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.

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