I will qualify this pairing first by saying I am no expert in Albanian history or literature. More of a surprise, perhaps, is that I now have a fleeting interest in these topics when 3 weeks ago I honestly could never have imagined being less interested.
The Traitor’s Niche was originally written in Kadare’s native Albanian in 1978 and has recently been translated by John Hodgson into English and is already the winner of the English PEN Award. It is set even further back in time though, during the reign of the Ottoman empire and while Napoleon was at the height of his power in France (not that he plays much part in this aside from the occasional mention!).
It’s a fairly straightforward story that doesn’t always feel like it is set over 150 years ago. In the centre of the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople there is a niche carved from ancient stone which is used to house the heads of traitors to the Empire. It is an attraction that people throng to from all around to visit. In the meantime, Albania is demanding independence from the Ottoman Empire once more which leaves the niche awaiting a new head. It is the job of Tundj Hata to carry that head to the capital, and he does so with relish, not only for the job itself, but the opportunity to make money from the side shows offering villagers a peak at the spectacle of death.
The book treads carefully between fiction and history very well and has the atmosphere of a modern world. It makes for great reading if you have any passing interest in history, but even if you don’t there is enough intrigue to keep you going throughout. Don’t get me wrong, it does get slow in parts – there is a need to establish some historical context for the story to make sense, but overall it is a quick – and more importantly, enjoyable – read, especially at shy of 200 pages.
The magic of this book, I found, was its ability to sound so overwhelmingly relevant today. I don’t often turn my hand to books set before the 20th Century as I tend to find they are just a little bit too hard to relate to. The characters seem odd, the culture is entirely unrelatable, and the language seems somewhat bizarre most of the time. The Traitor’s Niche was certainly different. It was startlingly clear throughout to imagine how the narrative was going and the idea of empire and mutiny seems strangely relevant today – even down to the value put on the head of a traitor. There was an abundant feeling that the smoky hallways and dusty tracks were alive and that there was more to the story than a retelling of history. It’s a warning. A visible light that shows how history repeats itself. Both scary, impressive and immersive, it’s a very well recommended read if you don’t mind seeing society through the mirror of history.
It’s for that reason that I’ve chosen to pair this with the Laphroaig Quarter Cask. Laphroaig are well known the world over for their distinctive peat flavour due in part to the distillery being located on Islay and it’s that smoky yet complex palate that is so reminiscent throughout reading The Traitor’s Niche that really stood out. There is something lying beneath the smoke that I’m desperate to get out and discover, but it’s not always easy to do that. Concentration needs to be applied to start picking out the more fruity and sweet undertones that make it something a little bit more special than the norm for this type of book and dram.