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Friday, November 15, 2002

Book Reviews

The Big Chill

Spring Flowers, Spring Frost by Ismail Kadare. Translated from the French of Jusuf Vrioni by David Bellos, New York, Arcade Publishing, 2002, 182 pages, $23.95.

Mark Gurabardhi, the protagonist in Ismail Kadare’s latest novel to be translated into English, suffers a chill despite his intermittent fevers. The fevers might be the work of his imagination; then again, they might not. Mark’s friend, Zef, might be missing, perhaps dead among the refugee emigrants drowned and drifting lifelessly fathoms below the surface of the Strait of Otranto, whose crossing lies between the Italian and Albanian shores; then again, he might not be missing. Zef’s fate is unknown, and his disappearance remains as inexplicable as the light Mark glimpses one night emanating from Zef’s apartment window. Mark’s girlfriend, who is also the model for his paintings, might be cheating on him, perhaps on her visits to Tirana, perhaps with her brother; then again, she might not be doing anything of the sort. And Mark might not be a painter at all, or at least not only a painter, but also a policeman.

Kadare is a master allegorist, and Spring Flowers, Spring Frost is a work of allegorical oppositions, in which the underside of things (meaning that which is possible) outrageously – and with insidious permanence – erupts through those quotidian surfaces that are anything but solid. It is a world in which legend can be pondered as fact, and fact as fiction – and in which Mark Gurabardhi’s pondering becomes obsessive, desperate as he is to determine what is real and constantly betrayed as he is by ambiguities. It is a world in which nothing is clear, as though seen by a paranoid from behind a shattered windshield that is yet intact, a world fractured by both the warped mind of the beholder and the splintered filter through which he sees.

It is the world of Albania. It is early spring, but the weather is wintry. Two boys have unearthed a snake, which should still be hibernating; people crowd about on the street and discuss what should be done with it. Mark is reminded of Zef’s retelling of an ancient tale, of a girl once wedded to a snake, which Zef likened to “the monstrosities of today’s Albania.” According to the legend, a girl’s family agrees to marry her to a snake, which, unbeknown to all and to the great surprise of the bride, sheds its skin and takes the form of a man each night. The girl comes to love the man the snake becomes during those hours, and one night, when her husband in human form is dozing, she burns the discarded snakeskin that awaits his return each night. In so doing, she dooms them both: her snake-husband melts into nothingness. After recounting the legend, Zef had added, “with dark foreboding: All these faces that change their masks from one day to the next, like in some Greek drama…they don’t inspire a lot of confidence.”

The world of masks is the one that unravels Mark. It is the snake that has been found in late winter, however, and not the legend of the snake that is, to my mind, Kadare’s most disturbing allegory for Albania: the snake is half-dead, half-alive. Not only is it not in its proper place, but it has emerged prematurely; its appearance could mean something ominous or nothing at all; no one knows quite what to do with it and, more important, no one can agree on what should be done with it. The last word on the matter comes from an old woman: “Everything’s gone to wrack and ruin, mark my words. I’ve been around for many a long year, God knows, but I’ve never seen anyone try to stop a snake from hibernating in peace!”

Wrack and ruin, indeed. A bank robbery – something unheard of under Enver Hoxha – has occurred. Mark’s studio needs to be protected from burglars. The locksmith tells him that, in the old days, coffins were sometimes stolen, and there were certainly brigands, but that, under the dictatorship, “robberies, like everything else, shrank to nothing.” Mark feels insecure no matter what the locksmith says or does, for he knows which window the bullet that might await him will come through, and he cannot stop himself from obsessing over the first robberies in Western history: the thefts of immortality (by Tantalus) and of fire (by Prometheus).

Mark’s obsessions are related in Kadare’s “counter-chapters” to his main narrative, which, in a sense, counter external reality with Mark’s quasi-hallucinatory, paranoid meditations. It is within these sections that the writing is the most lyrical, but also the most allegorically polemic. In Mark’s shattered mind, the Bureau of Death meets on Olympus to decide what must be done when Death is turned away from a door, setting the universe on its head; he imagines Tantalus’ interrogation and then that of the bank robbers, who he eventually imagines he knows. Mark is “pestered” by the iceberg that sank the Titanic – it wants, he thinks, to confess – as well as by the snake in the legend, which cannot describe the moment of its metamorphosis from creature to human, from human to creature, from something to nothing. Mark believes himself to be – indeed, in one counter-chapter, is – an interrogator, whose office is in the police building and not in the arts center, or among the unliving (but not dead) in the Strait of Otranto. Bureaucracy, interrogations, complicit confessions, confused identities, metamorphoses, disappearances, uncertain death, uncertain life: once again – and this time through the window of the protagonist’s madness – there lies Albania.

In the town of B – , where this story takes place, Marian Shkreli (the head of the arts center where Mark works) is shot through the head and dies. The murder has all the markings of a vendetta. But the Book of the Blood, customary law’s “accounting system” in which trespass and vengeance were recorded, vanished under the communists (just as the communists’ secret archives, the dictatorship’s own accounting system, has disappeared); and so the murder cannot be properly recorded according to the Kanun, or customary law. Moreover, the murderer – who is Mark’s girlfriend’s brother – defies custom by not appearing at Shkreli’s funeral, where women weep in flagrant violation of tradition. The past (Albania’s past, of course) is as violated as the future is by the present; and the present is as fantastic (read: as incomprehensible and incoherent) as Mark’s imaginings.

There is no resolution; how could there be? Mark’s girlfriend comes to him with her brother in tow, to ask Mark to intercede on the latter’s behalf with the powers that be. This makes Mark wonder if he isn’t indeed the deputy chief of police, and he continues to brood over the possibility that the two are also guilty of incest, although he is eventually overcome by the import of their strange request: to ask the state to participate in the feud and to incorporate the ancient Kanun in the revised penal code:

The two of them then expanded on their plan and expressed themselves quite clearly. Shifting the claiming of the blood into a new, unprecedented area made it all different. The state was accustomed to facing enemies. It could tolerate and maintain hostilities more easily than any clan. It all hung on whether the state would consent to the plan, that is to say, whether it would agree to pronounce the brother’s sentence not just as an expression of the law and the penal code, but also as an expression of the rules of the Kanun. Furthermore, the two of them insisted that in the death certificate that the prosecutor and the coroner would sign after the execution (or else in the report of it that would be published in the records), the following wording would have to be used: “The State of Albania has shot Angelin of the Ukaj, cleansing the blood of Marian Shkreli, its servant.”

Mark indeed goes to see the police chief, who takes him for a ride. In the countryside, perhaps close to where the communist archives are hidden, the police chief stops the car and decides to take a nap. While he does so, Mark watches Brezhnev and Ulbricht, Hoxha and Oedipus, drive by in limousines, on their way to search for the entrance to the archives (ostensibly, one can only imagine, to remove their files). A week later, the Albanian state declines to conform its rules to those of ancient law, and Mark Gurabardhi receives the decision in a letter from the authorities. Kadare then describes Mark as stopping “for a long while on the word Europe, staring at it so hard that it seemed to wobble, then to go hazy, as if trying to erase itself forever,” after which he looks skyward.

But the sky was tiresomely void. He was aware that a vacuum can have immense destructive force, but this was the first time he had come up against such a feeling of oppression….A sky bereft of its masters, a sky in mourning stretching to infinity. Who knows why the gods left? Where in the universe did they go?

Mark didn’t know why, but he felt like crying.

End of story. Mark, Albania, and even the reader have been abandoned. The fate of the snake found by the boys remains untold, but the allegory is clear: it too was – purposely, in the narrative – forsaken.

Ismail Kadare, who has been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in literature, is the only Albanian novelist translated into English. His prolific output (The Palace of Dreams, Doruntine, The Pyramid, The General of the Dead Army, The Concert, The Three-Arched Bridge, and Chronicle in Stone are his best-known works) provides a literary window through which a world otherwise hidden from sight can be glimpsed; the shape of that window, however, and the viewpoint it affords sometimes feel restrictive, for it is – and this is not Kadare’s fault – our only such window. And we see through it darkly, as it were, into a psychic landscape that lies in tatters, is often incomplete, and is rife with deception: things are never what they seem, and they are seldom good. Whatever it is that Albania has become, it has been incapable of shedding (or at least coming to terms with) its past, which means – if I read Kadare correctly – that it is incapable of understanding its present or defining its future.

The problem, of course, is whether I read Kadare correctly. To read him at all sometimes takes some doing, for Kadare’s narrative style, which is not always graceful, is purposely oblique – everything is metaphor, all is allegory, and then there are layers of metaphor and allegory atop and beneath other layers. Dreams and hallucinations are sometimes inseparable and indistinct from reality, as in Spring Flowers, Spring Frost: what is real may be unreal, what is unreal may be real. The advantage to this kind of writing is that anything can move the narrative forward; the disadvantage is that it sometimes makes no sense.

Franz Kafka is the writer most frequently mentioned when Kadare’s work is reviewed or discussed, which is probably unfair to Kadare and certainly unfair to Kafka. Kafka was not concerned with coherent national identity or individual madness – in Kadare’s world, the lack of the former results in the latter, and individual madness must always be taken to mean collective madness – but in the way individuals are entrapped by everything about them, by the cage in which a hunger artist starves himself, by the family that will eventually squash its son, by a court system that exists simply because everyone is guilty. Kadare, too, writes allegories of entrapment, but the allegories are all of Albania. It is always Albania that is trying to emerge, from under the thumb of the Ottomans, or ancient clan customs, or Italians or Greeks, or the Axis, or the communists, or, yes, democracy. It is always Albania that Kadare’s window looks out onto, but the windowframe might be narrow and the glass smudged.

At least, let us so hope. Otherwise, the latest of Ismail Kadare’s tales – this one told by a madman – is all we have.

Melanie Wallace is a novelist and frequent contributor to Her latest novel, The Housekeeper, was published by MacAdam/Cage in April.
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