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