The Accident: Ismail Kadare won't sit on his laurels

It has been seven years since one of Kadare's books last appeared in English; now we get The Accident, issued by Canongate in an able translation by John Hodgson.

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The Accident
Ismail Kadare

Ever since his career in fiction began in 1963 with a satire on patriotism, The General of the Dead Army, the Albanian novelist, poet, and essayist Ismail Kadare has been deeply concerned with history, myth, folktales, their secret meanings, and their applicability as parables of contemporary political life. He had the misfortune to be born into the long-lasting, brutal, and insular dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, who was both paranoid and ruthlessly autocratic. Kadare has often commented on the relation of these facts, stating quite openly that Hoxha's brutality, visited on dissidents with a swiftness greater even than Joseph Stalin's, forced writers to approach political themes in an oblique, metaphorical fashion.

This formal tendency of Kadare's has greatly outlasted Hoxha, who died in 1985. That suggests it may derive as much from the author's artistic constitution as from his circumstances. Whatever its source, Kadare's approach yielded any number of potent successes, from 1970's The Castle, set in the 16th century during an Ottoman siege of an Albanian fortress, to 1992's The Pyramid, in which the cyclopean architectural efforts of the Egyptian pharaoh Cheops II serve as a means of examining Hoxha's Albania. Kadare's 2003 collection Agamemnon's Daughter takes up similar metaphors (mining, the Great Wall of China) in a similar service. The author has, in addition to being a masterful reimaginer of his country's mythic past, long served as a public advocate of the view that serious literary art and totalitarian government are not merely incompatible but mutually exclusive (to his credit, his advocacy continued even after he was granted asylum in France, where he has lived since 1990).

It has been seven years since one of Kadare's books last appeared in English; now we get The Accident, issued by Canongate in an able translation by John Hodgson. In its structure and thematic concerns the novel is closely connected to its predecessors, though it superficially resembles a spy thriller. Set in the years following the end of the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, The Accident purports to tell the story of a nameless researcher and archivist tasked with investigating a mysterious car accident in Vienna. The crash killed Besfort Y., a Serbian diplomat, and Rovena St., his lover, an Albanian student. Their deaths, despite being accidental, are judged by various intelligence agencies to have cryptic political overtones. The investigation passes through the hands of the police, intelligence operatives, and extra-governmental organisations before coming to the attention of the aforementioned researcher, who begins to scrutinise the joint history of the victims with intelligence, reserve, and a growing suspicion that there is more to the incident than is immediately apparent.

As he delves more deeply, the forces at play become murkier; by the novel's end, Kadare has done a great deal to undermine the notion that even the most basic phenomena possess a sure and certain objective existence. Identity, the brutal sexual and psychological contests for dominance that characterise romantic relationships, the uneasy kinship between art and reality, and the omnipresence of the past: Kadare uses the strange story of Besfort and Rovena to immerse himself in all these mysteries (there can be little doubt that the unnamed researcher is a stand-in for Kadare himself, or at least a sharer of his philosophies).

The Accident is a highly ambitious novel, following several discrete but related lines of metaphysical inquiry. Its themes are fraught, earthy, even carnal: war, illicit love, political repression and personal isolation. An atmosphere, in other words, as Kunderaesque as it is Kadarean, though it lacks the self-admiration that so often colours Kundera's novels.

Such ambition, especially in a writer who might well, at Kadare's age and with his accomplishments, rest quiet comfortably on his laurels, is praiseworthy indeed. And many of its particulars are also admirable: deftly executed interpolations from Don Quixote and Albanian mythology, hard-to-ignore apercus from the protagonists ("Oh my God, here I am being treated like a whore in the middle of Europe," Rovena thinks during a chilling psychological battle with Besfort), and astute, gnomic observations on the nature of tyranny (Besfort tells the tale of a dictator whose most loyal servants became conspirators against him, to justify his fantasies of being plotted against).

Yet it is difficult to applaud The Accident with a whole heart, despite these incidental brilliancies. It is presented, within the frame of the nameless researcher's investigative efforts, as the story of a man and woman bound inextricably to each other through love and insensate cruelty, in more or less equal proportion. This is its central aspect; all of its thematic strands must be viewed as a part of this story. And The Accident's crippling flaw lies precisely in Kadare's construction of these characters.

As persuasive as the ideas they voice are, and as rich in psychological potential as the compulsions driving them may be, they are nothing more, in the end, than vessels. They think and speak with a strange, harsh eloquence, certainly. Here Besfort enlarges on his theories about Enver Hoxha's insanity: "Sometimes the leader's mind was easier to read. He had enslaved the entire nation, and now the adoration of the conspirators would crown his triumph. Some people guessed that he was sated with the love of his loyal followers, and that he now wanted something new and apparently impossible – the love of traitors …"

And here Rovena awakens alone in a foreign hotel, gripped by fear: "Even before she opened her eyes, her bare arm groped for him, but he wasn't there. Drowsily, she stretched her arm further, to the edge of the bed. Beyond lay Austria and the plains of Europe. The names of great cities glowed palely like on old wireless sets, fraught with terror… Finally she opened her eyes. The waking world was in order."

But at precisely those moments when two lovers with their claws sunk to the quick in one other would use the personal idioms that long intimacy and long hostility engender –- at precisely those moments, in other words, when the otherwise well-spoken Rovena and Besfort must reveal themselves nakedly or make their struggle seem like a game, an exercise with no purpose beyond itself – Kadare's vision, otherwise acute, fails him, and he is reduced, especially in the case of Rovena, to placing platitudes in their mouths.

"'You scare me to death,' she had said. 'Aren't you afraid, Besfort? You ask for impossible things …'

"He did not know if he was scared or not. He knew it was too late to turn back. Why was he doing this? It was easy for him to say he didn't know himself. In fact he did know, but was pretending not to."

It is possible, of course, to argue that this is meant to suggest that what plagues Besfort and Rovena is anomie or inner vacuity, or simply to point out the unavoidable and intrusive fact of the platitudinous. But if this is the case, Kadare has his lovers speak and think with much more penetrating insight at moments of lesser intimacy, and he has evoked too skilfully the shadowy powers that govern the contemporary world for such a deliberately frustrating strategy.

And so his narrative intentions remain cryptic. Kadare hints several times that Besfort and Rovena's story is merely a recapitulation of an ancient Serbian legend about a jailed brigand and his wife; he suggests that Rovena is a ghost or some other form of revenant, and that Besfort may be as well. There seems little doubt that Kadare sees these possibilities as powerful expressions of our real existential detachment and isolation, and the intellectual agility evident in such gestures commands respect. Respect, however, does not suffice as an aesthetic justification; only affinity can. And love, as an old Spanish proverb says (although it may be perverse to quote it in this connection),- requires not reasons but facts.

Sam Munson is a regular contributor to The Review. His first novel, The November Criminals, is published by Doubleday.