The Accident, by Ismail Kadare, translated by John Hodgson, Canongate, RRP£16.99, 263 pages
I feel privileged to know what the 19th century was like. Not to have a good idea through research or imagination, but to have actually seen it. In 1987 I took a trip to Albania and while the capital Tirana, was dreary and grey and the main exhibit in the Museum of National Achievement was a light bulb, it was still recognisably a city. But when you reached the countryside you went back 100 years and saw peasants without shoes.
Living in Albania was truly the short straw of the Iron Curtain experience. However bad it was in Hungary or Poland, you could occasionally leave. Albania was literally the bunker, and a very uncomfortable one.
Ismail Kadare (born in 1936) was virtually the only writer from Albania to achieve international recognition. His 17th novel, The Accident, is an account of the Balkans after the fall of the Wall, but it is hard for those who didn’t witness the lunacy of the dictator Enver Hoxha to appreciate, for instance, a paragraph where his protagonists go home to visit: “‘Incredible,’ she said after a pause … The restaurants along the road with their Hollywood names were incredible, and so were the villas with their private swimming pools, the former communists turning into oligarchs, the former middle classes turning into God knows what and the glimmering lights of the Royal Court with their tug of nostalgia.”
John Hodgson’s translation from the Albanian reads very well and The Accident starts off promisingly with the death of an Albanian couple, one of whom works for the Council of Europe, in a car accident in Austria, an accident so unsuspicious that various Balkan intelligence agencies find it suspicious and, à la Princess Diana, dig up all sorts of conspiracy theories.
As a veteran of Stalinist Albania, Kadare is highly adept at depicting paranoia and gratuitous suspicion, and The Accident has several acerbic and witty reflections on the messy history of the Balkans over the last 20 years: “both the Serbs’ gratitude to their defenders and their hatred for their destroyers, which Balkan custom suggested would persist for centuries, had unexpectedly begun to fade. Their vows of revenge, their rage and whining of the past were now recalled with more curiosity than pain.”
However, as a novel, it is dull and the characters have all the depth of a sheet of a paper. The Accident comes with a “recommended by [writers’ organisation] PEN” rubric. They should be ashamed of themselves for giving such an endorsement, as this book could put its readers off literature for life. Ismail Kadare has, however, become a totem figure in literary circles, mostly because he has seen the inside of totalitarianism.
It should be remembered that many of the great champions of democracy and free speech who emerged from under the juggernaut of communism, many of the East European writers you’ve heard of, either started off supporting the system, or doing nothing to oppose it until they were established and it was cramping their style.
Kadare is in his seventies and his recent output has been rather thin (although he won the first International Man Booker Prize in 2005). Like Kundera, Kadare has been living in Paris and it seems that the adulation of French intellectuals is deleterious to your prose (most of the enthusiasm you find on Kadare’s bookjackets are snipped from French journals).
The Pyramid (1993), about the building of Cheops’ pyramid, is an allegory of Hoxha’s Albania that probably would have made for fascinating reading in Hoxha’s Albania, but provides poor fare for the rest of us. You have to go back to something like The File on H (1981) to get something that amounts to a proper novel; an amusing story of two scholars visiting Albania in the 1930s to study Albanian epic poetry and its reciters in order to understand better the transmission of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
If you feel tempted to try Kadare – and he does have considerable talent – choose one of his earlier novels. Broken April (1978) for example, or my favourite, The General of the Dead Army (1963). An eerie story about a German general coming to Albania after the second world war to repatriate the remains of dead German soldiers, it will make you understand why many people rate Kadare as a novelist. The Accident, unfortunately, is a waste of paper and the time of anyone who starts reading it.
Tibor Fischer is the author of ‘Good to be God’ (Alma Books)