Feuds Corner

Thomas Jones

In Broken April, a novel written in the late 1970s but set half a century earlier, Ismail Kadare describes the last thirty days of the life of a young man.[*] On the evening of 17 March, on a road through the mountains of northern Albania, Gjorg Berisha shoots Zef Kryeqyqe dead. The killing is an act of vengeance: a year and a half earlier, Zef Kryeqyqe had shot Gjorg Berisha’s brother. That murder too was motivated by revenge: Gjorg Berisha’s brother had killed a member of Zef Kryeqyqe’s family. The Berishas and Kryerqyqes have been taking it in turns to murder one another for seventy years: 22 men from each family have been killed in the feud, and Gjorg will in due course be the 45th to die. But these two families from the village of Brezftoht are not especially bloodthirsty or irascible. Their feud is one among hundreds, and the killings have all been undertaken strictly according to the arcane and intricate rules of the Kanun, the ‘code of customary law’ that has governed every aspect of the lives of the people of the High Plateau for centuries, through the years of the Ottoman Empire and now under the government of King Zog.

Having ‘taken back his brother’s blood’, Gjorg is not immediately vulnerable to the vengeance of the Kryeqyqes. As stipulated by the Kanun, he is granted a 30-day bessa, or truce, during which he is safe from being shot at. When the month comes to an end, he can either lock himself away for the rest of his life in a windowless tower of refuge, or take his chances out in the open. But first he must pay the blood tax, which means trekking with a purse of 500 groschen, ‘all the money the family had saved, scrimping from week to week and month to month in anticipation of just this day’, to the Kulla of Orosh.

The Kulla of Orosh is the ancestral seat of the ruling family that ‘interprets’, but is not itself governed by, the Kanun. One of the names the people of the High Plateau have for the head of the family is Prenk, which means ‘prince’. He does not personally appear in the novel: standing in for him is his cousin, Mark Ukacierra, the ‘steward of the blood’. The servants are all terrified of him, and his obsessive devotion to the law of the blood feud verges on mania. His greatest fear is that the feuding will cease, that the blood will dry up: ‘On March 16 there were eight murders; 11 on the 18th; the 19th and the 20th, five each; while the 17th had just missed being without a single death. At the very idea that such a day might come about, Mark was terror-stricken.’ Gjorg’s actions have served the law, and the custodians of the law, more fully than he realises. Mark recalls

the look that the prince had given him at dinner … harsher than his words. That look seemed to say, you are the steward of the blood, and therefore you ought to be the chief instigator of feuds and acts of vengeance; you ought to be encouraging them, stirring them up, whipping them on when they flag or falter.

There is clearly something amiss here. The regulation of blood feuds makes sense, up to a point, as a way of containing violence that might otherwise erupt out of control: if warring families can be persuaded to kill each other one man at a time over a drawn-out period, then mass slaughter and chaos can be avoided. In Broken April, however, the Kanun is no longer a way of maintaining peace, but has become an all-consuming end in itself – as well as a way for the Prince of Orosh to raise money, requiring his peasants to kill one another and then pay him for the privilege.

Gjorg is not the only character in the novel making his slow way across the High Plateau to the Kulla of Orosh. Bessian, a writer from Tirana, and his wife, Diana, are travelling there for their honeymoon. Bessian, too, is obsessed with the Kanun and the blood feud, though a romanticised, imagined version of them, and Diana has been bewitched by his stories of the North. ‘This part-imaginary, part-epic world that he talked about for days on end was taking its time about showing itself. Outside, on either side of the carriage, the endless wasteland unfolded, without a sign of human presence, its countless grey rocks watered by the dullest downpour in the world. He’s afraid I’ll be disappointed, she thought.’

The happy couple briefly encounter Gjorg at an inn, as he is on his way home from paying the blood tax. Diana and Gjorg are entranced by each other. Both spend the time remaining to them on the High Plateau hoping with increasing desperation to catch sight of each other one more time, as the days count down to the morning on which Diana must return to Tirana with the husband she no longer loves, and to the afternoon on which Gjorg will be shot by a relative of Zef Kryeqyqe’s.

The satirical thrust of Kadare’s novel is hard to miss. The Prenk, the aloof ruler who governs through insinuation and terror, bears a more than passing resemblance to the Prijs, ‘the Guide’, Enver Hoxha; Bessian had his fair share of descendants in foreign writers who saw Communist Europe through a vaseline-smeared lens of fable and theory (‘Have you read Marx?’ Bessian asks at one point); Mark Ukacierra would make a fine chief of police or paranoid spymaster; the Kanun, like Albanian Communism, is a system that has come unmoored from its noble and theoretical origins, consuming both those who are subject to it and those who enforce it.

And yet one of the reasons Broken April is such a sly and interesting book is that, like a certain kind of optical illusion, the more you look at it in one way, the more it begins to resemble something else. One of the journals in Mark’s library contains an article by a foreign academic that describes the Kanun as ‘an inhuman machine … a capitalist enterprise carried on for the sake of profit’; Diana criticises Bessian for speaking of ‘the blood that has been shed, the blood that has been avenged … as if they were bank transactions’, and he agrees that ‘at bottom, in one sense, those things are not very different. The Kanun is cold calculation.’ Earlier, however, he has told her that it is ‘a colossal myth that has taken on the form of a constitution … beyond good and evil’.

The people who must obey the Kanun see it as unchanging and unchangeable, a fact of life as permanent and irresistible as the mountains or the weather; the people who govern by it see it as both voracious and vulnerable, all-powerful and yet in constant danger of collapse; the people who observe it from outside, self-styled experts, see it as either a historically explicable economic system or a timeless mythic structure. Once they enter that structure themselves, however, they find it bears little correspondence to the map of it they have drawn with their imagination. The only quality of the Kanun that isn’t in dispute is its pervasiveness.

Ultimately, the kind of system that the Kanun is matters less than the fact that it is a system, a framework within which and against which the lives and stories of individuals can be played out. On this reading, Broken April is an account of the way that certain characters, Gjorg and Diana in particular, negotiate the demands of the systems they are forced to live under, and come through them at the end to some kind of self-understanding – at any rate, that’s the liberal humanist interpretation.

And liberal humanism would certainly appear to be the ideology that Kadare subscribes to. ‘Dictatorship and authentic literature are incompatible,’ he has said. ‘We tried to write literature as if that regime did not exist.’ He was born in 1936, less than a decade before ‘that regime’ came into existence, in Gjirokastër in southern Albania, not far from the border with Greece. Chronicle in Stone, a wonderful portrait of the artist as a small boy, first published in 1971 but reworked several times since, is a child’s-eye view of what happened in Gjirokastër during the Second World War. Between 1939 and 1943, the town was occupied by the Italians, bombed by the RAF, invaded by the Greeks, retaken by the Italians – and then the Germans marched in. Meanwhile, the Communist partisans led by Enver Hoxha, who as it happens was also born in Gjirokastër, in 1908, were holed up in the mountains, waiting for their moment to descend.

These large-scale historical movements are very much in the background of Kadare’s story, though they inevitably have a significant if often oblique impact on the life of his narrator, a boy afflicted with poor eyesight, a lively imagination and considerable charm. He holds conversations with the water tank in the basement, takes great pride in the announcement that his family’s cellar is the largest air-raid shelter in town, reads Macbeth, smokes cigarettes rolled for him by his grandfather, spies on his grandparents’ tenant taking her clothes off, falls in love with the planes on the Italian airfield across the river, eavesdrops on his aunts’ cryptic conversations about sex and older boys’ cryptic conversations about politics.

The new Canongate edition of Chronicle in Stone is largely based on Arshi Pipa’s 1987 translation. Kadare dropped a few passages and added some new ones in a French edition of 1997, however, and David Bellos has changed the English text accordingly, as well as making ‘stylistic amendments here and there where they seemed called for’. (Bellos’s judgment in matters of style is not unerring. In Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, for example, which he translated from the French of Jusuf Vrioni, he has an old woman ‘chime in’: ‘Everything’s gone to wrack and ruin, mark my words. I’ve been around for many a long year, God knows …’ Whether or not that passes for authentic demotic speech in the corridors of the French department at Princeton, it’s innocuous in comparison to this: ‘She took off her panties, and Mark observed that her pubic mane was intact.’)

Arshi Pipa had been imprisoned by Hoxha, but escaped to Yugoslavia, Italy and eventually the United States, where he was for many years a professor of Romance languages at the University of Minnesota. ‘Initially,’ Bellos writes in his introduction to Chronicle in Stone, ‘he was an ardent supporter of Kadare, in whom he saw not only a remarkable writer, but a cunning critic of the Hoxha regime.’ But Pipa fell out first with Chronicle in Stone’s British publisher, and then with Kadare. He had written an introduction to the novel that was ‘cancelled’ but later published in an American journal. In it, he claimed that Chronicle in Stone ‘contained a coded message about the sexual preference of the country’s Guide’. Being made to say that Hoxha was gay would have given the authorities reason enough, Kadare believed, to arrest and execute him, so he denied Pipa’s reading of the novel, vehemently, publicly and at length.

Kadare has occasionally been criticised for having made too many compromises with the regime, for having been less of a dissident than he would now like to be thought to have been, even for having been a stooge. The accusations against Kadare, however, more or less amount to disapproving of him for still being alive – real dissidents get executed, don’t they? – as though condemning Communism should matter more to a novelist than the writing of interesting novels. A thirty-year-old novel wouldn’t still be worth reading if it simply said that Enver Hoxha was a bad man: that much we can now take for granted. The books that Kadare wrote and published under Communism are galvanised by the subtle ambiguities and complex sleights of hand required to get them past the censor. Unpleasant circumstances for the novelist, no doubt, but good for the novels.

That’s easy for me to say. How splendid of this Balkan writer to have suffered for his art so that I can have the benefit of it now. It’s a point of view that Kadare nimbly satirises in a postscript to ‘The Blinding Order’, a story written in 1984, and now published in English in the same volume as the novella Agamemnon’s Daughter. Set in the 19th-century Ottoman Empire, ‘The Blinding Order’ describes the proposal, enactment and aftermath of a temporary law requiring the punishment by blinding of carriers of the evil eye. ‘Every cloud has a silver lining,’ the Austrian consul says to his French counterpart at the end of the story. ‘In spite of its ghastly and untranslatable name, and even in spite of the notorious horror it has caused, the Blinding Order has contributed to a new flowering of oral poetry, which, as I myself noticed, has been in sharp decline in this country in recent years.’

It’s not only the preening Westerner’s willingness to see artistic achievement as somehow mitigating torture and oppression that comes under fire here. The consul makes his observation at a grotesque ‘reconciliation banquet’ for the thousands blinded during the terror. They’ve all brought along their Balkan lyres and lahutas: ‘With gravy dripping from their chins, and in high spirits induced by such good food – especially the nut halvah – many of the blind started strumming on their lahutas.’ This ‘disorderly feast’, this ‘crowd’, this ‘cacophony of the blind’ is the ‘evidence’ the Austrian consul adduces in support of his remark. He is not only callous, but tone-deaf. To have suffered, Kadare seems to be saying, does not automatically make someone a good writer. True enough. But it is also surely a canard to see a necessary causal connection between freedom of speech and good poetry or fiction.

Agamemnon’s Daughter was written in Tirana in 1985. Unpublishable in Albania, it was smuggled to Paris, along with two other manuscripts, by Kadare’s French publisher, Claude Durand, and deposited in a safe at the Banque de la Cité. (Kadare followed five years later, seeking political asylum in France in 1990.) ‘The deposit of these “dangerous” manuscripts,’ Durand writes in a preface to Agamemnon’s Daughter, eventually published in France in 2003, ‘was intended to allow Kadare’s publisher, in the event of the writer’s natural or “accidental” death, to declare that a previously unknown portion of his work would be published quickly. The revelation of … the unpublished works would make it much harder for the Communist propaganda machine to bend Kadare’s work and posthumous image to its own ends.’

The action of the novella, which is altogether less exciting than the story of its manuscript being smuggled out of Albania, takes place on 1 May, sometime in the early 1980s. The narrator is a television journalist, who has for some reason been invited to sit among the Party faithful in one of the grandstands to watch the May Day Parade. As he walks through the streets and various security checkpoints on the way to his seat, he catches sight of a neighbour punished for laughing on the day Stalin died, remembers a purge carried out at the TV station, replays in his mind his many arguments with his uncle, a fervent supporter of the regime, and broods about his girlfriend, Suzana.

Suzana’s father has been rising rapidly through the Party ranks, and is on course to become the Designated Successor to the Guide; chances are, he will be sitting at the Guide’s right hand during the parade. The private lives of the family of such an important man are no longer their own. Suzana’s relationship with the narrator – which, as he solipsistically sees it, is coterminous with Suzana herself – must therefore be sacrificed. Suzana’s being forced to break up with him reminds the narrator of Agamemnon’s killing of Iphigeneia at Aulis, sacrificing his daughter to bring the winds that will carry the Greek fleet to Troy. ‘The Trojan War has begun,’ Agamemnon’s Daughter ends. ‘Nothing now stands in the way of the final shrivelling of our lives.’ It’s a bleak, static tale, with an all too clear message.

Though it is never directly referred to in the book, there might be an optimistic promise in the allusion to Agamemnon’s sacrifice. His killing of their daughter is one of the justifications that Clytemnestra gives for murdering her husband on his return from Troy. Orestes finds himself in a double-bind: he is required (by the ancient Greek equivalent of the Kanun) to avenge his father, which involves committing the unspeakable crime of matricide, for which he is pursued by the Furies until he takes his case to the aristocratic council in Athens, the Areopagus, where Athena casts the deciding vote in favour of acquitting him. This story can be – and often is – seen as a whiggish fable about barbaric cycles of revenge giving way to civilised forms of justice. In this light, if you squint hard enough, Agamemnon’s Daughter can almost begin to look like a prediction of the downfall of Albanian Communism. Almost.

The Successor, written nearly twenty years after Agamemnon’s Daughter but published in English a year earlier, is a sequel of sorts. At dawn on 14 December of an unspecified year in the early 1980s, Suzana’s father, the Designated Successor, is found dead in his bedroom. He has been shot, though whether by himself or another is not clear. Whoever might have fired the gun, all the principal characters – as the police investigation is closed and reopened and closed again, the body buried and exhumed and buried again, the Successor fêted as a martyr then condemned as a traitor, the family heaped with sympathy then sent into exile – blame themselves for the Successor’s death. His daughter, at whose engagement party the Successor first began to fall out of favour with the Guide; the architect who remodelled his house; the minister of the interior, who may have been seen entering the house on the night of the assassination, though he has no clear memory of what happened during those hours; the ghost of the Successor himself: all believe that the chain of events that led to his death began with something they did.

The real villain of the piece, of course, is the Prijs, the Guide, ‘Himself’, who has spent decades fostering an atmosphere of paranoia and radical uncertainty, establishing a universal cult of blame and self-recrimination. On the day before the night of his death, the Successor was supposed to be addressing a Central Committee plenum on the subject of his own shortcomings. But just before his turn to speak came, the Guide interrupted, saying that since it was getting late, perhaps it would be better if the Successor deferred his confession till the morning. Party members who are interrupted in this way have a gratifying tendency to kill themselves during the night. One of the regime’s most pernicious crimes, the novel suggests, is the way it has been able to infiltrate so thoroughly the minds of its subjects, destroying them from within, compelling them to do its dirty work against themselves.

The Successor is in many ways a very fine book, skilfully creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and paranoia, shifting deftly between perspectives, zooming smoothly out to see events from the point of view of lazy foreign spy agencies, then focusing sharply in on the minds of the main characters, drifting between their dreams and waking thoughts, so that the reader, like the characters, can never be sure precisely what is going on, but is wholly absorbed in events all the same.

Two things mar it, however. The first is Kadare’s belief, evident throughout his work but growing stronger with age, that women are interested only in sex. When the Successor’s family have to gather up whatever belongings they can before they are loaded into a lorry and transported to a remote part of the country, Suzana’s brother takes his books, tape recorder and typewriter. She, meanwhile, lingers over her underwear drawer with an oddly male gaze. ‘She picked up a pair of sky blue panties, the ones she had worn her very first time. It was probably on account of this garment that he had come out with these unforgettable words: “I like expensive women.”’ Why can’t Suzana take her best knickers and her favourite books?

The second problem with The Successor is Kadare’s decision to ventriloquise the Guide. Stories narrated by notorious dictators rarely turn out well, and the chapter of The Successor told from Hoxha’s point of view is no exception. His mind is represented as a welter of rage, paranoia and sadism. Which perhaps it was, but if Kadare is – understandably – incapable of extending to Hoxha the sympathy generally extended by a writer to his characters, and especially to his narrators, he’d have done better to leave him out altogether, to keep him a shadowy figure like the prince in Broken April. Trying to second-guess the Guide is precisely the trap in which most of The Successor’s characters founder: it’s a shame the novel should fall into it too.

The architect of the Successor’s rebuilt house longs for the separation of art from politics. But as The File on H, perhaps Kadare’s wittiest and most brilliant book, illustrates, such a separation is impossible. The File on H was published in two parts in the Albanian literary review Nëntori in 1980-81. In 1979, at a conference in Ankara, Kadare had met the American folklorist Albert Lord, who in the 1930s had travelled to the Balkans, primarily to Serbia, but to Albania too, with the classicist Milman Parry, in order to make recordings of the oral poets of the region as part of a study into the Homeric tradition.

The File on H grew out of Kadare’s conversation with Lord. Sometime in the 1930s, two young Irish American scholars from Harvard, Max Ross and Bill Norton, arrive in the provincial city of N— in northern Albania, laden with newfangled recording equipment and professing a purely academic interest in the oral poetry of the area. The Albanian Embassy in Washington has sent a message to the Ministry of the Interior in Tirana, mentioning in passing that ‘one cannot rule out the possibility that the two visitors are spies.’ By the time this message is relayed to the authorities in N—, that possibility has become a certainty for King Zog’s functionaries. So the young scholars set innocently about their work, while the governor sets his (comically incompetent) top spies to spy on them, and the governor’s (of course sexually frustrated) wife does her best to get them to sleep with her.

In the midst of this carry-on, an astute Serbian monk gets wind of what Ross and Norton are up to. He knows they are not spies, that they are in Albania to do precisely what they claim to be there to do. But he also sees the potentially far-reaching political implications of their activities. Contriving to cross their path one day at an inn, he asks whether they have any intention of researching the oral epic tradition of Serbia, too. They say they do not. When the monk asks them why, they say: ‘We have not the slightest wish to get involved in local … shall we say, Balkan squabbles.’ The American consul in Tirana had warned them that both Albania and Serbia ‘treat the question’ of epic poetry ‘as a fundamental part of the national issue and connect it to ethnic origins, to historic rights over Kosovo, and even to current political alliances’.

If the poems of Homer, the core documents of Western European culture, are shown to have a direct link to the oral epics of contemporary Albania, the status of Albania in the West is likely to be radically altered. The smiling monk points out that the two ‘are doing the Albanian epic, and the Albanian people in general, a great honour’. He gallops away on his horse soon afterwards, but you can be sure that that isn’t the last they’ll hear of him. The monk knows, and Ross and Norton will soon discover, that the telling of stories is an inescapably political act.

[*] Vintage, 216 pp., £7.50, 2003, 978 0 09 944987 4.