In The Traitor’s Niche, from Counter Point Press, Albanian author Ismail Kadare has drawn a satirical, and biting, picture of the Ottoman Empire. Albania, like many of the Baltic states, had fallen under the sway of the machinery of the Turkish monarchy. Centred in the capital city of Istanbul, the arms of the state reached through Eastern Europe until it ran smack dab into the Austria/Hungarian Empire of the Hapsburgs.
Set in the 19th century when the outlying provinces of the empire were starting to flex their nationalistic ambitions and seeking independence, The Traitor’s Niche refers to a niche in a wall, in a square in Istanbul, where the heads of traitors would be displayed as a warning to potential rebels.
Whenever an official in one of the far flung provinces started to have ambitions – usually rebelling against the empire’s authority – not only an army would be sent out to put him down, but a special courier would be dispatched to ensure his head was returned intact for display. In The Traitor’s Niche Kadare traces the story of one such head and how it ended up in The Niche.
Along the way we meet the various parties who are either responsible for the care of these precious artifacts, and the lengths they go to ensure they do their job responsibly (after all failure could see them becoming enshrined in The Niche). These include Abdulla, the keeper of the Traitor’s Niche, the doctor whose job it is to ensure the head is preserved as long as possible, Tundj Hata, the courier who ensures the heads safe delivery, and of course the bodies who the heads came from.
The book is as horrifically absurd as it sounds. Those responsible for the heads treat them as if they’re the actual person and their discarded bodies mere dross. In fact, what happens to the body after death is immaterial – the speedy delivery of the preserved head is all that matters.
Of course all this hanging around heads tends to take its toll on those involved. Abdulla has yet to consummate his marriage of a few months being unable to, well bring things to a head and Hata doesn’t seem to be able to sleep no matter how tired he becomes.
The book also reveals, in rather frightening detail, the lengths the Ottoman Empire would go to punish the people of a province for the sins of their leaders. After centuries of rule they’ve gone so far as to create whole bureaucracies dedicated to the process of meting out the properly balanced punishments to suit the deeds.
From trivial things, like everyone must wear black and block their chimneys so they are covered in ash and soot, which are never enforced to the complete eradication of a culture, the rules and actions required are all written down so those charged with the duties know exactly what’s expected of them. It’s so detailed there’s even a person responsible for the elimination of a culture’s traditional wedding rites.
All of these, plus the obsession with heads, would be absurd if they weren’t so terrible. In The Traitor’s Niche Kadare has done a magnificent job of showing just how entrenched and horrific empire can become. While he uses the Ottoman Empire as his example, there’s no doubt it could be referring to any oppressive regime.
For as we’ve witnessed throughout history there’s nothing empires like better than a bureaucracy which has carefully spelled out rules on how to ensure the people stay oppressed and the empire remains under control. The Traitor’s Niche does a magnificent job of taking us behind the scenes of this usually faceless bureaucracy and shows us the cogs who, one way or another, keep it working. They may not like it, their jobs may literally be destroying them slowly, but they are helpless to do anything but be ground up in its wheels.
In The Traitor’s Niche Kadare drags into a world few of us really want to know exists. While the initial absurdity of the situation is humorous, over the course of the novel the true horror is gradually driven home. Its a great book, and should be read by anyone interested in the tools of oppression and how they are employed.