Albania: The Accident; Ismail Kadare, 2008

by juno on August 19, 2011

Oh summer. Reading goes on, late at night, tucked into a day away, early in the morning, but between comings and goings, writing grants and writing lists, baking birthday cakes, organizing kids’ complex summer schedules, and all the rest that pours abundantly down upon us in the mad, brief abundant season of New England summer, I seem never to open my computer and put finger to keyboard. So, on the other side of Albania, Algeria, America, perched on the edge of Angola and Andorra, a few notes:

And oh Albania, tucked down low on the Balkan Peninsula, scene of many dark deeds in the waning decades of the twentieth century. The Accident, by Ismail Kadare, and a winner of the Man Booker International Prize, is a strange and dislocating novel. The residue it leaves feels more movie-like than novel-like. I’m left with images that border on the surreal, as if seen through the inventive lens of a cinematographer who likes to film rooms at any angle, the floors all sloping to one side—who favors either long shots in which it’s difficult to see the characters’ expressions but you can hear their dialogue perfectly, and see the tilt of their heads, read the whole language of their bodies, or close ups in which every nuance of expression is visible, the faintest pulse beating at the temples, a barely raised eyebrow, but the sound is blurred or low or bathed in static so you can’t quite hear the words they say. The characters: a man and a woman, of course. And sometimes the filmmaker chooses a snowy day bled of so much color that you wonder if you’re watching a black and white film, until you see the heroine’s skin, two shades warmer than the snow out the window. (All this is on a train, of course, between two distant cities, the landscape empty, blanked out by winter.) That’s what it feels like, anyway, the impressions this novel leaves behind.

As for the book itself: without giving away too much of the story of a book about mysteries and what we cannot know about other people, even those we are close to, I can say this: I had moments of impatience early in the book when the narrative seemed to be tracking too closely relationship insecurities and misunderstandings that seemed both clichéd and dull. When I started to wonder whether these misunderstandings functioned as a metaphor for the relationship between different Balkan countries during the long difficult period of successive wars, the book became more compelling.

About two thirds of the way through I had to stop and spend a couple of hours sifting through Wikipedia to try to better understand all these wars that broke the peninsula into so many more countries than before, and the earlier wars that left in place after World Wars I and II the countries that fought these violent and vicious wars (not that I’m suggesting that some countries fight kind, gentle wars).

I have to say, my strongest reaction thus far to this project is a desire to give money to an organization that works to prevent war rape or help the survivors and families thereof. (The Algerian novel, of which more soon, stimulated this impulse as well.) A friend of a friend recommends the Panzi Hospital in Bukaru, Democratic Republic of Congo. Seventy-one percent of the women they treat are survivors of war rape; some of their stories are on the website if you wish to be saddened by what goes on in the world around us.

In addition to The Accident, I also read a short story, “Brothers of the Blade,” by Arian Leka, in Best European Fiction 2011 and an excerpt from The Country Where No One Ever Dies by Ornela Vorpsi in Best European Fiction 2010. Hardly a representative sampling of Albanian literature, but I will say that coincidence or not these three pieces of writing all share a bordering-on-fairy-tale quality, as if they are closer to, spring more recently from, a folkloric literary tradition, or as if, perhaps, the way to face bitterness is through a sharkstooth scrim, faintly lit, that alters or blurs stark reality.

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