Ismail Kadare, Broken April (New Amsterdam Books, 1998)
Some literature exists in a state of paradox, and usually does from the time of its conception. When an author decides to write a book for an audience that is exclusively, or almost exclusively, alien to your source material, you find the need to explicate about that source material in a nonfiction kind of way that really has no place in a novel (or collection of short stories or poem or film or what have you), and that is pretty much a guarantee that your novel is going to end up sucking; no one is interested in didacticism when they’re reading fiction. On the other hand, integrating lessons about different cultures into fiction without breaking the rhythm and flow of the story is an exceptionally difficult task. It can be done, and the specter I want to drag out of its grave to illustrate this is, of course, All Quiet on the Western Front, though you have to turn your head and squint to make that about a different culture (trench warfare is going to be an alien concept even to most contemporary veterans). I’m not sure I’ve come across a single novel written in the past fifty years that does it correctly. Broken April is the latest novel I’ve read that attempts to balance didacticism and story; it does so in the same way many authors try, and it fails in exactly the same way.
This is not to say that the culture Kadare is attempting to explicate is not interesting. His subject here is the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini, the custom of the Albanian blood feud. (It is still in existence; Retuers did a piece about it last month as of this writing in January 2014.) The main portion of the story, told from within the culture of the blood feud, concerns a young man named Gjorg. As we open, Gjorg is avenging the death of a relative, which puts him in the line of fire himself; his family applies for a (standard, we are told) thirty-day extension on his life before the offended party can begin to hunt him, and it is granted; Gjorg’s storyline details what he does with those thirty days. The other storyline concerns a newlywed journalist form the lowlands who grew up on the high plains where the blood feud still holds sway, and brings his new bride there on their honeymoon. Here is where the didacticism comes in, as it so often does in novels like this—the author explains the culture to the reader through one character explaining it to another. This makes is sound not one iota less like the author explaining it to the reader—because, of course, it isn’t.
The problem, ultimately, is two-fold, an either/or proposition both parts of which point to a flaw in the author’s perception of the reader. Either the author does not believe the story itself is capable of conveying what he wants to say about the culture, in which case the author does not trust his own writing, or the author does not believe the reader is capable of gleaning everything the author is trying to impart from the story alone, in which case the author does not trust the reader to be intelligent enough to understand the author’s work. The former invariably leads to an unassured piece of writing, the latter to talking down to the reader. The latter is by far the more offensive output, and in Kadare’s defense, this is almost certainly a case of the former; there is no point at which Kadare’s diction goes into talking-down mode (a good example of this is Dennis Lehane’s ridiculous pause at the beginning of one chapter of A Drink Before the War to saw how awful child rape is. Whoa, man, NO ONE knew that before you decided to use an otherwise excellent novel as a fucking soapbox!). The irony of the situation, as it so often is (Dido Sotiriou’s Farewell Anatolia comes to mind, perhaps because it’s the most recent book I finished that has the same flaw), is that Kadare does impart a great deal of the explicative portion of the book through Gjorg’s story; in fact, those pieces are probably better at depicting the rites and rituals of the blood feud than are the didactic pieces. Gjorg travels to the local lord’s castle to pay the blood price for killing someone, passes some of the towers where people marked by the blood feud hide, etc. When we see these things through Gjorg’s eyes and read his impressions of them, as someone inside the feud, we get it. Well, as much as we can.
So what’s the solution, then? My own humble opinion is that a great way for authors to handle the situation would be to write the novel as a novel, and then publish a nonfiction work as a companion piece (my brain is telling me there is at least one extant example of this, but I can’t come up with it off the top of my head). That will give people a nonfiction alternative if they want something father on the subject; I’m actually taking that route myself. I put Christopher Boehm’s Blood Revenge on my TBR stack as a direct result of reading this novel.
All of that is incidental to Broken April, though, and the point of a review is my telling you whether I recommend the novel or not. That is a tough call, and ultimately I’m leaning towards saying no, despite, as I said before, the subject matter here being inherently interesting. The flipside of my belief that any author can make any subject matter interesting in the way it is presented is that any author can make any subject matter, no matter how interesting, be less so by presenting it in a way that makes it seem boring. (Anyone who had a bad teacher in college can attest to this.) I don’t think Ismail Kadare makes it all the way to bad-college-teacher status here, but I think this book is a great deal less than it could have been. Eventually you may well want to read this, but go for a nonfiction piece about the Albanian blood feuds first, and come to this later. **
* * *
Why did it take me over nine months to post this review? When I picked the book up at the Case Book Sale in 2013, I knew beyond any doubt I had picked up two copies, but I could not for the life of me find the second. Well, I found it yesterday. I have wanted that to be var.ev.’s first giveaway since I picked it up, so expect a giveaway of a copy of Broken April sometime in the very near future (and many more to come after that, I have a small mountain of books and DVDs from my collection looking for new homes…).