reading my way through every country in the world…

#27 Albania – “A bitch and a dog”

Spring Flowers, Spring Frost
By Ismail Kadare
Vintage 2003

According to the blurb of this book, the Independent on Sunday proposed that Kadare is comparable with Kafka and Orwell. Presumably the comparison with the latter is because this book, as with many others of Kadare’s, consists of multiple political metaphors and allegories. The comparison with Kafka must be because this book is FREAKIN’ WEIRD. There is no plot to speak of and it is rather the jumbled musings of an Albanian painter, Mark, who seems to have great difficulty reconciling events of the past with those of the present thus reflecting the struggle of Albania itself as it finally shirks the constraints of communism and begins to bloom yet is still somewhat suffocated by its traditions, particularly the Kanun law – hence the metaphor in the title: spring flowers, spring frost. As Mark says early in the book, Albania is going through a “period of transition” and is “in other words hermaphroditic; or, in the language of the people, ‘a bitch and a dog’”.

The book is structured so that following several of its seven chapters is a “counter-chapter” and some of these sort of relate to events occurring in the preceding chapter yet are completely bizarre and unusual – a bit like when you have a freaky dream about something you have been talking about during the day.

In the first chapter, for example, Mark comes across a crowd of people hovering around a snake. The counter-chapter to this then recounts an old Albanian (folk? mythological?) story about a family who force their daughter to marry a snake as punishment for some offence she has committed against the Kanun.

Following another chapter in which Mark’s boss is murdered and there is much discussion about who may have committed this and the fact that the murder appears to have been executed in accordance with the old law (Kanun), the counter-chapter has Mark imagining that the iceberg that sanked the Titanic has come to plead its side of the story to Mark – yes, you read that correctly, a talking, in fact remorseful ICEBERG (THIS GUY IS CRAZY AS A COCONUT!!!). Presumably the iceberg’s confession is metaphorical for demonstrating both that the Kanun law – once considered the natural order of things in Albania – still sits below the surface and has the potential, like the iceberg, to easily come afloat and impede the path to progress that the modern ship upon which Albania sails is travelling. This is suggested by one speaker in the novel who says: “the Kanun, unlike other corposes that are kept intact by ice and snow, had emerged in a sorry state”. Thus, just as atmospheric warming can cause an iceberg to become detached from the rest of its icy cliff so too with Albania’s attempt to enter its “spring” – representing a period of rejuvenation and growth – similar reactive occurrences can occur, namely the rearing of the ancient Kanun law put into effect by those who resist this move towards modernity. The fact that Mark considers the sinking of the Titanic from the iceberg’s point-of-view perhaps reflects a similar attempt to determine whether there is a justifiable place for the Kanun law in modern Albania. Am I reading too much into it? Maybe. Perhaps its the psychologist in me desperately trying to bring together some of the loose ties in this narrator’s story.

And there are more loose ties in this book than at the end of an office Christmas party! As a result, while the cultural curiosities outlined in the book are deeply fascinating  – did you know that under the Kanun law it was customary to hang a dead man’s shirt on the fireplace following his burial? Or that the old law dictated that a murderer must turn up at the wake of his or her victim? – in the end, I felt like I had been led into the rabbit hole only to find the White Rabbit was as confused as I was about where to go next.

Notwithstanding this, I am keen to read some more Kadare to determine why he was the inaugural recpient of the Man International Booker Prize because based on this book alone I am not entirely convinced I would consider him the most worthy recipient.

I’ll be posting some non-challenge reviews over the next few weeks as I have been reading some other great books which I would love to share.

The Literary Nomad xx

More on Albania…

Capital: Tirana

Population: 2,994,667

Area: 28,748 km2

Language: Albanian

Religion: Muslims are the most common.

Currency: Lek

Delay your stay: Broken April by Ismail Kadare; The Successor by ismail Kadare; The Dead River by Jakov Xoxa; The Albanian Affairs by Susana Fortes

The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd (and many other books by this author)

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

Money – Martin Amis

Downriver – Iain Sinclair

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

The Iron Age – Margaret Drabble

Anything by Charles Dickens

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