Albania: fire power

You’d be hard-pushed to get through a Creative Writing master’s course these days without some bright spark reminding you of the old Raymond Chandler advice for livening up lacklustre stories: ‘When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.’

Usually it crops up when you and the whole room know you’ve written a terrible, dreary scene in which nothing happens and from which all the linguistic flair and literary elegance you thought you’d slathered it in at 2am that morning have evaporated overnight.

As a result, the phrase has somewhat negative connotations for me (and I suspect for a lot of aspiring novelists). But if I ever needed a demonstration of its truth (well, the gun part, at least), the brutal and brilliant opening of Ismail Kadare’s Broken April provides it in spades.

I was already excited about reading Kadare, having had several book fans rave about him to me when I was preparing for this project. Still, nothing could have prepared me for the tense magnificence of the opening chapter as young Gjorg Berisha lies in the scrub, looking down the sights of his rifle, waiting for the arrival of the man he is obliged to kill even though doing so will bring the same vengeance upon him.

His plight arises from an elaborate honour code, dictated by the ancient Kanun laws, which sees many of the mountain families of this remote part of Albania locked in blood feuds, watching their young men pick each other off and paying the blood tax on each death to the region’s prince while their lands lie fallow and their communities perish.

Into this mysterious and cruel world, comes the writer Bessian and his new wife Diana, eager to experience something rare and untested for their honeymoon by ‘escaping the world of reality for the world of legend… the world of epic that scarcely exists anymore’.

As the couple travels around the region, with Bessian discoursing on the local customs and curiosities that he has read about, and as Gjorg discharges his duty and embarks on the 30-day truce that will spare his life until the middle of April, their paths cross, setting in motion events which means that none of them will be the same again.

As with all great writers, Kadare presents the contrasting perspectives of his cast of characters in a rounded and compelling fashion. What sets him apart is his ability to make us see how it would be impossible for them to be any other way.

We feel with them even as we shake our heads at their inconsistencies and blindness, the way they forge ahead with their mistakes all the while cursing the cruelty of their lots. We see Bessian’s pomposity and inhumanity as he expounds on the absurd, yet terrifying beauty of the mountain people’s rules and codes, but sympathise with his incomprehension of Diana’s coldness. We stumble with Gjorg under the burden that has been handed down through 70 years of bloodshed, all the while wishing he would run away yet recognising the ties that bind him.

This, coupled with spare, vivid prose and an unfailing eye for the tiny shifts that precipitate an emotional landslide, puts Kadare up there with the very best. Killer.

Broken April by Ismail Kadare (translated from the Albanian by New Amsterdam Books and Saqi Books). Publisher (Kindle edition): Vintage Digital

15 responses

  1. Would you believe, when I read your first paragraph I thought what Chandler meant was that struggling writers should engineer ways to put their lives in danger because it would instantly coax them into spewing brilliance. Luckily I was set right round about paragraph 3, otherwise I would be spending the rest of the day wondering why Chandler’s piece of insanity is being quoted in classrooms.

    Great review, by the way!

  2. I would like to thank you for this amazing site. I have been a huge follower of Kadare, since I red the first book “The general of the dead army”.
    “The castle” and “ The Albanian spring” are indeed remarkable as well. I find Ismail Kadare a great story teller, with the ability to bring subjects in a little unknown and yet impressively familiar way. I warmly recommend “ Life, game and death of Lul Mazreku”, which I have only red in Albanian language.

    • Thanks very much Ari – it’s very nice to have your support. It’s a great pleasure doing this project and I will definitely return to Kadare once I’ve finished, bearing your recommendations in mind. ‘Broken April’ has been one of the highlights for me so far.

  3. Its amusing that I was so lucky to find your site, while reading the interview with the lovely and charming Etgar Karet, at “The Guardian”. Thanks again for the inspiration. Regards from Danmark.

  4. I also chose Kadare (of course) for my ‘project’ – so far he’s my favourite discovery and I’m going to read him out! I read ‘The File on H.’ and loved it. (PS his surname is mis-spelt on The List).

    • Not really one of his best books if you ask me. Actually his post 1990 work lacks the brilliance of his earlier work. The Fall of The Stone City might be a better choice. Maybe his best book of the last two decades. Otherwise Broken April, The File on H, Chronicle in Stone and The General of the Dead Army are a great intro to Kadare.

  5. Thank you so much for having this site. By the time I am writing this comment, I’ve finished two books from Afghanistan, 2 books of Ismail Kadare and a book from Algeria will be delivered by next week.

    I look upon you and I realise that this is such a beautiful way of exploring the world. Exploring the world through the oeuvre of the brilliant writers from each country. And thank you for introducing Kadare to me. His imagination is undoubtedly one of the best I’ve read.

    • Thanks Ankit. That’s lovely to hear. So glad you like Kadare – he is fantastic. I’ve recently read Jose Saramago’s ‘Blindness’. He’s a Portuguese writer and another author you might enjoy if you like Kadare. Happy reading.

  6. Great blogg. Im from Albania and Kadare is one of the best writers still alive. I have read almost 12 books from him and a lot of his books are translated in English. I just want to put some more info about Kadare. Especially recognitions.

    He is a lifetime member of the Academy of
    Moral and Political Sciences of France, where he replaced the philosopher Karl Popper. In 1992, he was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca, and in 2005 he received the inaugural Man Booker International Prize. In 2009, Kadare was awarded the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature. In the same year he was awarded an Honorary Degree of Science in Social and Institutional Communication by the University of Palermo in Sicily. In 2015, he was awarded the bi-annual Jerusalem Prize.
    And almost every year he is a candidate for Nobel Prize.

    Thnx for this blogg, just saw your Ted talk, very interesting.. I live in Canada and I see the same problem of what you explained. In this part of world people read just the North American authors.
    Great work.

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