Plutarch, Heidegger, F. Scott Fitzgerald. These authors were only a few of those whose names appeared on the titles of the many books strewn about the floor of Rudian Stefa’s apartment at the beginning of “A Girl in Exile,” the latest novel by Albanian author Ismail Kadare to be translated into English. “The actual contents of these books, not just their names, seemed to have scattered where they fell, like in an earthquake.” The blame for the aforementioned disarray is solely Stefa’s to bear. In a moment of unfathomable fury, he seized his lover, Migena, by her hair and thrust her into his bookshelf. This action haunts and shames Stefa — it hangs over his conscience for the rest of the novel as he struggles to come to terms with absence and emptiness.
And yet, the melodrama of his tense relationship is the least of the aging playwright Stefa’s worries. The novel’s setting almost completely mirrors the landscape of Albania and its capital Tirana in the 1980s, a time which Kadare himself personally witnessed and endured. At that point in the country’s history, it was still in the clutches of infamous dictator Enver Hoxha. Albania made progress in rebuilding from the ruins of World War II under the over 40-year communist rule of Hoxha, but the country was still very much under the strict control of the dictator. His secret police spearheaded a campaign of political repression and employed forced labor camps, extrajudicial killings and executions to achieve their goals. That campaign included a strict adherence to the socialist-realist style in all published works of literature, which put Kadare under an authoritarian microscope due to the controversial political nature of his writing. And much like Kadare, Stefa lives in constant fear of his work and his life due to the looming presence of the Albanian regime.
The crux of the story is first uncloaked when Stefa is summoned for questioning by the Party Committee, the bureaucratic arm of the dictatorship. Initially brooding about the thought of Migena reporting him for what he had done, he entertains the ironic possibility of her being a spy. The following exchange between the party investigator and Stefa triggers him to confess his lover; much to his surprise, the interrogator and the interrogee became entangled in a web of confusion due to the ambiguous nature of language during a conversation of such magnitude. While this interaction could be explored in a humorous light, the investigator recognizes the misunderstanding and reveals the identity of the person he thought he was asking Stefa about: His “girl” came from a former bourgeois family connected to the old Albanian royal court, but was recently found dead as a result of suicide. However, a complication arises due to her connection to Stefa. She owned a copy of one of Stefa’s plays, bearing the following inscription: “For Linda B., a souvenir from the author.”
What unfolds after the initial chapters is an empty tale, a meaningless love triangle in which one of the members is dead, superimposed over the backdrop of communist Albania during the twilight of the Hoxha years. “Linda B.” is evinced to be a close friend of Migena’s, who is absolutely enthralled with not only Stefa’s work, but the thought of being with him eternally. While Migena was able to escape to the capital to study at an art college, Linda and her family were “interned” to work perpetually in the countryside, leaving her forever exiled from realizing her dreams and forever chained to a life of despondency.
Linda’s one hope for escape comes in the form of the subtle correspondence she has with Stefa via Migena, who Stefa first met when she asked him to sign the book Stefa was later questioned about. Yet inevitably, an indelible spike is driven between the two girls after Linda discovers Migena getting too close for comfort with Stefa. While the title refers to “a girl in exile,” it does not specifically connote either Linda or Migena. While both are lost and “exiled” in their own unique ways, in terms of their lives and their relationships, the titles encompasses more than just them. As written in the novel’s dedication, it concerns all “the young Albanian women who were born, grew up and spent their youth in internal exile.”
Although the novel makes a point to voice the struggles of the silenced women alongside which Kadare lived, the narrative is still centered around the perspective of Rudian Stefa himself. Stefa is the main character, but he’s no hero — most of his thoughts and actions are so frustratingly masculine that he becomes hard to sympathize with. Stefa is very much a passive character; most of the novel’s exposition comes in the form of his internal dialogue and flashbacks relating to Linda and Migena, and in reality, he doesn’t act in any significant way during the novel’s chronology. He is paralyzed by his current situation in such a way that he is unable to progress further in the composition of his latest play, which is already under a state probe for having a scene containing the ghost of a partisan. And like the ghost in his play, he does not speak clearly; he says different things to different listeners, yet is misunderstood by all. He exists in the plane between life and death, between individual and the regime, but is unable to bridge the gap.
In the novel, the tale of Stefa is frequently interspersed with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. As the story goes, Orpheus was allowed by Hades to retrieve his fallen lover from the underworld on one condition: Orpheus could not look back at Eurydice as the two walked back to the world of mortals. Thinking it a simple task, Orpheus agreed and left to ascend from the underworld, Eurydice following behind him. Yet Orpheus lost faith and turned to see Eurydice behind him, and her shade was whisked back among the dead.
Unlike Orpheus, Stefa has no Eurydice. The little love he had for Migena is forlorn, and while he tries to build up the lost Linda into a Eurydice of his own, the effort is senseless. Stefa travels to the underworld to bargain for her life but isn’t even given the time of day. And as he marches back into his world, he realizes his Albania and the underworld are separated only by life itself. So he looks back regardless.