A Kind of Poetical Galaxy: Ismail Kadare’s The File on H

“The droplets of condensation on the window pane reminded her of tears on a tragic-comic mask…”

Oral poetry fascinates me. In particular, I’ve always found the story of Milman Parry and Albert Lord’s pathbreaking investigations into the origins of the Homeric epic – that I wrote about here – spellbinding. So when, in Aeneid lectures this week, the professor informed us that Ismail Kadare’s (a name I was hearing for the first time) The File on H was an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the oral epic, I promptly issued it from the Balliol library.

A quick google reveals that Kadare is considered to be the foremost Albanian writer and poet of the 20th century (whatever that might mean or signify), and that he won the inaugural Man Booker International Award in 2005. Here is the blurb:

Society in rural Albania had evolved little since the Middle Ages. What better place in which two Irish-American scholars might study the tradition of oral poetry, in the hope of understanding how Homeric epics came to be composed and handed down, to elucidate the strange commerce between memory and forgetting. The small country town through which they pass, and the remote inn that serves as their base, are not left unaffected, however, by their presence: the society ladies, and not least the restless and ambitious wife of the Governor, insist on having their due; the Governor himself is under instructions from the Minister for the Interior to spy on the scholars’ activities, which are assumed to be an insidious form of espionage; and the notion of trapping the speech of the traveling rhapsodes in their new-fangled tape-recorder excites fear and outrage in a country where even a person’s shadow, let alone his voice, is considered capable of capture and annihilation. The two simple, dedicated scholars realise only too late that they have stumbled over an ant’s nest…

This is a brilliant book. In it, the bleakness of Kafka meets the laughter of Wodehouse; the unsparing psychological portraits of Maupassant mingle with the surrealism of Garcia Marquez; and the whole work is shot through with a wistful yearning for days past, a brooding reflection on memory and loss, and a dirge for the breaking of things.

As the blurb suggests, the story is a fictional re-telling of the Parry-Lord journey to central Europe to solve the Homeric question by examining a living oral epic tradition. Of course, while Parry and Lord went to Bosnia, Max and Bill, their (fictional) equivalents, journey to Albania. But, just like Parry and Lord, they too carry with them the recently-invented tape-recording technology, desperate to salvage something of a dying tradition, in the last place where it yet survives, before it is gone forever.

Kadare begins with a series of acute portrayals of life in a provincial Albanian town, with all its dreariness, weariness and ennui, a world seen most starkly through the eyes of the deeply frustrated wife of the governor.

“She picked up the telephone under her customary cloud of melancholy, condensed from dozens of disappointments when, on hearing the same bell ring, she had rushed to it in the hope of hearing some really uplifting news that would relieve the monotony of her life, only to hear through the perforated Bakelite her husband’s trivial interrogations…”

And when the news of the foreigners first arrives:

“…and the day, wound up like a string by that bell, had been transformed from a slack stretch of time into its opposite – into a day full of surprise and mystery…”

Setting off a rapid chain of fantasising:

“… and she imagined herself in the arms of the one, then in the arms of the other, dancing the tango to the tune called “Jealousy…”

And:

She ran back to the phone but as she picked up the receiver she froze. Before passing on such radiant news to the postmaster’s wife she felt the need to savour it all alone for a little longer…”

And:

“Chaotically, without seeking to make her mind keep to any logical sequence, she saw herself first entangled with the hairy redhead, Max Ross, not because she was really attracted to him, but by force of circumstance, or rather by the desire to encounter the whole range of initial emotions, exhaustively and sophisticatedly (rivalry, exacerbated jealous etc.) before plunging fully into an affair with the other, Bill.”

And for the governor himself:

Good God, how do you manage to keep the same smile on your face for hours at a stretch, for dozens of people?

And:

with his early-evening smile upon his face…

The characterisation is sparse, spare, almost like – to use a pet analogy of mine – an impressionist painting, leaving the reader to complete the vision with his mind’s eye. And, like the best of impressionist paintings, it is utterly compelling.

Things begin to get complicated when spies are deputed to watch the movements of the Irishmen, suspected as they are (as all foreigners are) of unknown and unknowably nefarious purposes. Here is where we begin to get drawn into a Kafka-esque world of the infinite State with its labyrinthine machines and machinations, but unlike Kafka, Kadare is relentlessly humorous; his spies and his provincial officials are so puffed up, so taken in by their own sense of self-importance, so utterly mock-Machiavellian, that it is impossible to be bogged down by the crushing inevitability of individual destruction that accompanies The Castle or The Trial. Of course, the shadow of secret police, show trials, purges and darkness at noon is ever-present in the background, and a distinct sense of unease pervades the novel, but it never grows to define it. So, consider:

“He tried to get “notwithstanding” into his report three times over, but however hard he tried, he could not manage to get it in the right place; it stuck out from the other words like a foreign body, like an unacceptable and even comical intrusion, and he crossed it out three times over with a stroke of the pen that was more like the lash of a whip. “oh, oh,” he groaned aloud. A vulgar little spy who can write better than I can! Well, anyway, he added by way of self-consolation, flowers also grow better on dunghills. “

And then, with these two themes playing in the background, as Max and Bill arrive in the old inn at the crossroads of the rhapsodes’ ways, we begin to slip into the theme of epic. We are informed, early on, about how their project is not simply a work of detached, academic investigation into the Homeric question. Rather:

“For more than a thousand years, Albanians and Slavs had been in ceaseless conflict in this area. They had quarreled over everything – over land, over boundaries, over pastures and watering holes, and it would have been entirely unsurprising had they also disputed the ownership of local rainbows. And as if that were not enough, they were also squabbling over the ancient epics which existed, just to make things completely intractable, in both languages, Albanian and Serbo-Croatian. Each of the two people asserted that it had created the epic, leaving the other nation the choice of being considered either a thief or a mere imitator.”

And, as Bill reminds Max, their work on Homer plunges them right into the conflict, working on a question, as they are, that will decide the controversy of historical precedence in the occupation of the Balkan peninsula. If, as they suspect, they find evidence linking the Albanian epic to the Greek, then it is proof that Albanian were present in the Balkans during classical times, and certainly before the Serbo-Croats. Epic poetry will become a formidable weapon in political conflict.

As the Irishmen’s work goes on, we are taken deeper into the nuances of oral epic poetry. We are introduced to the core of the oral tradition, the formulaic epithet, that tool both of memory and of metre:

What shifts and what stays fixed in epic poetry? Is there an unchanging core of material that ensures the integrity of the art-form over the centuries?… up to now we believed that the anchoring role was played by the figures of speech, the models or fixed forms of the language, or, to put it another way, the basic moulds into which epic material was poured… so we were convinced that the ancient laboratory’s linguistic equipment, which was itself unchanging, guaranteed the homogeneity of its poetic production. 

That is the standard Parry-Lord thesis. But, as Bill and Max find out, even the formulae are subject to change, albeit slowly and incrementally. And it is linked, in the end, to the art of forgetting – what prevents the epic from attrition – or dissolution – is the individual rhapsode’s ability to both remember and forget – to add as well as subtract from the corpus available to him.

“How are we going to know why and by what mysterious means a line that has been forgotten and shrouded in darkness for years may emerge into the light once again? And that’s leaving aside the fact that the phenomenon occurs not just within the repertoire of an individual rhapsode, but, as if carried along by a subterranean stream, an omitted line can be restored by some other rhapsode in a different time and place. Epic fragments seem able to climb out of the gave where the bard’s body has been rotting away for years, claw their way through the earth, and come alive in another’s song, as if death had not changed them at all.”

I think what’s important about the passage is its re-emphasis on an idea that cannot be stressed enough: assumptions of individuality and authorship, assumptions that we bring unthinkingly to our reading of written texts, simply don’t apply to the oral tradition which is, in a very Eliotic sense, a “tradition“. The image of a stream, a stream of epic that flows through time and space, borne along by the currents of its own logic, independent of individual efforts to dam or direct it, is a very striking one. As the scholars recognise, at another point, while they muse upon the history of epic poetry:

They thought that if Homer’s version of the Iliad had not been written down and subsequently published, then it too could easily have been fragmented and then been reassembled later on into a quite different shape. The cycles of condensation and dissolution of this kind of epic poetry must have some resemblance to the cycles of creation, fragmentation and re-creation of possible worlds from cosmic dust… more and more, epic poetry seemed to the like a kind of poetical galaxay under the sway of mysterious forces.

So much for that. As the reader approaches the book – especially a reader aware of the work of Parry and Lord, he is undoubtedly very sympathetic to the project. Saving – rescuing – salvaging – preserving for posterity – these are the things that come to mind when one contemplates what Bill and Max are trying to do. They are trying to keep a dying tradition alive by recording the songs of the last of the oral rhapsodes.

And yet, is it truly that simple? At the end of the first recording, when the Irishmen – and we – are flushed with a sense of triumph, of having participated in a great and memorable moment, of having set out on the road to making a fundamental contribution to the world’s heritage, we are given the first, faint sense of something being wrong. Because, when they play back the recorder, and the rhapsode’s now-artificial voice fills the room, Bill and Max feel that:

There was something quite horrifying about this disconnection, this removal of a man from the attributes which give him his distinct and independent existence. 

But what, precisely, is so horrifying about this? I don’t think that this is a point about imitation in general, but is uniquely characteristic of oral poetry. That is because, as I discussed earlier, when writing on Parry-Lord, the “distinct and independent existence” of the performer is one of the cornerstones of oral poetry. There is no original, no standard, no text; on the contrary, each performance is an act of creation, and each performer an author many times over. And this, of course, changes fundamentally with the advent of a device like the tape-recorder. As Kadare writes:

The rhapsodist is the main wheel in the machinery of the epic. He is publisher, bookseller and librarian all at once, and also rather more than that: he is a posthumous co-author and, in this capacity, has the right to amend the text. It’s perfectly legal, no-one disputes his right, and no one criticizes him for doing so, except perhaps his own conscience.  

Of course, I have serious reservations about using the word “text” and “amend” at all (I wonder if something’s been lost in translation), because we know from Parry and Lord that in oral poetry, there is no such thing as a “text”, and consequently, no such thing as an “amendation” (since you need a standard to amend). But that minor quibble apart, what changes with the advent of the tape-recorder is precisely what changes with the advent of the written word – the creation of a model, a standard. And as Parry and Lord tell us, the written word destroyed the oral. Ex hypothesi, does not a recording device serve exactly the same function as the written word?

At some points, the thought occurs to Bill and Max themselves:

On other occasions they told themselves that oral epic could only ever exist in the scattered form in which they found it, and they there were betraying and altering their material by trying to put its pieces together. In that way of thinking, oral recitation was less like a poetic entity than a medieval order… 

And certainly, to the locals. This, from a conversation:

“This machine walls up the ancient songs, imprisons them within itself, and you know as well as I do what happens to a song when you wall up is voice. It’s like when you wall up a man’s shadow. He wilts and dies. That’s what happens to him. It doesn’t matter to me, I’m only a foreigner myself, my land and my Serbian songs are far away in a safe place, but I deplore what’s going on for your sake. With this machine these Irishmen will cut limbs from your body. They’ll mow down all those old songs that are the joy of life, and without them it will be like being deaf. You’ll wake up one fine morning and find yourselves in a desert and you’ll hold your heads in your hands; but meanwhile, those devils will have fled far away. They’ll have robbed you of everything, and you’ll be condemned to deafness for the rest of your lives.”

Normally, we would be inclined to give this short shrift, since the conversation occurs in a deeply political context, and the monologue is clearly motivated by nationalist fervour. Nonetheless, Kadare has destabilised our conceptions enough, by now, to make us wonder: could there actually be a kernel of truth in this? Can the nature of oral poetry ever remain the same once it has been recorded? Even if, like Parry and Lord, like Bill and Max, your purpose is to preserve as much as you can, as many versions of the same story (does that even make grammatical sense in the context of oral poetry) – because what you’ll have at the end of that is multiple standards/models, but standards and models nonetheless.

Is the very idea of “preservation” antithetical to the essence of oral poetry? 

And does that mean that if oral poetry is dying, we are faced with the grim choice of either letting it die or, by preserving it, change its fundamental character – so that oral poetry is dead anyway? And what ought we to do.

Kadare is profoundly ambivalent on this point, an ambivalence that is summed up towards the end, as Bill and Max reflect on their work:

Whereas they had previously despaired at the dispersion of the Albanian epic tradition, they now felt reassured that the entire corpus was in good order. What to begin with had seemed like shards scattered through space and time, as ungraspable as the mane of rainbows, as wind and burnt dust, and quite impossible to collect, was now locked in numbered metal reel cases. Sometimes it seemed hard to credit that they had managed to tame all that hatred and all that passion. 

As the underlined phrases suggest – and as the images of “locking” and “taming”, as opposed to “ungraspable” signify – the soul of oral poetry lies in its resistance to being caught, labeled, classified, pinned down, defined. Once you do accomplish that, you lose something precious.

What conclusions, then, are we meant to draw about the project? At times it seems absurd to even begin to doubt, to doubt the value of Parry-Lord’s work, and the worth of their discoveries, their contribution to our knowledge about a great field of human endeavour. But Kadare makes us wonder. And the ending – which I won’t spoil here – only serves to make the ambivalence deeper and more profound.

As is the case with the best of books, you can’t quite sleep at night after having turned the last page.

Kadare’s Wiki entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ismail_Kadare

The File on H: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_File_on_H

The opening page: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/k/kadare-file.html

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/95916.The_File_on_H

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9 Comments

Filed under Albania, Epic, European Writing, Homer, Ismail Kadare, Milman Parry & Albert Lord

9 responses to “A Kind of Poetical Galaxy: Ismail Kadare’s The File on H

  1. Fascinating commentary on a fascinating book.

    Indeed it is an artistic tragedy that oral poetry has been on the wane over the centuries. I think that to some degree this is a trend effects many things in the modern world. Standardization and recording of various art forms such as music, as well as the work of artisans has hindered and in some cases stopped the creativity and unpredictability of “natural evolution”. In recent decades this even has had a major impact upon food culture.

    Sadly it seems that in the case of oral poetry however, this trend may very well destroy the art-form.

    • Lord argues that the very advent of the written word is the surest destruction of the oral epic. The moment you have a written record, that *becomes* a standard, a measure – and that’s fundamentally opposed to the very identity of the oral epic.

  2. Bit of a coincidence as I’ve been eyeing Kadare and finally took the plunge and bought a novel.

  3. This was the first Kadare I read; it’s good to see it get attention and such an excellent review. It blew me away when I read it.

    I’ve since read a few others, of which Broken April was perhaps my favourite. I’d highly recommend that too. The Substitute was good, but not nearly on the same level (actually, I think I’ve got the title wrong there, but that in itself suggests it wasn’t up there with Broken April and The File on H). Tremendous writer, far too often overlooked.

  4. Pingback: “This world is an orphanage for fallen stars”: narrative, war and orientalism in Ismail Kadare’s “The Siege” | anenduringromantic

  5. Pingback: 2013: The Year in Books | anenduringromantic

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