(Richard Lea’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/1;  Photo: Ismail Kadare, pictured in 2005. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian.)

His allegorical stories, informed by life under state communism, drew international praise but he insisted that he was not a political writer

Ismail Kadare, the Albanian writer who explored Balkan history and culture in poetry and fiction spanning more than 60 years, has died aged 88, his publisher has said.

Bujar Hudhri, Kadare’s editor at Tirana-based publishing house Onufri, said Kadare died on Monday after being rushed to hospital, with Reuters reporting the writer had suffered cardiac arrest.

Writing under the shadow of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, Kadare examined contemporary society through the lens of allegory and myth in novels including The General of the Dead Army, The Siege and The Palace of Dreams. After fleeing to Paris just months before Albania’s communist government collapsed in 1990, his reputation continued to grow as he kept returning to the region in his fiction. Translated into more than 40 languages, he won a series of awards including the Man Booker International prize.

Born in 1936 in Gjirokastër, an Ottoman fortress city not far from the Greek border, Kadare grew up on the street where Hoxha had lived a generation before. He published his first collection of poetry aged 17. After studying at Tirana University, he won a government scholarship to study literature at the Gorky Institute in Moscow. He returned to Tirana in 1960 with a novel about two students reinventing a lost Albanian text. When he published an extract in a magazine, it was promptly banned.

“It was a good thing this happened,” he told the Guardian in 2005. “In the early 60s, life in Albania was pleasant and well-organised. A writer would not have known he should not write about the falsification of history.”

Three years later he made it past the censors with The General of the Dead Army, a novel about an Italian general who travels across Albania in the 1960s to recover the remains of Italian soldiers who died during the second world war. The unnamed general trudges through dismal villages and muddy fields, questioning the point of his gloomy mission: “When all is said and done, can a pile of bones still have a name?”

Albanian critics attacked a novel that was a world away from the socialist realism required by Hoxha’s regime, but when it was published in France in 1970 it caused a sensation. Le Monde hailed it as “astonishing and full of charm”.

While his international profile offered some protection, Kadare spent the next 20 years charting a course between artistic expression and survival. After his political poem The Red Pashas was banned in 1975, he painted a flattering portrait of Hoxha in his 1977 novel The Great Winter. In 1981 he published The Palace of Dreams, an allegorical attack on totalitarianism in which a young man discovers the dangerous secrets of a government office that studies dreams. It was banned within hours. Despite these reverses, Kadare became an important figure in the Albanian writers’ union and served as a delegate in the People’s Assembly. He was also able to publish and travel abroad.

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