- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 23, 2002

On books

By Ismail Kadare
Translated from the French of Jusef Vrioni by David Bellos
Arcade, $23.95, 182 pages

The end of the Cold War and collapse of the communist regimes in Europe as did the end of apartheid in South Africa for writers there has presented an engaging challenge to novelists and poets: What to write about now that the previously overarching subject of politics no longer compels in the way it used to do.
Many of these countries have numerous authors in whose work the response is to be observed. Albania has just one, at least in Western eyes, Ismail Kadare, author of "The Palace of Dreams" and "Elegy for Kosovo" among other books. There is in his case the complication that his writing is first translated into French, and then a second time into English. And of course there is the fact of Albania's unique appeal, with its mountains and traditions of banditry and bardic storytellers in Homeric vein. The poet Byron was fascinated and had himself painted in Albanian costume, and others have been no less taken with the country and its seemingly remote yet exotic ways.
Mr. Kadare, as in "The Palace of Dreams," was an acute satirist of his nation under communist rule. Now, in "Spring Flowers, Spring Frost," he has penned a complex little fiction dealing with the aftermath, the new liberty and its disillusions, even its "lunacy." His book is datelined Tirana-Paris 1998-2000. The original title in Albanian was "Lulet e fltohta te marsit" and when published in France two years ago "Froides fleurs d'avril" ("Cold Flowers of April"). I mention this, because both earlier titles (one doesn't have to know Albanian to get the general idea) convey much about the novel's mood and flavor.
The novel's central character is Mark Gurabardhi, a successful painter. He is working on a nude portrait of his model, who turns out to be his girlfriend of some time in an affair that shows symptoms of cooling. The action takes place in the little town of B, but the girlfriend also spends time in Tirana, the capital city, where modern hair salons have opened and the women shave their armpits (and sometimes more).
Mark is a curious fellow. His father wanted him to be a policeman like himself, and the struggle between the two of them has left the son with a haunting sense of having a second self who is a policeman, and of having a police uniform waiting for him to put on. He has, moreover, recollections of the communist regime, friends imprisoned and his own fears of arrest at the time.
The organization of the novel is interesting in others ways and, if I may risk the term, characteristically Albanian. Chapters telling Mark's present-day story are interspersed with so-called "counter-chapters." In the first one, following Mark's witnessing people in the street looking at a common snake that has been found hibernating, there is related the tale of a girl who was married by her father to a snake.
To the surprise of everyone, the bride bloomed in the aftermath of the wedding. The snake, it turned out, was transformed into a handsome man for a quarter of the time. But then, in a mistaken effort to rescue her groom from his snake life, the wife burned his discarded snakeskin while he slept. The consequence for the snake husband proved fatal, and after his disappearance the wife withered.
Mark has a paranoid side. He has a locksmith fortify and put a new door in the entrance to his studio. He fears dying by a gangster's bullet. He wonders whether his girlfriend and model is having an affair in Tirana. He dreams of flood waters reaching up to his second-floor apartment. He wonders how to paint the underwater mass of the iceberg that sank the Titanic.
But not all is paranoia. There is a real bank holdup in the town, in which regulars at the town cafe Mark frequents could be implicated. There is a new political rivalry between parties ridiculously named The Talls and The Smalls. Worse yet, there is a resurgence of the ancient Albanian tradition of blood feuds between families, called the Kanun. The communists banned the practice (curious how in the West we ignore good things the communists achieved) but with the onset of freedom, the ancient Kanun threatens to break out anew.
The girlfriend, for whose welfare Mark fears, has an uncle coming to town. Then her brother Angelino turns up. The director of the Arts Center where Mark works, his boss, is shot, once, in the forehead Kanun rules allow the attacker just one shot and dies soon afterwards. I may seem to be giving away rather a lot of the plot here. But it is not really the plot. Mr. Kadare's novel is at bottom about the sheer madness of life in a social situation lacking structure, where the makers of mysteries and those seeking to solve those same mysteries are all in the same boat, essentially flailing around.
Another counter-chapter deals with the classical myths of Prometheus, Hades, Erebus, the crime(s) of Tantalus and the theft of immortality. These pages with their Bureau of Death again heavily satirize the former totalitarian regime, while reaching back to the roots of Western civilization. Oedipus Rex is drawn in too, with the thought that stories such as his are not true so much as warnings of what can happen. Pages like these are a reminder of the closeness of Albanian story to that of ancient Greece.
There are other passages in which Mark imagines himself a detective (the policeman of his father's aspirations for him) investigating the murder of a former prime minister some years earlier. There are journeys up into the mountains and search for the entrance to a secret cave, where National Archives of a dreadful nature are held. Albania's legendary mountains hover over the novel, and it is to their heights that the funeral cortege of the murdered director of the Arts Center wends its way, as he requested in life:
"Farther on, the road dropped down before rising again. Black Rock, first seen up on high, almost in the clouds, now turned out to be deep down, lower than the rolling mist. A skittish place!"
Mr. Kadare's prose is striking while remaining straightforward, which minimizes the difficulty of its being twice translated. Josef Vrioni has translated the novelist's writing from the Albanian into the French with aplomb on previous occasions. David Bellos does equally well in rendering an English version that has a spare, almost Kafkaesque quality.
This is a curious book, make no mistake, but it remains a great pleasure to read. As an exercise in what writers from the formerly communist countries are now attempting, it is exemplary. As another strange and seductive work from Albania, a mysterious country for most of us, it is both instructive and hauntingly familiar.
In one last and piquant irony, or bit of satire if you prefer, the Kanun, which Mark in his perversity applies to reinstate, has to be banned on the command of the new "Council of Europe," whose representatives earlier were the pretext for another trip, sightseeing this time, into Albania's mountain vastness.

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