The Traitor’s Niche: Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Ismail Kadare, The Traitor’s Niche (1978)

Translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson (2017)

At the centre of the Ottoman Empire, carved into Constantinople’s Cannon Gate, the Traitor’s Niche lies ready to host the severed head of the latest individual to rebel against or displease the sultan. Abdualla is guardian of the niche; when not inspecting the head, he watches the people in the square, silently.

At the edge of empire, Hurshid Pasha has suppressed the latest rebellion of the province of Albania. He is presented with the head of Ali Tepelena, Albania’s ill-fated governor. The head is duly given to the sultan’s courier, Tundj Hata, who takes it back to Constantinople – but not without charging a few villagers for the privilege of seeing it along the way.

The Traitor’s Niche was my first Kadare novel, but I don’t intend it to be the last – in Hodgson’s translation, his brisk prose is delightful to read. What appears to be simply a yarn becomes more serious as Kadare reveals the lengths to which the empire will go to suppress opposition, as it seeks to extinguish languages, folk traditions, even memories. The novel then revolves around contests for human and cultural spaces: the head in the Traitor’s Niche commands the attention of those in the square it overlooks; if the empire extinguishes a culture in thought and practice, its former people wander lost in an empty human space that can easily be stepped into. 

The original Albanian version of The Traitor’s Niche was published in 1978; there may well be some parallels between the political situation at that time and the world of the book, parallels I’m missing because I don’t have that context. Nevertheless, I found much to enjoy and think about in Kadare’s novel as I found it.

Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist?

Lacking any deeper background knowledge, I have to consider The Traitor’s Niche primarily as an enjoyable novel to read – which, when it’s done this well, goes quite a long way. Even so: compared to the experience I’ve had reading some of the other longlisted books, is that enough for the shortlist? Well, maybe. It would be a close call. But maybe.


  1. There are so many parallels with what Hoxha was doing in Albania at that time ……..can’t wait to read it !

  2. There was a similar point raised by another of your shadow panel this week about whether lack of knowledge of the political situation impacted the experience of reading the book. Sometimes it does for me but then it depends on how much of the book turns on that aspect.

  3. Although clearly there are important parallels with what was happening in Albania, I think many of them apply to the ideology of any repressive regime. I think it’s difficult to call whether this will be shortlisted – it very much depends on responses to more love/hate titles.

  4. Hi everyone, and thanks for your comments.
    I think a lack of political knowledge has to affect the reading experience – but the same is true of any kind of knowledge that an author draws upon. We each bring our individual sensibilities to a book; sometimes we’ll miss something, and sometimes we won’t be aware of what there was to miss. So be it.
    I agree that a lot of what’s in the book could be generalised to repressive regimes as a whole. I felt wary of drawing that out for some reason, and now I can’t work out why.

  5. I’ve read three other Kadare’s – Broken April, which is brilliant; The File on H, my first and very good particularly if you like Homer; and a third I can never recall and which I therefore assume wasn’t among his best.

    There’s always parallels is my understanding, but Grant’s right that you don’t need to know specifics and they apply to near any oppressive regime. Also, I absolutely agree with you that we always miss things – wouldn’t it be a bit sad if we didn’t? If we get everything a book has to say on one reading the book is probably (hopefully) intended as disposable entertainment.

    Not sure when I’ll go back to Kadare. If/when I do this may well be where I’ll start that revisit.

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