When the world first started hearing the term "ethnic cleansing" coming out of the Balkan countries that made up the former Yugoslavia, once they recovered from the shock of understanding what that reality meant their next reaction was probably surprise. Where had such a large community of European Muslims come from and what was the basis for the amount of hatred being directed towards them? To properly understand that you would have to travel back close to five hundred years to when the Ottoman Empire was carving its way through the Balkan states in an attempt to follow the Danube River all the way into Europe.
Like all wars where religion is a factor, the ones between the Christian defenders of the various Balkan countries and the Muslim Turkish invaders were pursued with a certain amount of fanaticism on both sides. While some countries were able to mount a fair resistance and even repulse their would-be conquerors, others weren't so lucky. While the Ottoman Empire would have tolerated other religions under its rule, there would have also been advantages to converting to Islam in terms of standards of living and comfort. However those who did would have been considered traitors and betrayers by their neighbors, and history isn't forgotten easily in some parts of the world. Five hundred years after the fact people were forced to pay with their lives for the so-called sins of their ancestors.
I'm sure most people have heard the tale of Vlad the Impaler, who supposedly executed hundreds of Turks by impaling them on stakes and is the purported model for a certain bloodsucking fiend from Transylvania. While Vlad may not have actually drank his victim's blood, there is no denying that the war between the Ottoman Empire and the various Balkan states they invaded were bloody and protracted affairs. Instead of engagements in the field, where the superior numbers of the Empire would prevail, key castles and strongholds were defended with the result that long and bloody sieges were common. In his recently translated book The Siege, published by Random House Canada, Albanian author Ismail Kadare takes us back to the 15th century to witness a Turkish army's attempts to break through the walls of an Albanian castle.
For many years Albania had been completely cut off from the West, and even when the rest of the Warsaw Pact countries were following Russia's lead and throwing off their communist leadership, Albania remained closed off. Only since the upheaval in the Balkans have we had the opportunity to see what was hidden for all of those years, including the work of writers like Ismail Kadre. The Siege was first published in Albania in 1970, and this edition is actually a translation of a French edition released in 1994 that is now considered the definitive version of the text.
For the majority of The Siege we are camped with the Turkish army outside the walls of a castle under siege, and we are party to the innermost thoughts of everybody from the Pasha who is leading the army to the four members of his harem that he brought from home. A good deal of the time though, we are witnesses to the fighting and life in the camp through the eyes the campaign's official chronicler, Mevla Celebi. Even before the actual battle begins he discovers he is faced with the problem of trying to come up with adjectives that will be suitably impressive to describe the important personages involved in the assault.
He must, of course, reserve the more ornate descriptions for his commander-in-chief, but what to do about all the other members of the War Council? For the truth of the matter is the majority of them just aren't designed to be recorded for posterity; one has a sty, another asthma, and yet another a humped back. It's as if all the officers of the army were formed in such a way as to make it harder to write his chronicle. Unfortunately it soon becomes obvious to him that those are going to be the least of his worries when it comes to recording events. Instead of the quick and decisive victory that everyone was anticipating, the first attack is successfully repulsed by the defenders and both sides have to hunker down for a long siege.
While there is a great deal of finger-pointing and acrimony among the besiegers, (the spellcaster is put to death and the astrologer is sent to dig an underground passage into the castle as punishment) those in the castle aren't feeling too relieved either. They know this was only the first of many assaults and they have to be prepared for any sort of subterfuge and trickery on the part of those arrayed against them. In the past, water supplies have been poisoned and animals infected with diseases have been released over the walls, so they know they must be vigilant.
The carnage is horrible as wave after wave of attackers are killed with boiling oil or set on fire by being covered in pitch and having torches dropped on them. As the chronicler wanders the camp, he sees countless numbers of men horribly disfigured and crippled by the wounds they have received. His mind reels from the smells and the sights of the carnage as well as the intrigues that continue apace among the captains of war who are supposed to be vanquishing the Empire's foes.
Yet they seem to be more intent on preserving their status within the hierarchy of the camp – and, more importantly, the court back home – than on winning the war. As soon as it looks like they have to retreat, they begin to do their best to make sure they distance themselves from the Pasha in charge. Like jackals and hyenas they circle their wounded overlord and look for some advantage that will serve them when they are home and off the cursed plains of Albania.
Kadare does a great job in describing the chaos of battle through the eyes of the Pasha as he sends wave after wave of men to crash against the walls of the castle, and we realize that he has no idea of what is happening at the walls. While it looks like the Turkish army is making advances, the reality is that they aren't able to breach the wall and are repulsed time after time until they are no longer able to sustain the siege. While you'd think in a book written by an Albanian we would be feeling a great deal of joy that the author's historical countrymen were able to repulse their invader, we can't help feeling sorry for the Pasha. Kadare has taken great pains to ensure that the people on both sides of the wall are shown as human beings, not monsters. We've spent far too much time among the Turkish soldiers to not have formed genuine attachments to people like the Chronicler.
Somehow Kadare is even able to inject a little humor into the proceedings as well, for he has a fine sense of the ridiculous on top of everything else. Some of the scenes of camp life – the gossip between the soldiers for instance – are very funny, but also a little sad. Here you realize these are just simple men taken from their farms to fight in a war they don't really understand.
The Siege takes you into the heart of war at its most intense and finds something quite extraordinary within the human beings on both sides of the conflict. While there is nothing pretty in the surroundings, there is a haunting beauty in the depiction of men who won't surrender to brutality or fear in spite of the ease which those around them are doing so. When you finish reading the book, you cannot help feel regret. Regret for all the lives lost and for the fact that men insist upon trying to kill each other for things as trivial as power and glory.