- 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.
It is probably cultural condescension, but I don’t think any literary agent would have been prepared to promote this bumbly amateurish novel were it not for its exotic provenance and political correctness. Which also explains why Ismail Kadare is big in Italy and France (where he has lived in semi-self-imposed exile since 1990. The blurb says that he now divides his time between Paris and Tirana). Besides, it is unfair to judge his work in double translation: the English versions of his novels have been translated from translations into French by the Albanian Jusuf Vrioni. But Kadare is worth reading for the peepholes he opens into what it’s like to be Albanian – his own mind-set being one of them.
He was born in 1936 in the reign of King Zog – the period of The File on H. He is a poet as well as a novelist, and in Albania he is not just big but a national treasure. People know his poetry by heart. In his early days, he celebrated Hoxha, but then he grew more and more critical of the regime. His ‘international standing’, the publisher tells us, ‘saved him from the brutal fate that befell most Albanian intellectuals’. So he never went to prison, although some of his work was banned.
The ‘H’ in The File on H is for Homer. It is a thriller about two classical scholars who travel to a small town in northern Albania in order to investigate the origins of the Homeric epic. They come from a university in the States, but they are Irishmen, not Americans. This is so often repeated that one expects a connection to turn up between the Albanian mountain bandits and the IRA. It doesn’t: this is just one of many loose threads pretending to be false trails. Another is the infatuation of the provincial governor’s bored wife with the Irishman called Bill. She is a remote descendant – via someone like Paul Morand – of Madame Bovary, and she organises a dance for the Irishmen. I was as eager as Natasha Rostov before her first ball to know what a dance in a provincial town in Albania would have been like c.1938, but Kadare is not Tolstoy, and all I learnt was that there was a marble mantelpiece where guests could park their drinks; and that, in Bill’s view, ‘the alleged élite of the town of N—, well they were just straw men, ridiculous bureaucrats, they made you want to laugh or be sick.’ Now that really is cultural condescension. The governor’s wife manages one night with Bill at the remote country inn where the Irishmen have holed up – and that’s it.
Bill has glaucoma and is going blind. This gives him a special link with Homer. He and his colleague Max have chosen to stay in the mountain inn (which has been specially disinfected for the visitors from the West) because wandering rhapsodes occasionally call in there with their lahutas and improvise ballads, sometimes on recent events and sometimes on events ‘of yore’ – an expression that occurs at least twice. Homer’s place in the tradition of oral poetry was a popular field of study in the Thirties. Western academics roamed around Greece and the Balkans seeking out the last surviving bards, as James Davidson described recently in the LRB. Bill and Max investigate their technique and language; the similarities between the ballads they sing and episodes in the Iliad; the role of memory and oblivion in the development of the epics; and also the affinities and differences between Albanian and Serb versions of the same traditional stories and historical events – the battle of Kosovo naturally being the most important. Unfortunately all this fascinating folk-loristic, anthropological, historical and literary information is conveyed in unbelievably stilted study notes supposedly written by Bill; and in equally – grotesquely – unbelievable scholarly exchanges between him and Max. Here’s an example:
‘Are you listening?’ Bill asked.
‘Sure, sure ... You were saying something about jealousy ...’
‘Right. The Serbs just can’t accept that the Albanians were here before they were. Throughout the Balkans, local nationalisms like this give rise to morbid and ridiculous passions, but since this one relates to the Kosovo question, it also has a concrete political implication.’
Bill, still poring over the map, looked worried.
‘A thousand-year war,’ he said dreamily. ‘That’s an awfully long time, isn’t it?’
‘Too long. But it’s war that gives birth to epic poetry,’ said Max, turning towards the trunks. ‘It’s blood-thirsty stuff.’
But not exactly riveting. The government spies sent to keep an eye on Bill and Max must be bored stiff. There are two of them, one aural, who is allowed to report only what he hears, the other visual, who reports only what he sees. Their reports are tedious, drawn-out parodies of officialese, and they themselves galumphing, primitive comic-strip characters; so is the governor. A suspiciously jolly Serbian monk turns up at the inn, clearly up to no good, and so it’s not much of a surprise when a shoot-out occurs shortly afterwards. It is exactly like any shoot-out in an airport thriller, except for its cause: ‘This is not the first time,’ an Albanian paper reports, ‘that Slav chauvinists have brutally attacked scholars working on Albania’s classical roots. Any mention of the Illyrian origin of the Albanians, in particular, arouses in them a barbaric and murderous jealousy.’ Actually, nobody is killed. Bill suffers a blow to his head (with profoundly symbolic consequences we learn later), and the tape-recorder is destroyed with all the tapes of the rhapsodes.
Graham Greene’s shadow falls thinly over the story, and so do the shadows of Orwell and Koestler – though these are more apparent in Kadare’s earlier novels, The Monster, The Palace of Dreams and The Pyramid. All are parables about totalitarian regimes – coded criticisms of Albania, and as didactic and lifeless as only parables can be. The first is set in a Troy where the war never happened, the second in an Ottoman Empire which was never defeated, the third in ancient Egypt. The File on H, on the other hand, ends in a display of Borges-like fantasy: on their way home, on the ferry to Bari, Max reads out a newspaper report about the attack at the inn. The paper prints a brand-new rhapsody about this event, and as Max begins to read, Bill picks up the words and continues the chant as though he were inventing it. He can even produce the weird head-notes that only rhapsodes are supposed to be able to master. At the same time he does a majekrah – an ‘ancient’ hand gesture peculiar to the rhapsodes and first described, we are told, by German Albanologists some time back. So Bill turns into another blind rhapsode like Homer, presumably because the Serbs knocked him on the head. Kadare doesn’t explain how the rhapsodes play their lahutas with one thumb in their ear – which is how you do a majekrah. On the other hand, it occurs to me that this gesture with the other four fingers forming a cock’s comb behind the head is very like one used in Calabria to indicate that someone’s leg is being pulled. And yet I don’t think this novel is intended to be a leg-pull. It is sad. It rains almost all the time in Kadare’s Albania, except when it snows; and the rain’s ‘monotonous patter seemed to be an attempt to help people to bear the burdens that weighed them down, to alleviate their fate of being at the margin of real life’.
Bill has a different angle on it: ‘How could two Albanias exist side by side,’ he asks himself at the governor’s ghastly ball,
in the same place, in the same period, when they were so completely different – eternal Albania, bearing its tragic destiny with dignity, as he had come to know it not only from its epic poetry, but also at the inn up there, beside the main road; and the other Albania, the one he could see here and (he was sorry but he had to be blunt) which struck him as nothing more than a pantomime.
The saddest thing of all is that The File on H is itself not much more than a pantomime, a naive imitation of the idea of what a novel should be.