Broken April, by Ismail Kadare

>> Wednesday, October 10, 2018

TITLE: Broken April
AUTHOR: Ismail Kadare

PAGES: 218

SETTING: Early 20th century Albania
TYPE: Fiction

From the moment that Gjorg's brother is killed by a neighbour, his own life is forfeit: for the code of Kanun requires Gjorg to kill his brother's murderer and then in turn be hunted down. After shooting his brother's killer, young Gjorg is entitled to thirty days' grace - not enough to see out the month of April.

Then a visiting honeymoon couple cross the path of the fugitive. The bride's heart goes out to Gjorg, and even these 'civilised' strangers from the city risk becoming embroiled in the fatal mechanism of vendetta.
Why did I read this? Bit of a long story. A couple of years ago I read and loved Mary Stewart's This Rough Magic. The book is set in Corfu, but much of the suspense plot revolves around Albania, sort of the North Korea of its time, the forbidding snowy peaks of which loom right over the water. Something about that really captured my imagination, and last year I decided to go there for a holiday. Snowy peaks were in my mind, so I decided to do some hiking up in the mountains in the North.

So then I wanted to do some reading about Albania. There are not a lot of travel books about the country, so I quickly switched to fiction by Albanian authors, and the obvious place to start was with Ismail Kadare. And as luck would have it, the first book that most people recommend (one of the few of his books considered "accessible" by those who know his work) is Broken April, which happens to be set in the very area I was planning to visit, albeit several decades previously.

Broken April was written in the late 70s, but it's set in the early 20th century (I would guess!). The central government is pretty much non-existent in the mountains of Northern Albania, and villagers abide by a code called the Kanun, a literal written guide on how life should proceed. Most of it is mundane and boring, but some is not, like the parts that concern blood feuds.

One of the central characters is Gjorg, a young man from a family that has been involved in a blood feud with another for many, many years, maybe even generations. The origin of this blood feud is linked with another central Kanun teaching, the treatment of guests. Basically, guests are precious and the honour of the family sheltering a guest is at stake in their protection. If someone kills them, then the hosts are honour-bound to avenge the death. And having killed the killer, the now-dead person's family is honour bound to avenge them as well. That is what happened in the case of Gjorg's family, and even though the original guest was just a stranger who had asked shelter for the night, for generations these two families have been killing each other, one person at a time, in strict turns.

It's now Gjorg's turn, and as the book starts, he has just killed the man who killed his brother. He knows someone in the man's family will now hunt him down, kill them, and the cycle will continue. He's got a bit of time, since after a blood feud kill the killer is granted something called besa, a period where the feud is suspended and he won't be killed, and during which he can do things like settle his affairs. But the first thing he must do is visit the Kulla of Orosh, the castle of the regional strong man (can't think of a better term) who is the guardian of the Kanun, and pay a blood tax. It's a long walk from the village and he sets off, unsettled about what's coming.

The other central characters are a newlywed couple, Bessian and Diana. They are both cosmopolitan, educated people from Tirana. Bessian is fascinated by the accounts of life in the Northern mountains. He finds it all very exotic and exciting (and this is as patronising as you might imagine). He decides that for their honeymoon, he and Diana are going to travel in the area.

Obviously, our three travellers' paths will cross, and this will set off a tragic chain of events.

As a portrayal of a way of life and a place and time, this works really well. The oppressiveness of living under a system where your destiny is determined by events set in motion generations ago is overpowering and vivid.

Whether it was ever quite as portrayed is another topic, though. In one of our first walks in Albania we visited a kulla. Kullas are stone towers where men involved in blood feuds could take refuge when they were the ones being hunted, and this was one of the very few left intact.

I had a really interesting conversation with the guide there about Broken April. He said that Kadare had an agenda when writing this, and that his point was to portray the Kanun as negatively as possible. His portrayal of the Steward of the Blood at the Kulla of Orosh as someone whose job is to make sure there are enough blood feuds active, so that money keeps rolling in as blood taxes, seemed to rankle particularly. Certainly, when the guide spoke about the Kanun to our group he emphasised all the different ways to reach reconciliation much more than you see in Broken April. He also gave a couple of examples of things that, he said, are used in the book to imply barbarism, when they are anything but. One example was the tradition of a bride's family including a bullet in her dowry when sending her to her new husband. The meaning in the book is basically "if she betrays you, use this bullet to kill her. You have our support". The guide said that it actually meant "We trust you so much that we trust you with the life of our daughter". Hmmm.... Still, food for thought.

As much as I liked the setting and 'world-building', the story itself wasn't quite as successful for me. Gjorg's storyline did make psychological sense, but I found it very hard to understand Diana, and that made some of the action pretty frustrating.


PS - I can't resist including a couple of bonus pictures from Albania :)


Susan/DC,  12 October 2018 at 17:45  

Did you ever read Rebecca West's "Black Lamb & Grey Falcon"? It's about that part of the world and may be of interest.

Rosario 14 October 2018 at 15:44  

Susan/DC: I haven't, but it looks excellent, and available on kindle, too! Thanks for mentioning it :)

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