The 18 finalists for the first Man Booker International Prize included writers from 14 countries. Among the impressive nominees were...

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“The Successor”
by Ismail Kadare
Arcade, 207 pp., $24

The 18 finalists for the first Man Booker International Prize included writers from 14 countries. Among the impressive nominees were Margaret Atwood, Milan Kundera, Doris Lessing and John Updike as well as five Nobel laureates. The winner? Albania’s Ismail Kadare.

Never heard of him? He was born near the border with Greece in 1936, studied in Tirana and Moscow, then returned to Albania as a journalist. He began publishing poetry in 1960. The financial success of his first novel, “The General of the Dead Army,” allowed him to become a full-time fiction writer. From 1986, his manuscripts had to be smuggled to France for publication, and in 1990, Kadare was granted political asylum there. Albanian regimes changed, and he has been able to divide his time between Paris and Tirana for the past decade.

Never heard of the Man Booker International Prize? Unlike the Man Booker Prize, an established annual award for the best novel written by an author from the British Commonwealth, this new honor can be given to writers of any nationality whose works are readily available in English. Conferred every other year, it celebrates lifetime achievement.

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Kadare’s body of work, inspired by his country’s repressive communist government, is a literature of intelligence, shrewd dissent and droll wit: In his worlds — sometimes real, sometimes as bizarre as settings and situations of Kafka or Orwell, sometimes a blend — characters struggle to retain their basic humanity when faced with constant fear, manipulation and tyranny.

Kadare’s most recent novel, “The Successor,” was first published in 2003; it was translated from Albanian to French by Tedi Papavrami, then from French to English by David Bellos. Its translation joins seven other titles now available in English from the same publisher. This time, actual political skulduggery in Albania provided an idea deserving literary exploration. Mehmet Shehu, the handpicked successor to the hated dictator Enver Hoxha, died suddenly in 1981; trouble is, no one ever figured out whether Shehu had committed suicide or been murdered.

Kadare’s story opens at dawn on Dec. 14, when “the Successor’s” body is found dead of a gunshot wound. (The sparing use of names and preference for labels further depersonalizes the characters.) Murder seems unlikely because doors to his home were locked from the inside. But around midnight, a man was seen skulking by the residence. Or no, perhaps it was two men. Two men seemed to be carrying something. Or was the assassin a woman? Or two women? Rivals?

Suspect after suspect and motive after motive turn up, each as plausible as the others. In Kadare’s thriller, solving a mystery is entirely entangled with politics. Truth becomes irrelevant. The autopsy is forgotten, hastily done later, but results “could be interpreted and reinterpreted on a whim … ” Investigations are bungled and results changed as the dead Successor yoyos in and out of favor. Was he a traitor who deserved to die? Or a hero for some good cause, a worthy martyr?

Americans will find Kadare’s “contradictory and incoherent” government scary. Leaders weren’t elected there. Their first interest is self-interest and survival in a setting where assassination, coup or anti-party activities — fabricated or real — could change the political climate easily. Fiction, yes, but from a system Kadare knows firsthand and depicts with chilling authority.