Living and dying by the code | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 05, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 04:30 PM, May 15, 2017

Living and dying by the code

Broken April by Ismail Kadare

“How many governments have fallen,” the prince had gone on, “And how many kingdoms have been swept from the face of the earth, and Orosh is still standing.”

The story might have well begun with the words, “In the beginning there was the Kanun.” The Kanun, a set of traditional Albanian laws, passed down through generations orally and codified in the twentieth century, dictate every aspect of one's life in the highlands. It is said that the time of one's death is preordained by God. Albania's Kanun dictates how and through what intricate formalities blood can be shed. For blood must be shed, and family feuds continued through generations of spilled blood till there is no male member of the family left to avenge their kin. And with every spilling of blood, the blood tax must be paid to the Castle of Orosh, the seat of the law governed by the prince, who is the keeper of the code and is exempt from its rituals. The Kanun has ordained that these things be done.

Ismail Kadare's “Broken April” is the story of the Kanun. Said to be set between the two world wars, the book paints a gloomy picture of the two Albanias—one successively ruled by governments as we know them and another in the highlands, immune to change and where nothing is beyond the Code.

The story begins in the highlands with Gjorg Berisha, who has been chosen by his family to avenge the killing of his brother by murdering a male member of the Kryeqyqe family. He calls aloud a warning as his target approaches and shoots. He cannot miss, for if one only injures a man, he must pay a fine. It is already his second attempt, the first having cost his family dearly. This time, Gjorg succeeds, and after he has placed the rifle of the dead man by his head, he returns home. Now his brother's blood stained shirt, hung up in his house as a reminder that there was a man to be avenged, could be taken down. The killing is announced in the village, and a truce of a month has been granted, before the Kryeqyqe, whose turn it was to kill Gjorg, can start continue the cycle that started seventy years ago when a guest to the Berisha's house was killed by a Kryeqyqe. For Gjorg, it is time to take the blood tax to the Orosh. For the blood feud has rules. Gjorj is now marked for death, and as soon as the truce ends mid-April, he is sure to be killed. 

All this Kadare writes in a brutally simple style that suits perfectly the grim and morbid dictates of the Code. He shows how the blood feud, though only one chapter in the Kanun, starts governing Gjorg's life. The Kanun deals with the everyday in fact: from specifying the length of roads, houses and how guests must be treated. And yet, as Gjorg comes to understand: 

“the other part, which was concerned with everyday living and was not drenched in blood, was inextricably bound to the bloody part, so much so no one could really tell where one part left off and the other began. The whole was so conceived that one begat the other, the stainless giving birth to the bloody, and the second to the first, and so on forever, from generation to generation.”

What Kadare himself portrays, almost journalistically, is flipped in the other arc of the story: that of a writer, Bessian Vorpsi and his wife who come to visit the mountains. Vorpsi exoticises the ways of the mountains, refusing any moral judgement. His young wife is horrified at the senseless killing that only seems to benefit the keepers of the law. As Gjorg heads to the castle to pay the blood tax and the writer couple, too, as visitors to the prince, their paths briefly intersect. 

Kadare's prose is dark and haunted: it is that of a man not writing fiction, but recounting what he has seen. “Broken April” blurs the boundary between the past and present; the fact that Kadare never overtly mentions the time period when the events are taking place, adds to this. A particularly poignant part of the book is when the keeper of the blood feud records thinks of the horror of what would happen if there was a day when no blood would be spilled. As he contemplates with pleasure the fallow fields of the families who hide indoors as it was their turn to be killed, he decides 

“each man chose between corn and vengeance. Some, to their shame, chose corn”.

“Broken April” is a strange book, in the way Kafka's books are strange. For Kafka, the endless rules which are imposed without any justification, and which one had to obey, were absurd, and his writing turned that truth into twisted fables. For Kadare, the absurdity is not exaggerated: it is. If Kadare's plot is a little unfulfilled and the ending not altogether satisfying, it takes nothing away from the story. Between Gjorg's coming to terms with his approaching death and Vorpsi's endless fascination with the ways of the mountain folk, one finds a world dominated by tradition. The castle does not, as some in the outside world do, see the Kanun as a transaction of blood. It is to them what has always been, and thus should be. Historically, Albania has seen the advent of Islam, Christianity and subjugation by foreign governments. The Kanun lived through it all, entrapping the villagers and those in the Orosh by its authority of being the past. Ismail Kadare, the inaugural winner of the Man Booker prize, arguably one of the most important literary figures of Albania, through this novel from 1978, shows a world which hinges on the shedding of blood. He shows the tenacity of traditions and a life dictated by the price of death:

“Successive generations had been accustomed to the feuds from their cradles, and so, not being able to conceive of life without them, it never entered their minds to try to free themselves from their destined end.” 

When I picked up this book I knew little of the man who wrote it. But, for readers who think there is much to learn from the past, Kadare's “Broken April” is a beautifully gloomy read. Not a book to read in leisure, but one which grips you with its sheer strength till the very end. Faulkner's wise words echo throughout its pages: “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”

The writer is a member of the Editorial Department of The Daily Star.

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