Empire. We are in a square in the ancient Imperial capital; and in this square, in the stonework of the Cannon Gate, has been carved a niche. In this niche is a severed head ... The book revolves around the inhabitants of the niche—the current, historical, and potential occupants, plus Abdullah and the Doctor, the civil servants charged with maintaining the integrity of the grisly relics, and the corrupt courier whose job it is to speed newly decapitated heads to their care.