Saturday, 19 December 2009

Leaving Albania

And so I am leaving Albania...a country I was always curious about in my youth, given the secretive Communist government that persisted during the 80s and 90s, giving rise to the perception (in the UK) that this was a closed-off totalitarian state which even planes had to fly around for fear of being shot down ...

I have to say that I was a little perplexed by the Albanian book on my journey: "Spring Flowers, Spring Frost" by Ismail Kadare. On the face of it, this work ticked all of the boxes for my travel purposes - a contemporary work (exploring the social upheavals of Albanian society since the demise of communism there), a native - and well respected - author (compared in the blurb to Orwell, Kafka and Gogol, no less) and an interesting premise: the return of Albania's notorious Kanun 'blood laws'.

These laws were developed pre-communism and have indeed seen a resurgence of such since communism's fall. Whilst these are actually a complicated set of feudal laws relating to social relationships and land ownership; this novel focuses on the blood law element that states: "someone is allowed to kill another person to avenge an earlier murder or moral humiliation."

This is interesting as it also colours my next stopping off point: Kosovo (inextricably linked with both Albania and Serbia through the recent Balkan conflict). However, in the context of this novel, it is used more as a device to explore the inner torment and anxieties of the work's (largely unsympathetic) protagonist - the artist Mark Gurabardhi.

And there, for me, is the problem. Whilst reading this work I did gain a glimpse of life in contemporary Albania - the coffee shops, the occasional black-outs of small village life, the left-over paranoia from the communist era - yet I never felt engaged with the plot. For a start Mark is a particularly unlikeable character who - through his own unwillingness to engage with events around him - impedes our own attempts to immerse ourselves in the plot. He is also particularly misogenistic towards his (possibly pregnant) girlfriend which - coupled with his rather unsettling fantasies about her possible incestuous infidelity with her brother - serve only to alienate the reader even further.

The main narrative is interspersed with several "Counter-chapters" which exposit upon topics as diverse as Tantalus, Oedipus Rex and the sinking of the Titanic. Again, I failed to see the connection with the main narrative, although - as with the previous Macedonian work on my journey - it may well be that I am failing to pick up on socially-specific allegorical references here...

Still, despite my literary gripes I have come away from this book with a sense of life in a small snowbound town in northern Albania - particularly fitting as whilst writing this blog, I am sitting in a small snowbound UK town called St Albans!

For the sake of fairness however; as I have not really critiqued this book in my travel entry and it seems that Kadare has a legion of fans who do appreciate his writings; here is the official Amazon review of the work:

Working at the intersection of allegory and reality, Kadare (The Three-Arched Bridge, etc.) balances the forces of expression and repression in his latest novel, about an Albanian artist who struggles to keep his sense of equilibrium when the post-Communist government threatens to bring back the so-called "blood laws," which dictated behavior in the country's medieval past. Mark Gurabardhi is the protagonist, a sensitive soul who finds himself disturbed by political events in his strife-torn country, as well as by a bizarre bank robbery and a strange, lurid report that an attractive young woman has married a snake. Closer to home, Gurabardhi's relationship with his girlfriend who also models for him is an up-and-down affair, but what changes the artist's situation is the sudden death of his boss, the director of the art center, who is killed in murky circumstances. His death prompts Gurabardhi to investigate the rumor that the repressive government is about to reintroduce the ancient, family-oriented blood laws to help tighten their control of artistic expression. To learn more, Gurabardhi finds a way to eavesdrop on a conference of prominent leaders. The political turns personal when the artist's girlfriend reveals that her brother is being hunted by the state, and the book closes with the artist making a formal inquiry to the police chief to see if the old laws will be reinstated. Kadare's plotting is sometimes spotty and disjunctive, but despite the lack of continuity, each scene is as tight as the writer's razor-sharp prose. The juxtaposition of ideas and bizarre images is alternately beautiful, peculiar and provocative, as Kadare once again provides an excellent glimpse at the difficult nature of life in a politically unstable land.

Well, it is time to leave Albania and travel further into the Balkans. Eschewing local advice I am taking a (very!) expensive taxi down the mountain routes into the northern reaches of Tirana, Albania's main city, arriving in the early hours.

Making my way on foot to the Tirana International Hotel at the bottom end of Bulevard Zogu i Pare, I approach a tout shouting shout "Prishtina, Prishtina!" and hand over my 20 EURO. The basic looking, but comfortable, bus arrives at about 8.00am and I set out on my 6-hour journey to Prishtina, in the still-disputed Republic of Kosovo...

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