The Traitor’s Niche

Ismail Kadare, Trans. by John Hodgson

June 21, 2018 
The following is from Ismail Kadare's novel, The Traitor's Niche. In the main square of Constantinople, the sultan publicly displays the severed heads of rebel leaders. Abdulla guards this cautionary display, known as the Traitor's Niche. The novel was long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize; Kadare won the inaugural International Prize in 2005. He is the author of over 20 novels, including A Girl in Exile and The Fall of the Stone City.

The unblinking eyes met the stares of the passersby and tourists who poured into the square from all directions. The tourists’ own gaze, like that of all moving crowds, was mild and unfocused, but people’s eyes suddenly froze as soon as they encountered this sight, as if their astonished pupils struggled to sink back into the depths of their skulls, and only the impossibility of doing this compelled them to stand still and face what they saw. Most went pale, some wanted to vomit. Only a few looked on calmly. The eyes were indifferent, of a color you could not call bluish or even gray, and which it was hard to name, because it was less color than the distant reflection of a void.

Looking away at last, the clusters of tourists would ask how to get to Hagia Sophia, to the tombs of the sultan-emperors, the bank, the old bathhouses, the Palace of Dreams. They inquired hurriedly and feverishly, yet most did not leave the square but wandered around as if caught in a trap. Although not particularly large, the square was one of the most famous in the ancient imperial capital. Paved with green granite, it appeared to be cast in bronze, and its splendor was yet further enhanced by the metal lions’ heads behind the railings enclosing the Central State Archive. Above the wing of the Archive peered not only the lead-tipped minaret of the Sultan’s Mosque, but also the Obelisk of Tokmakhan, brought over a few centuries ago to commemorate the invasion of Egypt, and decorated with hieroglyphs and the different emblems of the empire all cast in metal, and finally the Cannon Gate, in whose walls was carved the Traitor’s Niche. In the language of the country, this niche was called the stone of ibret, a word that might loosely be translated as “deterrence.”

It was not hard to imagine why this square had been chosen for the niche where the severed heads of rebel viziers or ill-starred senior officials were placed. Perhaps nowhere else could the eyes of passersby so easily grasp the interdependency between the imposing solidity of the ancient square and the human heads that had dared to show it disrespect. It was clear at once that the niche had been sited in the wall to convey the impression that the head’s lifeless eyes surveilled every corner of the square. In this way, even the feeblest and least imaginative passerby could visualize, at least for a moment, his own head displayed at this unnatural height. When the head’s hair fluttered forlornly in the wind, the contrast between those soft wisps and the solid monuments of the square, especially the lions’ manes, was a sight beyond endurance.

The square had an extraordinary solemnity, metal and stone coming together everywhere. Even on the terrace of the café opposite, metal was present in the copper utensils used for the fragile and human act of drinking coffee.

The former government news-criers who had now retired due to age or professional incapacity, having lost their voices, were among those who usually came here to drink coffee. The café owner told Abdulla, the keeper of the Traitor’s Niche, how their conversation was restricted entirely to old news and the decrees they had once proclaimed to every corner of the state.

Sometimes, when dusk drew near and the moon cast its light prematurely on the square, he even thought that human beings, himself included, were only a pollutant that spoiled the splendor and harmony of the imperial square.”

In the morning, before the square came to life, Abdulla liked to observe the café. After his working hours, he also liked to sit at one of the little tables, but rarely did so, because the doctor had told him that coffee was bad for his health. Abdulla was thirty-one years old, but there was no strength in his lanky limbs. At times, a ringing in his ears drained him of all energy. Like everything else on this square, the coffee was too potent. Despite this, Abdulla risked a cup now and then. On these occasions he preferred to join the table of the old news-criers. In the past their voices had made glass windows shake, but now only a pitiful squeak emerged from their throats. The café owner said he could easily understand why they considered the decrees of yesteryear more impressive than those of today, just as they themselves had outshone the modern criers. The café owner said that the criers, almost without exception, could remember the day they had lost their voices, and not just the day, but the decree they were issuing, and the very phrase at which their vocal cords had given out forever. “That’s what people are like,” he went on bitterly. “They never forget anything.”

Watching the swarm of people, Abdulla felt sure that the café owner was right and that people deserved the shock that the niche gave them. He knew that the sight of a severed head was not something everybody could stomach, but Abdulla always found that the horror and distress in the spectators’ faces went beyond all expectation. It was the eyes in the head that seemed to strike them most, and not because they were dead eyes, but perhaps because people were accustomed to human eyes making an impression on them when connected to a human body with arms and legs. Abdulla thought that the absence of a body made the eyes larger and more significant than they really were.

Indeed, it seemed to Abdulla that people in general were less significant than they thought themselves to be. Sometimes, when dusk drew near and the moon cast its light prematurely on the square, he even thought that human beings, himself included, were only a pollutant that spoiled the splendor and harmony of the imperial square. He could not wait for the square to empty entirely so that, although his official working hours were over, he could observe everything in the calm, icy moonlight. Sometimes the light fell at a certain angle on the niche and for an instant the illuminated head would assume a derisive or disdainful expression. The head, now free of human limbs, seemingly useless appendages, appeared slightly worthier of taking its place among the ancient symbols and emblems of the square. At these moments, Abdulla would be seized by a thrilling paroxysm of self-destruction, an obscure subconscious desire to throw off the ungainly tangle of his limbs and become only a head. During the day, Abdulla’s face wore a permanently rigid expression. This was fitting as long as he was on duty. In a way, he was forced to adapt himself to the stony aspect of the square. He was the keeper of one of its most important symbolic sites, and he had to look the part. However, although Abdulla stood only a few paces from the niche and it was obvious that he and he alone was in charge of it, nobody took any notice of him. Everybody’s eyes were fixed in wonder on the niche. Abdulla felt a faint spasm of jealousy, as if this feeling were mixed in a huge pot with all kinds of other emotions.

For the thousandth time he looked at all the features of the square in turn, as if to measure, should he be counted as one of them, how far he fell short of the necessary perfection. Only the hieroglyphs on the Egyptian obelisk were on a similarly diminutive scale and less than majestic. They resembled insects that had become petrified while crawling up the pillar. Sometimes, when he did not feel well, it seemed to Abdulla that the hieroglyphs had suddenly come to life and started to move, as if trying to wriggle free from the grip of stone and metal and set off like nomads towards the desert. But this happened rarely, and only when he was particularly exhausted. Still more rare were his moments of extreme weakness when he thought of escaping in the same way, like a beetle, out of this granite vice.


From The Traitor’s Niche. Used with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2018 by Ismail Kadare.

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