The works of Albania’s most controversial author Ismail Kadare reach English-reading audiences by a more arduous process than those of other foreign writers. Apparently nobody English speaks Albanian; or, if they do happen to be fluent in English and Albanian, they must have better things to do with their time than translate literature, because Kadare’s works are translated first into French and then into English. There are always numerous concerns regarding translated literature (primarily regarding the translator’s loyalty to the original), and more so when the literature in question has been translated from a translation, but Kadare’s writings seem to have emerged pretty well. This is evidently a testament to the skills of both the author and his translators.
The first book of Kadare’s I read was Broken April, which transported me to the Albanian mountains and the midst of an ancient blood feud, with the shadow of the Kanun (the book in which the code of the blood feud is written) colouring everyone and everything. With Spring Flowers, Spring Frost I was expecting a read at least as entrancing as Broken April, but rather disappointingly I found it distinctly unsatisfying.
The story follows Mark, an artist, as he struggles to make sense of what is happening to Albania, and in his life. Mark and Albania have both lost track of where they are going and what they are doing, and both man and nation are desperately trying to avoid slipping into utter despair and confusion. The book is written in chapters and counter-chapters, juxtaposing Mark’s life in the present with myths and legends of old that Mark contemplates in an attempt to understand love, life, and Albania’s precarious teetering on the boundary between the old society and the new. The Kanun is omnipresent in this book also, threatening to break down the fragile new society and deny Albania entry into the EU.
I’m ashamed to say I’m not too good with subtlety in books, and I definitely feel as though I have missed something crucial in this one. One of the mysteries I am still trying to work out is Mark’s absent friend, Zef. He is a conspicuous absence throughout the book, and one that the author touches on repeatedly, but I can’t see why. The surreal aspects of this novel are always touched upon by reviewers with mixed conclusions, but for me, it contributed to the disappointment I felt with the book overall. I am in no way implying that this is not a novel worth reading; I just didn’t get on with it. Although I appreciate the themes and techniques employed by Kadare, I didn’t like the characters or the grittiness of the subject matter. I’d love to hear anyone else’s thoughts on this book if anyone has read it.
* Article on Kadare winning the International Man Booker Prize in 2005
* Albanian Literature online