This week, let’s visit Albania – a tiny South-Eastern European country in the Balkan peninsula, with a wide coastline and a mountainous mainland. Historically it was a part of the Roman and then the Ottoman empires and gained its independence only in 1912. It was then ruled by a Stalinist totalitarian regime till the 1990s, after which it has been a member of NATO and has candidate status to join the European Union.
Albania has had a rich tradition of literature since at least the past 500 years. Not many works though, have been translated into English because the country was isolated from the rest of the world for a large part of the 20th century by the Communist regime. An overview of the Albanian literature can obtained by the anthologies by Robert Elise and I.B, Tauris.
When we take a look at the Albanian literature today, the most famous author to catch one’s eye is Ismail Kadare. The first ever winner of Man Booker Prize in 2005, Kadare is a huge name in the world of literature. He has won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for his The Fall of the Stone City and is a frequent contender for the Nobel Prize. His most famous works are Broken April which is about the Kanun laws and blood feuds rampant in Albania and The Great Winter which is hailed as the pinnacle work of Social Realism of which Kadare is a pioneer.
For my reading and review I am choosing Kadare’s Doruntine or The Ghost Rider. It is based on a popular Albanian ballad of Constantine and Doruntina. In the story, a brother wakes up from the sleep of death to keep his promise to his mother, of bringing back his sister, married-off to a far away country. For the ballad itself, please have a look at the marvelous website of Robert Elise here –
The novel picks up where the ballad ends. The book in English is a translation from the French translation of the original. I am going to give it a try anyway and post my review here.
The novel is set in an era of conflict between the Orthodox and Byzantine churches. Doruntine is married into Bohemia which is roughly a 1000 km apart from Albania. The story is told from the perspective of Stres, the police official who is investigating the circumstances surrounding to Doruntine’s return to the village with her dead brother, which uncomfortably reminds one of a resurrection, challenging the church’s authority over the domain of miracles. The author tries to interpret the ballad in the context of bessa, the sacred promise in the Albanian culture which is to be kept at all costs. Its a code of ethics of sorts. Its importance can be understood from the fact that Albania is one of the few European countries which provided asylum to Jews during Hitler’s reign.
The novel explores various themes like the genesis of a legend and how the general populace always finds it easier to believe the most improbable explanation for an event. It also hints that the spread of legends is encouraged by government officials and the church purely to keep the citizenry preoccupied and thus suppress any possible unrest. The author tries to explain the ballad as resulting from the living’s yearning for the dead. In riding with a dead man, Doruntine, in some sense, accepts death herself.
The central theme can be best explained from the following passage: “He now realized that everyone, each in his own way, would take some stand in this affair, and that each person’s attitude would have everything to do with his station in life, his luck in love or marriage, his looks, the measure of good or ill fortune that had been his lot, the events that marked the course of his life, and his most secret feelings, those a person sometimes hides even from himself.” The account of Stres’s domestic situation, although tangential to the main story, is interesting.
The novel makes sense only in the context of the ballad which is poetic and tragic. I am happy that the book introduced me to it. However, the flow of the novel as a continuation of the events isn’t seamless and feels more like a separate story. The ending was bizarre and wasn’t a satisfactory conclusion for any of the themes explored. There have been many better adaptations of mythology and ballads specially in Indian writing in English which has seen a rekindled interest in mythology off-late. While Kadare’s other works may be brilliant, this book feels like an opportunity lost of turning the ballad into a beautiful story.
Other Options from Albania
The Dead River – Jakov Xoxa
The Rise and Fall of Comrade Zylo – Dritero Agolli