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The Siege    by Ismail Kadare order for
by Ismail Kadare
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Canongate, 2009 (2009)

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* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Here is a timeless and - especially in the 21st century - a strikingly relevant tale set in the fifteenth century, in which empires and religions collide. In the most highly recommended The Siege, prize-winning author Ismail Kadare transports readers back to a Balkan citadel in the Albanian mountains.

It is there that defenders are willing to risk all in the name of honor for their flag (with its black eagle flying proudly over the ramparts) and their Christian cross (standing resolutely over everyone's hearts-and-souls within the citadel).

Beyond the citadel's walls and under the leadership of the great Ugurlu Tursun Pasha are the collected Ottoman armies, with everyone there willing to risk death with honor under a different flag (with its crescent moon) and in the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

Both sides, as the battle lines are drawn, are justified in anticipating 'the most fearful carnage,' which will come to them more fiercely than they could imagine, and each side - though each in its own way - realizes that the terrible scourge of war is God's work, or is it Allah's, or - perhaps - it might be the Devil's.

Then - on an otherwise beautiful dawn - the Ottoman artillery begins to 'shatter heaven and earth alike.' The battle begins, and the singular paradoxes of war are revealed in Kadare's exquisite, not-to-be-missed narrative.

Readers, if you want to experience war vicariously (and I would not wish it on you in any other form), this is the one book you must read. War, of course, is never simple. It is, like The Siege, sublimely complicated. Lyrical splendor is confronted by grotesque horror. Pulse-pounding heroics are countered by stomach-churning panic. Unspeakable miseries are (at least sometimes) redeemed by soul-stirring compassion. But in the end, when the war ends, there is an ineffable emptiness.

And so it is that the questions about war always remain: was it God's work? was it Allah's work? or might it have been the Devil's work?

To find the answer(s), and to see how your answer(s) might surprise you, read Ismail Kadare's stunningly beautiful and horrific novel, The Siege. Then read it again. Then read it again. It is a treasure that will reward you with each reading.

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