Friday, 11 April 2014

Book Review: Broken April by Ismail Kadaré year I called out My Mediterranean Reading Summer 2013 and read or at least listed a book for each one of the twenty-one countries plus Gibraltar and Palestine. Between June and September 2013 I also reviewed about half of those novels, but for the remaining ones my weekly rhythm just didn’t leave the time or else I felt that they didn’t really fit in for some reason. Today I’m making up at last for one of the omitted reviews, namely my read set in Albania. The novel in question is, of course, Broken April by Ismail Kadaré who has been mentioned in connection with the Nobel Prize in Literature already several times, and in the end never was chosen yet. 

Ismail Kadaré was born in Gjirokastër, Albania, in January 1936. The son of a civil servant studied languages, literature and philosophy in Tirana and literature in Moscow. After having gained some renown as a poet in the 1950s, he made his debut as a novelist publishing General of the Dead Army (Gjenerali i ushtrisë së vdekur) in 1963. The most notable among his many other novels are The Siege (Kështjella: 1970; also translated as The Castle), Chronicle in Stone (Kronikë në gur: 1971), Broken April (Prilli i thyer: 1978), The Three-Arched Bridge (Ura me tri harqe: 1978), The Palace of Dreams (Nëpunësi i pallatit të ëndrrave: 1981), The Concert (Koncert në fund të dimrit: 1988), The Pyramid (La Pyramide: 1992), The Successor (Pasardhësi: 2003), The Fall of the Stone City (Darka e Gabuar: 2008), and The Accident (Aksidenti: 2010). Ismail Kadaré lives in Paris and Tirana.

The story of Broken April is set in the highlands of Northern Albania some time during the reign of King Zogu I. between 1928 and 1939. It’s a wild and inaccessible country where state authorities always had a hard time because people rather relied on their customary law. Blood feud following the strict rules of the Kanun is still widely in practice although modern ideas have begun to spread even to this remote region. It’s 17 March when twenty-six-year-old Gjorg Berisha from the village Brezftoht lies in wait for Zef Kryeqyqe to take revenge for the death of his brother. He doesn’t really see much point in shooting the man because it also seals his own fate, but it’s his duty in the family vendetta that has lasted already for seventy years and cost the lives of twenty-two kin on either side. Gjorg’s parents are content although the deed means almost certain death for their last remaining son as soon as the words of honour that the Kryeqyqe family have granted first for twenty-four hours and then for thirty days will have ended. Before Gjorg can concentrate on those final thirty days of his life, half of March and half of April, he still has to fulfil some more duties set in the Kanun. First of all he is obliged to attend the funeral of his victim and then he must set out for the Tower of Orosh to pay the required amount of blood money. At the same time the writer Besian Vorpsi from Tirana and his young wife Diana enter the highlands to pass their honeymoon travelling from village to village. Besian is deeply fascinated and intrigued by the landscape and above all by the Kanun that still reigns there. As usual Diana listens in awe to the explanations of her knowing husband, but before soon the archaic rules of the Kanun and the gloomy atmosphere of the wild country begin to weigh on her. They even get a face, the face of Gjorg Berisha. Every day the travel that was meant to be the happy beginning of their married life draws Diana deeper into the reality of life in the highlands, while Besian remains the curious observer until his wife commits a terrible faux-pas. 

The third-person-narrative Broken April evokes a world of the past with people tied up in customs passed on from generation to generation unquestioned, but an outsider like Diana Vorpsi can see their cruelty and even absurdity. Despite all the stories of Gjorg Berisha and the Vorpsis are told without emotions and without judgement. Things are as they are in the highlands of Northern Albania, and yet, Ismail Kadaré as a story-teller manages to create an atmosphere which allows the reader to feel the desperation and hopelessness of men caught in the merciless rules of the Kanun and waiting for their turn to die or to just vegetate in a dark tower of refuge for the rest of their days. The author’s style and language are clear as well as simple although the novel also includes many poetic descriptions, especially of Albanian landscape.

I enjoyed Broken April by Ismail Kadaré. It was an interesting read which taught me some things about blood feuds in the Mediterranean region altogether and not just in Albania. Of course, I had heard of the tradition before and I knew that it had survived until far into the twentieth century, but I certainly wasn’t aware of how complex the rules of such blood feuds were and how strong the social pressure was to keep the traditions of honour alive.

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