Monday, November 20, 2006


Just finished reading Ismail Kadare's 'Broken April'. Kadare was the first winner of the Man Booker International Prize, for books translated into English. Kadare is Albanian, but left the country for France in 1990.

The book is set sometime around the turn of the 19th/20th century in mountainous Albania, where a customary law called the 'Kanun' reigns. The Kanun regulates relations between families...generally by killing someone. These blood feuds start if one family kills the member of another family, usually men. Then the victim's family has the right, after a certain period, to kill a man from the killer's family, who then becomes the victim, and so on and so on. Families can lose all their adult males that way, and this can go on so long that people cannot remember the original cause of the feud. Men who want to survive either flee into a tower almost without windows (which can house hundreds of people), or stay at home, never leaving the house. The rules about how to kill a person in this are also very specific, whereby the person must be killed with a shot in the head, laid down in a particular way. The victim's shirt is hung up in his own family's home, unwashed, and when the blood turns yellow (as it does) this is the sign that the victim wants vengeance to be extracted. Guests are kings, and protected, so if someone kills your guest on your property, you will then be killed because you failed to protect the guest. There is also a feudal blood tax collector whereby every killer has to pay this tax - and the book contains a memorable section where the tax collector laments the reduction in murders. Another small facet of the Kanun requires that bridegrooms are given a bullet by their future in-laws to use on the wife in case she is unfaithful.

Thank goodness this is only a piece of fiction, and it all happened a long time ago! Well, no. This and this suggests that the Kanun is in fact a piece of Albanian reality, and it seems, still alive and well in some parts of the country (which also shows that fiction can serve as historical documents). In this case the book describes the period from when a young man called Gjorg fulfils his family's requirement to kill a guy, until the month of reprieve ends and he will no longer be able to move about freely for fear of being killed. This grim reading, describing in great detail the intricacies of the Kanun, is broken up slightly by another party in the book, a couple from Tirana who choose to spend their honeymoon studying the Kanun (more the husband's idea, it seems) - and even during the period the book was set in, these people's urban friends find the world of the mountains quite extraordinary. Needless to say, this trip does not make for a happy honeymoon.

The book is written in very simple language, like that presumably used by people in the Albanian mountains where reading and writing (at the time) was not a common skill. It is a fascinating read, but also thoroughly depressing - the kind of book you'd read only if there is no alternative. It might be good, though, to follow this up by a book about modern, urban Albanian society.


varske said...

I read this book sometime ago while in Kosovo and had a quite different impression of it.

I just managed to find a book in English on the Kanun, which I have only had a very quick look at.

I think Kadare is a great writer, and he was very amusing when he gave a talk in Oxford recently. Meant to blog it at the time.

traveller one said...

I've been planning to read this book and now I definitely will (especially since I'm living in Albania at the moment). Great review!