As stated in the last page of the book, it took Ismail Kadaré five years to write this novel between 1962 and 1966 when he was in Tirana.
One can wonder whether "The General od the Dead Army" was nail-biting business involving many stopovers for the Albanian author or if Kadaré himself was tied-up with other things in those days.
The idea behind the book is an excellent one: a general and a priest (both left nameless) from the Italian army going to Albania in the 1960s in order to dig out the bodies of the soldiers sent on the other shore of the Adriatic sea by Mussolini between 1938 and 1942. Men who found their death in a relatively unknown little country with their families claiming for their bones to return home.
The macabre but humanitarian task to find, collect, identify and ship back to Italy the mortal remains of the long dead soldiers is allowed by the Albanian communist authorities.
A political gesture which could be seen a sign of reconciliation between the two countries twenty-five years after the Italians invaded Albania looking at it as a mere stepping stone on their way to subjugate Greece.
Whereas it took barely three days to the Italian forces to "conquer" the tiny Balcanic country thus adding up the Albanian kingdom to the Italian crown, the following Greek expedition was an utter failure.
The fascist forces were soon driven back by the Greeks onto the Albanian mountains and plateaux finding themselves struggling for survival amid the coldest winters they could imagine and caught between the fires of local partisans and Hellenic soldiers.
The Italian domination of Tirana and surroundings lasted for approximately four years giving enough time to print stamps and banknotes, raise monuments and awfully grand buildings as well as affecting the local population with arrests, fusillades and rapes.
You wouldn't be surprised to know that when the Italians started retreating, with Germans taking their place in committing atrocities, Albanian partisans hit the former occupying forces back in reprisal.
Hence violence kept spreading with more killings and more mass graves.
In fact, Kadaré believes that the hatred of the recent past has not been forgotten.
The general and the priest may have Albanian experts and drivers within their expedition and hire gravediggers in the villages they stop by but are far from being welcomed by the local farmers and peasants.
There is never a clear hostility of the Albanians towards the general and the priest, but they both feel a sort of uneasiness around them and don't even try to mix up with the locals. At least that's what they do till the very last night of their Albanian year long travel, a night where the General insists to celebrate the end of their task going to a wedding. A decision which will make the very last hours of the Italian duo in Albania quite shocking, stirring up old rancours colliding with the sacred importance given to hospitality by the local population.
All in all, what we have here is a slow-placed novel dealing with a potentially very poignant topic but treated and developed in a somehow cold blooded way which could disappoint many readers.
But one must not forget that this same cold blooded view on the hard business of digging out corpses from the Albanian soil, guessing their height from the bones and matching it with a list of dead soldiers names is precisely the message Kadaré aimed to deliver.
This is a book about loneliness and a book about bitter memories. The loneliness of the Italian general reluctantly appointed to his grievous task who tries to wash it away with brandy and the bitter memories of the elderly Albanian woman who stares at his clumsy dizzy dancing during a wedding.
If I had to give a colour to "The General of the Dead Army", it would definitely be grey. The grey of consolidated mud, the grey of stones, the grey of gravel. The grey of dirty uniforms. The grey of bones.
Here we have a book which shows very little hope with Ismail Kadaré being well aware of its unpleasantness. A novel where the pace is set by the monotonous clash of spades against hard soil.
Spades which once buried bodies and spades which later dug the same corpses out. The dry words chosen by Kadaré here are just like spades: they can bring back dead soldiers to light, but cannot heal the wounds which killed them and those they inflicted.