Rilke once wrote that a doll is a special kind of childhood toy: “with the doll we had to assert ourselves, because if we surrendered to it there was nobody there”. For the same reason, said Rilke, a doll has the power to unsettle us: if we become aware that a doll is our creation, “it would almost enrage us by its horrible dense forgetfulness … unmasked as the gruesome foreign body on which we squandered our purest affection”. It is perhaps because Ismail’s mother goes to her grave as “the Doll in a toy box” that he knows “that something was missing from my portrait of the Doll”. That is not the secret he discovers at the end of this coldly brilliant novel, which has everything to do with Ismail himself.
Key to the reader’s own understanding is a strong sense about the book’s genre. You might say that it reads like a novel-in-vignettes, but the stories are being told by the real Kadare and concern themselves exclusively with events that occurred. The jacket copy plumps for the word “tale”. The status matters, though. The narrator of a memoir cannot be short-sighted or clumsy in the style of a novel’s narrator because – provided normal rules apply – the memoirist is the author. And at times the vision of understanding promoted by Ismail is glib or narrowly epiphanic and his assessment of his family dynamics feels slightly provisional, as if he is still too close to the subject.
Having so often portrayed Albania’s body politic as a dysfunctional household, Kadare (now 83) reverses the flow of the metaphor. The Doll is an autobiographical story, with his beloved, fragile and inscrutable mother at its heart. Sensitive and elegant under her kabuki-like panstick mask, she brings some wealth but little prestige from her own Dobi clan when, in 1933, she marries into the grand but down-at-heel Kadares.
Kadare writes about domestic life the way he writes about war: with precise recognition of the burden of status, duties and position on the combatants. The Doll is not as fragile as she appears; in time, she gathers her own weapons around her, drawing sisters and servants into battle as both women lay claim to the contested territory of one’s son, the other’s husband. It seems a waste of time and energy, yet Kadare is mercilessly accurate about the price the family’s grand life demands, and extracts, from the women of the household.
The Doll is full of compelling details of life in a changing Albania, as the citizenry come to terms with various hues of communist rule under Soviet-backed Enver Hoxha. ... The Doll is rich with such touches, alongside many of Kadare’s familiar concerns – with the folkloric roots of modern life, say, or the absurdity of Albanian politics. However, the poignant observation, bitter irony and misspoken fear running through the narrator’s central relationship with his mother, a woman secretly terrified of being disowned as unworthy the moment her son achieves the fame he so desires, are what dominate this fascinating study of a difficult love.
The reader may feel a greater jolt of sympathy for this lonely, terrified young woman who entered her indomitable mother-in-law's vast, stony house in Gjirokastra as a 17-year-old bride having barely met her husband, and who for years struggled with overwhelming feelings of inadequacy in the face of her son's growing intellectual precocity.
The book is full of abrupt, disorientating shifts in direction but its weird intimations of horror — the patriarchal family house has a dungeon and at one point Kadare's mother confesses the house is eating her alive — can only enrich our understanding and appreciation of Kadare's writing.