The Epic Cycle in Ismail Kadare’s Agamemnon’s Daughter and The Successor

Blaž Zabel, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia
The name of an Albanian writer living between Paris and Tirana, Ismail Kadare (b. 1936), has been well known to classicists. [1] Homerists will have heard of his novel The File on H. (published in Albanian as Dosja H in 1981), a fictional retelling of Milman Parry’s and Albert Lord’s expeditions to the Balkans, inspired by the meeting between Kadare and Lord at a conference in Ankara in 1979. [2] Considering the writer’s status in the discipline, it is rather surprising that Agamemnon’s Daughter (2003) and The Successor (2003) remain largely unexplored, despite their clear allusions to ancient mythology. Particularly interesting is Kadare’s approach to cyclic mythology, which is not only central to his two novels but offers some interesting thoughts on classical reception. In this paper I argue that the novels present a rather peculiar form of reception which I call receptive reinvention. This, I suggest, is due to the fact that Kadare was vaguely aware of the Cycle’s existence but probably never read any of the ancient fragments. Regardless, he still made the use (and abuse) of the Epic Cycle the novels’ central trope, which prompts us to think further about how to account for influence, allusion, source, and authorial intention in classical reception.
Kadare wrote Agamemnon’s Daughter in 1986 and had it smuggled out of Albania, which was at the time under a communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. The manuscript was kept in a safe in Paris and was published only in 2003; but not before Kadare, now living in Paris, wrote its sequel The Successor the year before. [3] The two novels were then published together, in both French and Albanian, to form a “literary diptych” with interwoven stories. [4]
Agamemnon’s Daughter, the first in the two-novel series, is a first-person narrative, narrated by an Albanian journalist attending the May Day Parade in Tirana. While walking through the crowds to his assigned stalls, he meets different victims and supporters of the regime which encourages him to reflect on political situation in the country and on his relationship with a girl called Suzana. It is revealed that Suzana recently broke up with the narrator because of her father, the second most important political figure in the Communist party and the so-called “Successor” to the leader called “the Guide,” both codenames for Mehmet Shehu [5] and Enver Hoxha. [6] The Successor, the second of the two novels, continues the story by describing the aftermath of the Successor’s alleged suicide. Parodying the murder mystery genre, the novel first revolves around the suicide, but soon turns into a chronicle about the fall of his remaining family. When the Successor is posthumously declared the enemy of the state and all his relatives are interned, the story of Agamemnon’s Daughter resurfaces from the perspective of Suzana who tells the interrogators about her lost love.
Allusions to the ancient Greek myth in both novels are apparent from the outset. The very name of the first novel, Agamemnon’s daughter, associates the Successor with Agamemnon, his daughter Suzana with Iphigenia, and her self-sacrifice for his father to Iphigenia’s sacrifice. After the narrator first realises Suzana decided to end their relationship, the ancient myth is even explicitly mentioned: “From then on, I needed to take only a modest step to see in the sacrifice that Suzana had been talking about something similar to the fate of Iphigenia.” [7] From that moment onwards, the sacrifice of Suzana and its relation to Iphigenia become the main theme of the novel. The journalist reflects on the myth and compares it to his own life, to Suzana’s life, and to stories of other people affected by the totalitarian regime. The Successor too is riddled with allusions to Agamemnon, especially in the part where Suzana retells the story from the first novel. Another explicit reference emerges towards the end of the novel when “the Successor’s” wife is called “comrade Clytemnestra,” [8] suggesting that, just like Clytemnestra, she was the one who killed her husband.
When considering the reception of the Epic Cycle, the most obvious allusions in the novels are to Iphigenia’s sacrifice and to Agamemnon’s return to Mycenae which were the central themes of Cypria and Nostoi. But how do we know that Kadare is here referring specifically to the Cycle? As I already mentioned, he was semi-aware that there existed other pre-Homeric poems, but he (probably) never read Proclus or any of the fragments. [9] Nevertheless, his experience with oral poetry, especially the Albanian and Serbian oral traditions, [10] and his knowledge of ancient literature [11] inspired him to presuppose, or rather reinvent, an older epic source for the myths found in later authors. For reasons I explain at the end of the paper, I will here not discuss the complicated relationship between mythology, the Epic Cycle, Homer and other authors, but will instead follow Kadare’s own position. In the two novels and in other publications (for example, in the essay Aeschylus or the Great Loser to which I return), Kadare imagines the Epic Cycle as consisting of pre-Homeric epic poems that emerged from a shared Greek mythology. He thinks that the cyclic poems were distinct enough from the general mythology to be used as a source by other ancient authors (such as Homer or Aeschylus), an understanding which resembles the so-called “orality-neoanalysis” position; [12] but he also seems to suggest that cyclic poems were oral and highly fluid in nature, so that they were prone to changes and reinterpretations. [13] This is the case in many of his novels in which orality and oral stories allow for the construction of fluid realities that resist the official, writing-dependent narratives advanced by different actors in power. He describes this difference between totalitarian control of written literature and fluidity of oral culture very clearly in the 2020 Neustadt Prize Lecture, where he wrote in his acceptance speech that “censorship is bound up with writing” and that before writing was invented, “efforts to control oral poetry were inexact and not very persistent.” [14] Since Agamemnon’s daughter and The Successor question totalitarianism and its mythology, Kadare consequently reflects on the role of orality, writing, and authority in ancient mythology; and this is the context in which his understanding of the Epic Cycle is grounded.

In the novels, Kadare uses several devices to consider fluid orality and totalitarian narratives in the Trojan war story. One such device is the creation of a dynamic reception history of Iphigenia’s sacrifice, which in his rendering stretches from the Epic Cycle via Aeschylus to modern receptions and realities. For example, the above-mentioned moment in which the narrator first realises that Suzana shares the fate of Iphigenia is brought about by Robert Graves’s book The Greek Myths:

I spent hours pacing the floor and ended up in front of the bookcase. Half dreaming, I took out a book I had just read, and flicked through the pages again. It was The Greek Myths by Robert Graves.
I wasn’t able then, and have never since been able, to work out by what mysterious path the mechanisms of my mind stripped the word sacrifice of its ordinary meaning (Comrades! The age in which we live demands sacrifices for the sake of oil. . . The sacrifices of our cattle breeders . . . and so on) and took it far, far back, to its grandiose and blood-soaked beginnings.
This flight into the remotest past was undoubtedly a major turning point for me. From then on, I needed to take only a modest step to see in the sacrifice that Suzana had been talking about something similar to the fate of Iphigenia. [15]

Graves’s book which appears several times in Agamemnon’s Daughter, always at crucial moments in the narrative when additional layers to the meaning of Suzana’s sacrifice are revealed, allows the narrator to understand his own reality in light of the ancient myth. [16] Sacrifice, which in the communist regime referred to personal sacrifice of the Albanian people, [17] gets its “grandiose and blood-soaked” precursor in the story of the Trojan war. This allows the narrator to understand Suzana’s termination of their romantic relationship not as a personal, but as a political decision; just like Iphigenia sacrificed herself to allow the Trojan war to unravel. Through such historical and hermeneutic relation, the ancient myth and the modern reality are merged, allowing the narrator to return to the “beginning” and realise that more is at stake here than his personal feelings.

This reframes the question about why Suzana left him into a question about the politics of personal sacrifice. Hoping to grasp the situation, the narrator again turns to the ancient myth. The official mythology, he suggests, makes Iphigenia a symbol of personal sacrifice for the greater cause. After putting down Graves’ book, the narrator recounts the following fragment, not knowing where he remembers it from or if he made it up on the spot:

To launch the ancient Trojan Wars
They offered up Iphigenia
For the sake of our great cause
I’ll carry my darling to the pyre. [18]

A classicist would immediately realise that the poem is not ancient, but the context in which it appears makes it resemble a fragment from a tragedy or a pre-Homeric epic poem. [19] The verses are here presented as evidence for the official interpretation of the myth in which Iphigenia is sacrificed for a great cause, the Trojan war. This interpretation, Kadare seems to suggest, essentially fixes the myth’s meaning.

This has further consequences for how the narrator, and we as readers, imagine other sacrifices in history. One recurrent example throughout Agamemnon’s Daughter is Joseph Stalin’s sacrifice of his son Yakov during the Second World War:

Had not Stalin sacrificed his own son Yakov to … in order to … to be able to say that his own son . . . had to share the same destiny … the same fate … as any Russian soldier? And what had Agamemnon been trying to say two thousand eight hundred years ago? What was Suzana’s father trying to get at now? [20]

Implying that the sacrifices of Iphigenia, Yakov, and Suzana must all be related, Iphigenia’s sacrifice becomes a historical precursor for the official mythology which allows children to be sacrificed for political means; and an interpretive model according to which personal sacrifice is a sacrifice for the higher good. What is more, this narrative is so powerful that it justifies and gives meaning to all sacrifices. The ancient mythology hence allows the narrator to see the bigger picture about Suzana’s decision, but he sees it in a totalitarian narrative that fixes the meaning of the myth; and this meaning demands that he accepts her sacrifice as having a noble cause.

In the background of this mythology, the (imagined) Epic Cycle acts as the origin of the myth about Iphigenia’s sacrifice. When the narrator reflects on the possibility that it was the Successor’s political advisor, re-casted as a modern Calchas, who suggested the termination of Suzana’s relationship, Graves’s book resurfaces:

Robert Graves’s book dealt at length with the issue of Calchas. According to the oldest sources, his personality was as puzzling as could be. It was known that he was a Trojan, sent over by Priam with the specific task of sabotaging the Greeks’ campaign. Eventually, though, he’d gone over to the other side, become a turncoat. So you couldn’t avoid wondering whether he was a genuine renegade, or whether his new allegiance was just a strategic cover. It was equally possible, as often happens in circumstances of this kind, that after facing numerous dilemmas in the course of a war whose end was nowhere in sight, Calchas had ended up a double agent. [21]

The mention of the “oldest sources” in connection with Calchas as a “double agent” is of course historically incorrect. [22] Although the story can be found in Graves, Calchas’s Trojan heritage was a medieval invention, which Kadare must have also read in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Nevertheless, this imaginative reinterpretation of reception history that stretches from the “oldest sources” such as the Epic Cycle, to Aeschylus, to Euripides, to medieval epics, to Shakespeare, and to Robert Graves, who certainly knew the fragments, should not be easily dismissed as erroneous. As Kadare often does in his novels, he is consciously playing with the sources, creating alternative realities to the officially established mythology.

Kadare is here constructing not only an imagined history of reception, but also an alternative to the myth found in Cypria, or rather, his reinvented image of it. Whether he knew that Graves too was reimagining the ancient myth or not, [23] the narrator pushes back against the interpretation that Calchas was a double agent. He deems it “just too wild, not to say lunatic” [24] and unhelpful for understanding his own situation. The dismissal of Graves is not total however, because Kadare believes in competing sources and fluid orality, which allows him to invent a new myth in place of the official one. To understand Suzana’s sacrifice, the narrator therefore proposes that the “oldest sources” were wrong and that it must have been Agamemnon himself who came up with the idea that Iphigenia needs to be sacrificed:

Far more plausible, therefore, was that Calchas never said anything of the kind, and that the idea of sacrifice had been invented by Agamemnon, for reasons known only to himself. He must have seen how easy it would be to implicate Calchas after the event, to justify his crime in the eyes of enlightened people and to mask its real motive. [25]

Placing the responsibility of Iphigenia’s death to Agamemnon creates an entirely new myth, one in which Agamemnon is likened to a totalitarian leader who sacrifices her daughter for the purpose of gaining absolute control. At this moment, the narrator realises: “It made a new sense of the relations between Agamemnon and the other leaders, of their power struggles and fallback positions, their reasons of state, their use of exemplary punishments, and of terror …”. [26] Not Iphigenia herself and not Calchas, it was Agamemnon who is responsible for the death of his daughter.

The narrator’s reimagination of the sacrifice is absolute because he reinvents not only mythology but also history. By replacing the official mythology of noble Iphigenia with the myth in which Agamemnon himself sacrifices his daughter, he hopes to create a new chain of receptions and to rewrite history:

Yakov, may he rest in peace, had not been sacrificed so as to suffer the same fate as any other Russian soldier, as the dictator had claimed, but to give Stalin the right to demand the life of anyone else. Just as Iphigenia had given Agamemnon the right to unleash the hounds of war … [27]

Once he accepts that Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia for gaining control over the war, it also become clear that Stalin sacrificed Yakov to be allowed to demand the life of others. When this new myth become the origin of personal sacrifice, it creates a new history that finally reveals the totalitarian motives behind the sacrifice of Suzana. “The Trojan War has begun” [28] concludes the novel; but this time, the Trojan war is perceived as something completely different than before.

Kadare’s playful treatment of the Epic Cycle is a very interesting form of reception, which could be best described as receptive reinvention. In the two novels, the Epic Cycle does not act as the source of reception, but is rather retrospectively invented through its reception history. That Kadare was really thinking about the Epic Cycle can be seen in an essay he published as a preface to an Albanian translation of Aeschylus’s tragedies in 1985, i.e., just a year before he secretly wrote Agamemnon’s Daughter. [29] The essay, later rewritten and now published as Aeschylus or the Great Loser, begins by reflecting on the sources which the ancient poet had for writing his plays. In addition to Homer, whom Aeschylus “must have known nearly by heart,” Kadare presupposes other non-Homeric poems he used:

It may indeed be the case that the entirety of ancient Greek literature fed off Homeric motifs, but we must not forget that the great Homer also sat at a table filled with delights from the past feast of Greek mythology: the collective work of people born in the dawn of world civilization. […] Homer was the first to claim for himself part of the mythological banquet of endless epics, which once existed alongside one another and have gradually disappeared over time, leaving only a few scant titles such as Nestoriada, Tebaida, Edipodia, Danaida, and Agamemnoida. These poems spread across the Balkans as though they were a cosmic substance from which could be created miraculous systems and boundless universes. [30]

This passage neatly represents the inventive play that has been observed in both novels. Awareness of the now-lost “endless epics” and the Theban cycle is apparent, [31] but the passage also includes an imaginative reinvention of a poem called Agamemnoida, which perhaps refers to the Nostoi known also as The return of the Atreides. What Kadare really knew about these poems is less relevant I believe, much more interesting is his multifaceted understanding of the Cycle. He imagines it as comprising of now-lost poems that were part of a greater mythological universe; he proposes that the Cycle influenced later poets like Homer and Aeschylus; and finally, he suggests that these poems spread across the Balkans and informed its oral traditions. [32] So, his Epic Cycle is reinvented through reception, because Kadare knows of cyclic poems and even calls some of them by their title (and some titles are themselves imagined); but he does not need to know them per se in order to reflect on the consequences of diachronic authority in oral and written traditions.

Kadare thus uses receptive reinvention of the Epic cycle for emphasising fluid orality as a tool to oppose fixed and written narratives. In Agamemnon’s Daughter and The Successor, the official mythology of Iphigenia’s sacrifice is changed to create a new reception history in which the sacrifice of one’s child is a method of achieving totalitarian control. By doing that, Kadare does not offer an interpretation that would fix a new meaning for the myth but rather hopes to dispose of defined narratives to counter totalitarian writing. If mythology and history are indeed oral and fluid, then there can be no solid ground from which to impose fixed interpretation. This is a repeating trope in many of Kadare’s novels in which orality allows for creation of alternative mythologies, stories, and truths, and is used to counter written histories and totalitarian myths.
In the end, I want to briefly address the question about reception, allusion, and authorial intention to which Kadare’s novels offer an interesting perspective. Artistic reception of antiquity, or scholarly study for that matter, can be understood in different ways, either as an active process where “meaning […] is always realized at the point of reception,” [33] as an “archetype” for creative activity like the “classical tradition,” [34] or indeed as something between the two. [35] Regardless of how we conceive of reception, one thing remains fairly certain: that authors, both ancient and modern, always allude to sources with a motive. Kadare’s reception of the Epic Cycle seems to point towards this direction. In Agamemnon’s Daughter and The Successor, he refers to no concrete ancient source for the myth about Iphigenia but reinvents something that resembles the Epic Cycle. To focus on sources that Kadare uses would therefore miss the point; much more is gained if one considers why exactly he retells, changes, rejects, and liquifies the myth. Thinking about reception along these lines could therefore shift scholarly attention from figuring out how artists use sources to thinking about how they reauthorize and deauthorize them. The journalist in Agamemnon’s Daughter implores us to reflect on the intricate relationship between thought, reality, and the society, and it seems that research in classical reception could do the same.

Works Cited

Burgess, J. S. 2001. The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle. Baltimore, MD.
Burgess, J. S. 2006. “Neoanalysis, Orality, and Intertextuality: An Examination of Homeric Motif Transference.” Oral Tradition 21:148–189.
Durand, C. 2003. “Note de l’éditeur.” In Kadare 2003a:7–9.
Butler, S., ed. 2016. Deep Classics. London.
Foley, J. M., and J. Arft. 2015. “The Epic Cycle and oral tradition.” In The Greek Epic Cycle and its Ancient Reception: A Companion, ed. M. Fantuzzi and C. Tsagalis, 78–95. Cambridge.
Futo Kennedy, R. 2014. “An Aeschylean Tale of Fear and Sacrifice in Ismail Kadare’s The Successor.” 110th Annnual Meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS), conference paper, 5 April 2014. Waco, TX.
Graves, R. 1955. The Greek myths. Harmondsworth.
Graziosi, B. 2007. “Homer in Albania: Oral Epic and the Geography of Literature.” In Homer in the Twentieth Century, ed. B. Graziosi and E. Greenwood, 120–142. Oxford.
Hall, E. 2009. “Greek tragedy and the politics of subjectivity in recent fiction.” Classical Receptions Journal, 1:23–42.
Ihm, S. 2015. “Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths and Matriarchy.” In Scholarly Mythopoesis Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths, ed. A. G. G. Gibson, 165–180. Oxford.
Kadare, I. 1997. The file on H. London.
———. 2003a. La Fille d’Agamemnon. Paris.
———. 2003b. Le Successeur. Paris.
———. 2005. The Successor. New York, NY.
———. 2006. Agamemnon’s Daughter: A Novella and Stories. New York, NY.
———. 2018. Essays on World Literature: Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare. New York, NY.
———. 2021. “Dead Storms and Literature’s New Horizon: The 2020 Neustadt Prize Lecture.” World Literature Today 95:44–48.
Kotini, V. 2015. “’Sacrificing’ the Myth in I. Kadare’s Agamemnon’s Daughter.” In Ancient Women in Modern Media, ed. K. S. Burns and W. S. S. Duffy, 7–22. Newcastle.
Lowe, N. 2005. “Killing the Graves Myth: A Creative Retelling of the Greek Myth Cycle,” Times Literary Supplement, 23 December 2005.
Martindale, C. 1993. Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception. Cambridge.
Morgan, P. 2010. Ismail Kadare: The Writer and the Dictatorship, 1957-1990. Abingdon.
Morgan, P. 2012. “The Wrong Side of History: Albania’s Greco-Illyrian Heritage in Ismail Kadare’s Aeschylus or the Great Loser,” Modern Greek Studies 14:92–111.
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Silk, M., I. Gildenhard, and R. Barrow. 2013. The Classical Tradition: Art, Literature, Thought. Hoboken, NJ.
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[ back ] 1. I would like to thank Justin Arft for his insightful comments on an early draft of this paper, and to all the organisers of the Kyklos 2021 conference.
[ back ] 2. Morgan 2010:223–224. The File on H. was discussed, for example, by Graziosi 2007.
[ back ] 3. See Durand 2003.
[ back ] 4. Morgan 2010:293.
[ back ] 5. Mehmet Shehu (1913–1981) was the Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of Albania from 1954 to 1980. This position made him the second most influential politician in the country and he was considered Enver Hoxha’s right-hand man.
[ back ] 6. Enver Hoxha (1908–1985) was a long-time communist leader of the People’s Republic of Albania. He ruled the country from 1944 until his death in 1985.
[ back ] 7. Kadare 2006:10. I cite here only the English translation of the novel which I read in both English and French (but not in Albanian). For the French edition see Kadare 2003a.
[ back ] 8. Kadare 2005:159. For the French edition see Kadare 2003b.
[ back ] 9. The immediate ancient sources for the two novels were hence Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis to which Kadare often alludes (see Hall 2009 and Kotini 2015 for the reception of Iphigenia in Aulis and Futo Kennedy 2014 for the reception of Agamemnon). It should also be noted that Aeschylus and Euripides likely knew the Epic Cycle (see Sommerstein 2015). This is suggested by Kadare as well (see Kadare 2018).
[ back ] 10. Tarifa 2008.
[ back ] 11. Graziosi 2007.
[ back ] 12. E.g. Burgess 2001, 2006; Tsagalis 2011; Rengakos 2020.
[ back ] 13. In this regard, Kadare’s position is similar to Foley and Arft’s proposal that the Epic Cycle and the Homeric poems form “a ‘constellation’ or a network” of poems stemming “from an oral epic tradition of ancient Greek narrative” (Foley and Arft 2015:95).
[ back ] 14. Kadare 2021:45.
[ back ] 15. Kadare, 2006:10.
[ back ] 16. Similarities between how Graves and Kadare treated ancient sources as both mythmakers and reinventors of ancient myth seem to suggest that Kadare studied Graves’ work (even if Graves, unlike Kadare, had no trouble with the idea of human sacrifice in antiquity, see Zajko 2015). Nevertheless, their motivations for rewriting the myths are different: Graves wants to unravel the prehistoric mythology of the “White Goddess” (see Ihm 2015) while Kadare is more preoccupied with understanding the mythology behind totalitarianism.
[ back ] 17. The “sacrifices of our cattle breeders,” for example, refer to the communist reforms that prevented people from owning livestock and forced them to work on collective farms.
[ back ] 18. Kadare, 2006:11.
[ back ] 19. For a more detailed interpretation of the poem see Kotini 2015:10.
[ back ] 20. Kadare, 2006:70.
[ back ] 21. Kadare, 2006:66.
[ back ] 22. For Graves’ creative, unscholarly use of ancient sources see e.g. Lowe 2005.
[ back ] 23. Graves’ position about the myth of Iphigenia was somewhat similar to Kadare’s, because Graves too doubted the “oldest sources,” arguing that one finds a more authentic version of the myth in Photius (see e.g. Murnaghan 2009; cf. Zajko 2015).
[ back ] 24. Kadare, 2006:67.
[ back ] 25. Kadare, 2006:67.
[ back ] 26. Kadare, 2006:69–70.
[ back ] 27. Kadare, 2006:104.
[ back ] 28. Kadare, 2006:109.
[ back ] 29. See Morgan 2012.
[ back ] 30. Kadare 2018:10.
[ back ] 31. I assume that Tebaida refers to the Thebaid, Edipodia to the Oedipodeia, Danaida to the Danais, and Nestoriada possibly to the Argonautica or to the cycle about Herakles.
[ back ] 32. For Kadare’s idea that the Balkan oral traditions were inherited from an ancient “Illyro-Albano-Greek” culture see Morgan 2012.
[ back ] 33. Martindale 1993:3.
[ back ] 34. Silk, Gildenhard, and Barrow 2013:3.
[ back ] 35. Butler 2016.