Man Booker Prize Winner Ismail Kadare writes as sweetly as whipped cream inscribing its name on a caramel macchiato – only you can bet that at the village café in Gjirokaster, Albania, the tough old crones are sucking bitter Turkish coffee through their remaining teeth, grounds and all. (I saw this as late as 1991 in Hungary – by that time lumps of sugar were available again and the nagymamas would put one inside their bottom lip as they strained the grounds.)
Such is life in World War II-era Albania.
The narrator, a dreamy little boy, feels the menace in the air. But he makes up his own explanations for why and how things are happening – since the adults won’t tell him. Rumors of witchcraft float around the village. The place itself is strange to modern Anglicized sensibilities. I found it strange.
- * The stone village clings to the cliff at such a steep angle that, while walking on the street you can reach out and grasp a minaret from the street below. (It sounds like a Cornish village I toured with Julia – Pen-something. National Trust.)
* There are strict rules about proper behavior for women and girls that sound Medieval and Arabic in nature – females can’t be alone with strange men. They can’t kiss in public. When a hermaphrodite, who has been allowed to mingle freely with all the women, decides to marry, it throws the village into chaos. Yet despite the strong concern about honor, the place is at times like Westernized Italy. Women run off to the hills and take up arms. The peasants are all Greek Christians.
* The level of education of the villagers varies widely. The little boy never goes to school, but his Babazoti, or maternal grandfather (the line of milk) promises he will one day teach him to read his Turkish books.
While the boy goes his dreamy way toward growing up, the adults worry about boring things (his description). They’re worried about land deeds, which burn up when an arsonist sets fire to the town hall. They’re worried about “speaking against”, which gets you deported or hanged. They’re worried about debts. Indeed, the official currency changes from the Italian lire to the Greek drachma to the Albanian lek faster than you can put up posters ordering people to trade it in.
Like the protagonist of Empire of the Sun (set in occupied China) this Albanian boy is in love with the shiny new aeroplanes of the occupiers. He is hurt and confused when his Grandmother shakes her ancient fist at them. He feels the same way when the planes he loves return one day in the winter and instead of protecting the town like before, now attack them.
Crossroads of the Crusades
When things get boring for him, as they surely must for a little boy who owns no books, the boy watches the north-south road. Since roads most of all need coming and going, in his imagination he populates the road with the historic figures that have tramped down it to the south: the first Crusaders, in the year 1,000. A wandering Jew. A one-armed RAF pilot.
Grandmother (the line of blood, ie the boy’s paternal grandma) has seen so many occupations she doesn’t even bother to go with the family to the citadel during the bombing raids. “I was born in this house and I wish to die in this house,” she says firmly. The city’s walls date from the 3rd century AD. The little boy says certain conversations seem continuations of ones started centuries before…
Certainly, this novel is a linguist’s dream. People in the village seem to speak Turkish, Greek, Italian, Albanian, and other mysterious tongues. One of my favorite bits of the book is when the villager Gjorgi Pula changes his name to Yiorgi Pulos to curry favor with the Greek occupiers. When the Italians retake the village, he goes to the town hall and comes back as Gjorgio Pulio.
The narrator has a best friend. The best friend has an older brother named Isa. When Isa and his best friend Javer want to shut out the little boys, they speak a foreign language together that may be French or English. They remark on the “petty-bore…something,” which the little boy doesn’t understand, but we do. We understand that Isa and Javer are playing a dangerous game.
Albania will be one of the only countries in Europe liberated by its own people and not Allied forces – and those people, the early Communists and partisans, often die horribly at the hands of the Facists.
The Content of His Character
What I think is genius about this novel: the pace. It’s character-driven, and slow. The clean, beautiful prose pulls you along and lulls you into thinking, like the boy, that nothing much is happening. Then – WHAM. The reality of the war that has been going on sinks in.
The boy’s perspective is that inanimate objects are alive – the cistern in his house speaks to him, the village walls are afraid, the sky is embarrassed at having allowed the dangerous planes to attack the village. In addition, Kadare employs a device I haven’t seen before – fragments of the Chronicle that a man in the village has been working on his whole life. It’s the flat, unemotional record of what is happening, like seeing partially-charred remnants of a manuscript after a bombing. Or pages torn from a newspaper.
In the way of additional interest, Kadare published this book in 1971, at the height of the Communist era. Wiki has some interesting things to say about what Kadare could have tried to imply about then-dictator Enver Hoxha. I’m sure my Stalinist-Era-Literature teacher in Pecs would have had plenty to say on that topic. (Hi, Trudi!)
Albania was one of the very last countries to emerge from a brutal Communist nightmare – and today you hear almost nothing about it on TV, focused as we are on the Middle East. That’s nothing new: the West let Imre Nagy’s Budapest burn in 1956 despite his pleas, because there was a Middle Eastern crisis then too. (Nagy was murdered by the Soviets after the Hungarian Revolution failed.)
It’s time to pay attention to Albania now. What a fascinating place. What an amazing author.
Note: If you were wondering about the most famous Albanian, as I was, Wiki says that while the late Mother Teresa was an ethnic Albanian, she was born in Kosovo and lived most of her life in India.
PS- King Zog. He didn’t last long, but what a name. Superman, anyone? During his reign he survived 55 assassination attempts. Why were people so mad? Well, one of them was the father of the girl that he broke off his engagement to when he got declared King. In Albania at the time, a traditional custom of blood vengeance meant that the insulted girl’s dad had the right to kill him. Albania never did restore its monarchy.