The General of the Dead Army by Ismail Kadare
“Death commands respect”
An Italian general and priest are sent to Albania to dig up, and repatriate their dead soldiers who were killed 20 years ago in WWII.
For such a simple 'premise' this book is tense, and dark all the way through. As others have said in reviews I have read, the ending isn't what I expected but still held the story together for me.
There are many conversations throughout the book between the general and the priest about war, death, and the Albanians. There are flashbacks to the generals time before leaving and the weight of the families' expectations to get back their 'boy'. There are journal entries of the soldiers that we are introduced to them as they are digging them up. The general and priest travel all over the country from little villages to mountain ravines standing watch, as their Albanian workmen dig up corpses for them, all under the watchful glare of the Albanian villagers. Are they inwardly joyful at watching their former enemies dig up their dead? Do they still hate them?
The general is an interesting character. He did not want this job. He is depressed by his task and wishes he could've led these troops into battle in Albania. He thinks maybe then there wouldn't be so many dead to collect.
“I have a whole army of dead men under my command now, he thought. Only instead of uniforms they are all wearing nylon bags. Blue bags with two white stripes and black edging, made to order by the firm of ‘Olympia.’ ”
The priest speaks Albanian. He tells the general about the Albanian psyche and their traditions. He doesn't speak that much. He also doesn't drink.
You can feel how tense things are, as the enemy, the Italians, are back in Albania digging up their dead. Is it possible to ever forgive some sins? This is a chilling tale about death, and war. The aftermath of war is sometimes more brutal and difficult than war itself. At least with a real war, it would be over quickly and you'd either be dead or victorious. This endless searching for unmarked graves in a far away country is a difficult mission. You wouldn't wish such a burdensome task on anyone. I feel exhausted and depressed just reading about it.
I have never been disappointed by a Kadare novel. They all find a way to sear themselves into your mind. After finishing the novel, I did some Wikipedia research on Albanian in WW2, and General Z, and was not surprised to find that this book won the Man Booker International Book prize in 2005.