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The Siege

The Siege

by Ismail Kadare, David Bellos (Translator), Jusef Vrioni (Translator)

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A Christian citadel in the mountains of Albania is met by the envoys of the Ottoman Army—their message, accept our terms of total submission and avoid the inevitable violence. As the bloody and psychologically crushing fight for control over the citadel unfolds, Kadare’s newest work opens a literary window onto the eternal clash between religions and


A Christian citadel in the mountains of Albania is met by the envoys of the Ottoman Army—their message, accept our terms of total submission and avoid the inevitable violence. As the bloody and psychologically crushing fight for control over the citadel unfolds, Kadare’s newest work opens a literary window onto the eternal clash between religions and empires as well as the exhilaration, despair, and immediacy of the battlefield.

The imperial Pasha—an instrument of the vast bureaucracy of the Ottoman Empire—is the commander-in-chief of a war council that debates and decides the strategies and methods meant to grind away at the Albanians’ hold on their citadel and indeed their very way of life.  The Pasha’s cabinet embodies the political and strategic impulses that have characterized the mechanics of warfare throughout history: the engineer behind a technologically unprecedented weapon; the embattled leader of the restless foot soldiers and artillerymen; as well as the poet, war chronicler and astrologer who place it all in a larger context. All the while, the Pasha’s harem soothes his greatest fears and insecurities as the siege becomes increasingly oppressive and hopeless – both for the besiegers and the besieged.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

First published in Albania in 1970 and translated into French in the '90s, Kadare's (The Successor) beast of a novel traces a 15th-century Ottoman siege of a Christian citadel in Albania. Ugurlu Tursun Pasha is commander-in-chief of a vast number of Turkish infantry troops, cavalry, swordsmen and janissaries. From his pink pavilion on the plain, the pasha must vanquish the Albanians, who refuse to surrender. Readers meet several on the pasha's side during the bloody battles, including the rather hapless Mevla Çelebi, chronicler to the Ottomans, and the enlightened quartermaster general. Although there are few Albanian characters, Kadare, a Man Booker International Prize-winner and Nobel contender, crafts a story whose details add up to a glimpse into the soul of his own country. Kadare's metaphors leave no doubt that the novel is also an insightful commentary on life in late 1960s Albania, when the book was written. (Feb.)

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Library Journal

Kadare's 1970 work, winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize and a perennial Nobel prize candidate, tells the story of an Albanian citadel under siege by the Ottoman army in the 15th century. Drawing on Albanian history and folklore as well as the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Kadare weaves a resonant tapestry of war that evokes battlefield dramas ranging from The Iliad to today's headlines. The story is told, uniquely, from the point of view of the invading Ottomans; cinematic sweeps of their camp reveal characters including the commander and his officers, a janissary (one of an elite corps of infantry), an architect, an astrologer, and the official chronicler of the campaign. Each is seen grappling with the immensity of his task, but the latter emerges as the crucial character, his lament that "words are powerless to describe such a terrible din" emblematic of the human inability to comprehend war or exert control over its outcome. Recommended for large fiction collections.
—Forest Turner

Kirkus Reviews
In his classic study The Singer of Tales (1960), eminent scholar Albert Lord demonstrated strong links between the twin Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey and the tradition of oral storytelling continued even into the 20th century in numerous European and Asian cultures, notably those of the Balkan countries. Prominent among the more modern counterparts of these preliterate "singers" are two of the last and present century's most fascinating writers. Generations of political strife and cultural upheaval were seen through the amplifying prisms of traditional ballad and folklore in the colorful novels and stories of Bosnia's Nobel laureate Ivo Andric (1892-1975), in such masterpieces as The Bridge on the Drina, which remains too little read today. A better fate perhaps awaits the living author who most closely resembles Andric: Albania's controversial dissident author Ismail Kadare (b. 1936), winner of the first (2005) Man Booker International Prize and himself a prominent Nobel candidate. Throughout a highly productive career, Kadare has displayed a truly cosmopolitan sensibility. After studying in Russia and publishing several volumes of poetry strongly influenced by other European literature, he turned to prose, with a boldly political novel (The General of the Dead Army, 1963) about a retired Fascist general and an Italian priest who scour the Albanian countryside in search of remains of Italian soldiers who had perished there during World War II. Such subjects have always involved risks in a tiny country that was until the early 20th century ruled by Ottoman Turks, and subsequently endured the 30-year dictatorship of brutal Stalinist Enver Hoxha. Recent opinions disagree aboutKadare's relationship to Hoxha. Some commentators argue that the novelist enabled the dictator by praising his strong leadership, while others point to transparent criticisms of totalitarian activities in fictions that are, on their surfaces, more allegorical and elliptical than they are openly confrontational. Kadare lived in France from 1990 to 2002, returning to Albania only after his international reputation would seem to have made official persecution of him and his work unlikely. His more ambitious novels include Chronicle in Stone (1971), Broken April (1978), The Pyramid (1996)-and the forthcoming first English translation of another masterpiece, The Siege (1970). Set in the early 15th century, it chronicles an Ottoman Turkish army's attack on a Christian fortress sequestered in the Albanian mountains. In a masterly conceptual stroke, Kadare presents the embattled Christians as a single, unified first-person-plural voice, and individualizes their attackers (an ambitious pasha, a nervous chronicler, an astrologer on whose predictions many lives depend et al.) as an unruly chaotic force foredoomed to failure. It's an original approach to an old story many times retold; a song sung in an eloquently expressive voice, both agelessly familiar and refreshingly new.

Product Details

Canongate Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

As winter fell away and the Sultan’s envoys departed, we realised that war was our ineluctable fate. They had pressured us in every way to accept being vassals of the Sultan. First they used flattery, promising us a part in governing their vast empire. Then they accused us of being renegades in the pay of the Frankish knights, that is to say, slaves of Europe. Finally, as was to be expected, they made threats.

You seem mighty sure of your fortresses, they said to us, but even if they are as sturdy as you think, we’ll throttle you with an altogether more fearsome iron band – hunger and thirst. At each season of harvest and threshing, the only seeded field you’ll see will be the sky, and your only sickle the moon.

And then they left. All through March their couriers galloped as fast as the wind bearing messages to the Sultan’s Balkan vassals, telling them either to persuade us to give in, or else to cut off all relations with us. As was to be expected, all were obliged to take the latter course.

We were alone and knew that sooner or later they would come. Many times in the past we had faced attacks from our enemies, but lying in wait of the mightiest army the world had ever known was a different matter. Our own minds were perpetually abuzz, but our prince, George Castrioti, was preoccupied beyond easy imagining. The inland castles and coastal keeps were ordered to repair their watchtowers and above all to build up stocks of arms and supplies. We did not yet know from which direction they would come, but in early June we heard that they had begun to march along the old Roman road, the Via Egnatia, so they were heading straight towardsus.

One week later, as fate decreed that our castle would be the first defence against the invasion, the icon of the Virgin from the great church at Shkodër was brought to us. A hundred years before it had given the defenders of Durrës the strength to repulse the Normans. We all gave thanks to Our Immaculate Lady and felt calmer and stronger for it.

Their army moved slowly. It crossed our border in mid-June. Two days later George Castrioti came with Count Musaka to inspect the garrison one last time, and to give it his blessing. After issuing final instructions, he left the castle on Sunday afternoon, followed by his escort and the officers’ womenfolk and children, so as to place them in safety in the mountains.

We walked alongside them for a while without speaking. Then we made our adieus with much feeling and went back into the keep. From look-outs on our towers we watched them climb up to the Plain of the Cross, then we saw them re-emerge on the Evil Slope and finally disappear into the Windy Ravine. Then we closed the heavy outer doors, and the fortress seemed to have gone mute now that we could no longer hear the voices of our youngsters inside it. We also battened down the inner sets of doors and let silence reign over us.

On June 18, at daybreak, we heard the tolling of the bell. The sentinel on the East Tower announced that a yellowish cloud could be seen in the far distance. It was the dust kicked up by their horses.

Chapter One

The first Turkish troops came beneath the walls of the fortress on June 18. They spent the day pitching camp. By evening the entire army had still not arrived. New units kept on coming in. A thick layer of dust lay on men, shields, flags and drums, horses and wagons, and on the camels laden with bronze and heavy equipment. As soon as each marching group came on to the plain that lay before the garrison, officers from a special battalion would allocate a specific camping site, and the weary soldiers, under orders from their leaders, would busy themselves with setting up the tents before collapsing inside them, half-dead from fatigue.

Ugurlu Tursun Pasha, the commander-in-chief, stood alone outside his pink pavilion. He was watching the sun set. The huge camp throbbed with the noise of horseshoes and a thousand voices, and with its long lines of tents, it looked to him like a giant octopus which would stretch out one tentacle after another and slowly but surely encircle and suffocate the castle. The nearest tents were less than a hundred paces from the ramparts, the furthest were beyond the horizon. The Pasha’s lieutenants had insisted his pavilion be placed at least a thousand paces from the castle walls. But he had refused to be so far away. Some years earlier, when he had been still a young man and of less elevated rank, he had often slept less than fifty paces from the ramparts, almost at the foot of the besieged citadel. Later on, however, in successive wars and sieges, as he rose in rank, the colour of his tent and its distance from the walls had changed in tandem. It was now pitched at a distance slightly more than half of what his lieutenants recommended, that is, at six hundred paces. That was a lot less than a thousand, all the same.

The Pasha sighed. He often did that when he took up quarters before a fortress that had to be taken. It was a reflex prompted by the first impression, always the deepest, before he became accustomed to the situation – it was rather like getting used to a woman. Each of his apprehensions began the same way, and they always also ended with another sigh, a sigh of relief, when he cast his last glance at a vanquished fortress, waiting, like a small and dusky widow, for the order for restoration, or for final demolition.

On this occasion, the citadel that soared up before him looked particularly gloomy, like most of the fortresses of the Christians. There was something odd, or even sinister, in the shape and lay-out of its towers. He had had that same impression two months earlier, when the surveyors responsible for planning the campaign had brought him drawings of the structure. He had spread out the charts on his knees many times, for hours on end, after dinner, when everyone else in his great house at Bursa was sleeping. He knew every detail of the lay-out by heart, and yet, now that he was at last seeing it with his own eyes, it aroused in him a sense of foreboding.

He glanced up at the cross on the top of the citadel’s church. Then at the fearsome banner, the two-headed black eagle whose outline he could barely make out. The vertical drop beneath the East Tower, the wasteland around the gallows, the crenellated keep, all these other sights gradually grew dark. He raised his eyes to take another look at the cross, which seemed to him to give off an eerie glow.

The moon had not yet risen. It struck him as rather odd that the Christians, having seen Islam take possession of the moon, had not promptly made their own emblem the sun, but had taken instead a mere instrument of torture, the cross. Apparently they weren’t as clever as people claimed. But they had been even less bright in times when they believed in several gods.

The sky was now black. If everything was decided up on high, why did Allah put them through so many trials, why did he allow them to spill so much blood? To one camp He had given ramparts and iron doors to defend itself, and to the other, ladders and ropes to try to overcome them, and He was content just to be a spectator of the ensuing butchery.

But the Pasha didn’t rebel against fate and he turned around to look at his own camp. The plain was gradually being drowned in darkness and the myriad white tents appeared to hover above the ground like a bank of fog. He could see the different corps of the army laid out according to the plan that had been agreed. From where he was standing, he could see the snow-white flags of the janissaries, and the copper cauldron they hung on top of a tall pole. The raiders, or akinxhis, were taking their horses to drink in the nearby stream. Further on lay the endless tents of the azabs, as the infantry units were called; beyond them were the tents of the eshkinxhis, the cavalry recruited for this campaign; then, further on still, the tents of the swordsmen known as dalkiliç, then the quarters of the serden geçti, the soldiers of death, then the müslüman or Muslim troops, and the prettier abodes of the sipahi, the regular cavalry. Spread out behind them were the Kurdish units, then the Persians, the Tartars, the Caucasians and the Kalmyks, and, even further off, where the commander’s eye could no longer make out any clear shapes, there must have been the motley horde of the irregular volunteers, the exact number of whom was known to no man. Everything was gradually falling into order. A large part of the army was already sleeping. The only noise to be heard was the sound of quartermasters unloading supplies from the camel trains. Crates of bronze pieces, cauldrons, innumerable sacks bursting with victuals, gourds of oil and honey, fat cartons full of all kinds of equipment, iron bars, stakes, forks, hempen ropes with hooks on their ends, clubs, whetstones, bags of sulphur, and a whole array of metal tools he could not even name – all now came to rest in growing piles on the ground.

At the moment the army was swathed in darkness but at the crack of dawn it would shimmer like a Persian carpet as it spread itself out in all directions. Plumes, tents, manes, white and blue flags, and crescents – hundreds and hundreds of brass, silver, and silk crescents – would burst into flower. The pageant of colour would make the citadel look even blacker beneath its symbolic instrument of torture, the cross. He had come to the end of the earth to topple that sign.

In the deepening silence the sound of the azabs at work on the ditches became more noticeable. He was well aware that many of his officers were cursing through their teeth and hoping that as he was himself half-dead from fatigue he would give the order to halt work on the drains. He clenched his jaw just as he had when he had first spoken about latrines at a meeting of the high command. An army, he said, before it was a marching horde, or a swathe of flags, or blood to be spilled, or a victory or a defeat – an army was in the first place an ocean of piss. They had listened to him open-mouthed as he explained that in many cases an army may begin to fail not on the field of battle, but in mundane details of unsuspected importance, details no one thought about, like stench and filth, for instance.

In his mind’s eye he saw the drains moving ever closer to the river, which would wake in the morning looking dull and yellow . . . In fact, that was how war really began, and not as the hanums in the capital – the ladies of high society – imagined it.

He almost laughed at the thought of those fine ladies, but oddly, a sense of nostalgia stopped him. It was the first time he’d noticed himself having feelings of that kind. He shook his head as if to make fun of his own plight. Yes, he really did miss the hanums of Bursa, but that was only part of it. What he missed was his distant homeland, Anatolia. He had often thought of its peaceful, lazy plains during the long march through the Balkans. He had thought of it most of all when his army had entered the land of the Shqipetars and first seen its fearsome peaks. One morning before noon, when he was drowsing on horseback, he had heard the cry from all around: “daglar, daglar”, but said in a special way, as if expressing fear. His officers raised their heads and looked to the left, then to the right, as if they were trying to get a better view. He too gazed at the mountains at length. He’d never seen any like them before. They reminded him of ghastly nightmares unrelieved by waking up. The ground and the rocks seemed to be scrambling madly towards the sky in mockery of the laws of nature. Allah must have been very angry when he created this land, he thought, and for the hundredth time since the start of the campaign he wondered if his leadership of the army had been won for him by his friends, or by his enemies.

In the course of the journey he had noticed that the mere sight of these mountains could make his officers agitated. They spoke more and more often of the plain they hoped to see before them as soon as possible. The army moved slowly, for now it hauled not only its arms and supplies, but also the heavy shadow of the Albanian mountains. The worst of it was that there was nothing he could do to be rid of it. His only resource was to summon the campaign chronicler and to ask him how he was going to describe the mountainous terrain. Trembling with fear, the chronicler had said that in order to portray the Albanian landscape he had assembled a series of terrifying epithets. But they hadn’t met with the Pasha’s approval, and he ordered the scribbler to think again. Next morning, the historian appeared before him, his eyes bloodshot from the sleepless night he had spent, and read him out his new description. High mountains, he declaimed, that reached even higher than crows can fly; the devil himself could barely climb up them, the demon would rip his sandals on their rocks, and even hens had to have their claws shod with iron to scale them.

The Pasha had found these images pleasing. The march was now over, night had fallen, and he tried to recall the phrases used, but he was tired and his weary mind could think of nothing but rest. It had been the longest and most exhausting expedition of his soldiering life. The ancient road, which was impassable in several places and which his engineers had repaired as fast as they could, bore the strange name of Egnatia. It went back to Roman times, but seemed to go on for ever. Sometimes, in the narrow gorges, his troops had stayed stuck until sappers cut a detour.

Meet the Author

Ismail Kadare was born in 1936 in Gjirokastër, in the south of Albania. His first novel, The General of the Dead Army, established him as a major new voice in literature, and translations of his novels have since been published in more than forty countries. Chronicle in Stone, The Successor, and Agamemnon’s Daughter are all available from Doubleday Canada. In 2005 he won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize.

David Bellos, Director of the Program in Translation at Princeton University, is the translator of seven of Ismail Kadare’s novels.

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