I had to write this review of Ismail Kadare's book, but first I had to reread it, as ViolainVilnius had such a different view of it from me. I was incensed by the fact she called it barbaric, when I remembered it being about the bessa (the honour and blood feud of the traditional society in the mountains of North Albania) and a sort of feminism, which so far I haven't found elsewhere in Kadare's books. I've written this review from memory, without the book, so there may be a few inaccuracies.
So what is it really about? The action takes place in the 1920s or 30s. There are three stories intertwined. The first story is about a young man, bound up in a blood feud for an earlier killing. Over the month of April, in turn he must kill, pay the dues for the killing and prepare to be killed in turn. He is afraid, and totally human, but nonetheless, obedient to his family and the bessa (honour code of the Kanun). The feud chosen by Kadare to explain the workings of the Kanun is actually a quite unjustifiable one, (an insult caused by a third party). It is explained that attempts (by a female relative) were made to buy off the need for a death, but this had been prevented by an obscure but stubborn old man who had the right of veto. Kadare seems to be trying on the one hand to point out the indefensible cases which the Kanun defends, yet to point out the logical system behind the Kanun.
The second story is about a young pair of city-dwellers, a writer who decides to take his young wife on their honeymoon to the countryside of the bessa, as a sort of romantic adventure for them both. They drive about the bleak countryside in a rather smart horse-drawn carriage, at first visiting acquaintenances in traditional homes, where men and women sleep separately (not a lot of fun on your honeymoon). The writer husband spends most of the time explaining the Kanun traditions to the wife. This is a useful explanatory device from the author's point of view, but could have been rather boring for the wife. Both of them take a romantic view of the traditions, without thinking much about the human results. In all this, the wife is fairly compliant, but obviously someone who thinks for herself.
The third story has two characters. The first is the Chief Steward of the Blood, who works on behalf of the Prince (Duke?), to whom tribute is payable in the whole region. Whenever a revenge killing takes place, the avenger must pay the blood dues to the Prince, and attend in person at the castle to pay them. The Chief Steward is a sort of tax collector who also does inspections in the region to make sure he knows what is going on, and records in the history records the state of each blood feud in each district. His musings in the book are a sort of economic forecast of the state of the blood feuds (declining) and what he can do about it, (to revive some old feuds that people have forgotten about). The other character is an arbitrator, a local expert on the Kanun, who spends his time settling disputes about land ownership and boundaries. This allows some more explanations about how the Kanun works in practice, in areas not involving any need for killing.
Gradually all three stories become intertwined, as the young couple journey about the region. The writer points out to his wife, the blood feud killer who wears the appropriate armband. While they travel about, often watching the arbitrator make his judgements, the wife becomes increasing detached from her husband and moves into a reverie about the young killer, with whom one senses she is imagining some sort of romantic attachment. At one level this is understandable. She has come with her husband on her homeymoon, and all she gets is lectures on the Kanun. In turn he wonders why she is so detached.
Two stories end in tragedy. The young man hopes to reach home during the period of the truce, while he pays the dues, but just fails and is shot. In the other story, the young couple visit a village where towers which protect men from revenge are located. It is forbidden for other people to enter the towers. The wife disappears and then it appears she has entered a tower. The implications of this are not made clear. I thought that perhaps she would meet the young killer, but he is elsewhere. The result, nonetheless, is the end of the marriage. For whatever reason, she is not the same when she came out as when she went in. One could say that she has chosen a more romantic and fanciful life. Or maybe she has got rid of a rather boring husband. It' was all left very unclear to me anyway. Maybe I missed something really important.
As for the third story, the implication from the shooting is that the revenge will continue repeating itself in the region as long as there are people there willing to live by the Kanun. It's interesting that the Kanun itself was first written down by a priest in the late 19th century. It's hard to think of this revenge killing being part of a Christian society. Yet the Kanun incorporates a role for the Church and acknowledges its existence. I managed to get hold of a copy of the English translation, but haven't yet had time to have more than a quick flick through. It is written rather like a law, in numbered paragraphs, with the first chapter being about the church, and how people on church ground are safe from the bessa. The writer (in the book) claims that attempts to impose normal justice and policing have been attempted but were rejected by the people themselves, who preferred the Kanun, which after all had been around since before the Turks.
Somewhere else I have read that wherever it is difficult to achieve normal policing and justice, eg in mountainous areas, where access is difficult and society is split into different clans or family structures, these sort of honour rules are required to form some sort of ethical structure by which people should live their lives and by which disputes can be settled. The implication seems to be that Christian or Moslem religions are not enough. And disputes there always are, as there is not enough agricultural land to go round and the land is overpopulated for the amount of food it can provide in most years. This means that the disputes need to be resolved in a way that reduces the population. Perhaps you can tell I have just been reading Jared Diamond's book Collapse, about this sort of thing (review will follow).
Which reminds me about Patrick Leigh Fermor's book about the Mani, the people who lived in tower houses in the southern tip of the Pelopponese in Greece. They had similar revenge codes, hiding in the tower houses and building them higher as they got richer and could withstand more attacks. Yet truces had to be organised so they could grow food. Or maybe the men stayed in the towers and the women did the farming, I can't remember. The conflicts there must have been also about overpopulation with very limited agricultural land in a remote and mountainous country. And one could also think about the mountainous tribes of the Caucasus, especially Georgia where even today, honour is important.
So what is barbaric, the situation itself of overpopulation leading to conflict, or the method of settling the conflict? Why do people choose to live in mountainous regions where life is hard? And what sort of rules should they have when there isn't enough food for everyone? And how do you make the rules stick with no judges and policemen available, and when religion itself doesn't seem enough?
And what did really happen to the wife in the tower?