- The File on H by Ismail Kadare, translated by David Bellos
Harvill, 169 pp, £8.99, June 1997, ISBN 1 86046 257 X
The only book about Albania I had read before this one was Edith Durham’s deadpan account of her travels there before the First World War. It is called In High Albania and describes how she had to become an honorary man in order to get around – not among the Muslims, as you might think, but among the Catholic tribes of the north, whose favourite Sunday pastime was shooting members of families with whom they were at blood feud. The cover of The File on H shows three young peasants in their Sunday best – black from head to foot. They look threatening all right, but any photography buff will recognise one of August Sanders’s most frequently reproduced images. These young men are Germans. They are not going to shoot anyone, because that was not the tribal custom in the Westerwald in 1914, when the photograph was taken. It seems an odd choice for a novel set in Albania in the late Thirties; but maybe it symbolises the lack of Western metaphors for what it’s like to be Albanian. Albania has been behind one iron curtain or another for centuries, and its impenetrability is its lure.