Monthly Archives: July 2013

“Beyond the glass was anguish and night”: Myth, tradition, causation and responsibility in Ismail Kadare’s, ‘Broken April’

In my last post, I wrote about how Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk deals principally with the effect of tradition and ideology upon the minds, the psyches and the actions of people subject to it. Ismail Kadare’s Broken April is a subtle and disturbing exploration of the same theme. Set in the heart of the Albanian mountains, Broken April is the story of Gjorg, a young man who is required by the traditional law of the community, the kanun, to kill the man who, in turn, had killed his brother, as part of a seventy-year old blood feud between two families. The blood feud itself had its origin in the killing of a guest of Gjorg’s family by a member of the other clan, at the borders of their village: according to the kanun, if the victim falls with his face towards the village, the duty of revenge lies upon his host, while if he falls away from the village, it is upon his family. The victim had fallen with his face to the village and so, over the last seventy years, the young men of both families have killed one another in sequence, revenge killing following revenge killing, in accordance with the rules of the kanun.

And once Gjorg does so as well, the same law of the blood feud mandates that he is then to be hunted down and killed in the same way – after a thirty-day truce period. Gjorg kills his man on the seventeenth day of March. The thirty days after which his life will be forfeit, the thirty days remaining to him of a normal human life, end on the seventeenth of April. Hence, the name of the book, Broken April: “half a March and half an April, like two broken branches glittering with frost.”

Much like Palace Walk, we are introduced to a society whose mores seem harsh, alien and utterly absurd. And once again, we are introduced to a cast of characters for whom even questioning, let alone challenging them, is utterly beyond the scope of their mental horizon. Kadare’s touch is deft: the influence of the kanun is felt in myriad different ways, percolating insidiously, almost unconsciously, into the very thinking of the characters. As Gjorg reflects on the origin of the blood feud, the killing of a guest of his family by a member of the enemy clan at the very borders of their village, a succession of thoughts passes through his mind:

“Oh, if only he had stopped a little further on… but he had stopped exactly where he had, and no-one could change that anymore, no more than anyone could change the direction in which the victim had fallen, no more than anyone could change the rules of the ancient kanun…”

In Gjorg’s mind, the rules of the kanun, which are human creations, if anything is, are assimilated, in their invariance, to a question of pure chance (a guest picking one particular random door to knock on) and the laws of physics (the direction in which a bullet-victim falls). And just as one cannot question, object to or challenge chance of physics, just as one can do nothing but accept them as they are, and plan to live one’s life in accordance with their dictates, so is the influence of the kanun upon the community. The point is hammered home by the fact that what Gjorg holds responsible as the ultimate cause of the blood feud, the cause of his own suspended sentence of death, is not the (human-made) prescriptions of the kanunbut the knocking of the guest upon their door, seventy years ago. It is akin to holding Julius Caesar’s great-grandparents responsible for the destruction of the Roman Republic; we recognise the absurdity of the claim because while, in one sense, Caesar’s great-grandparents  are a cause of the destruction of the Roman Republic, we do not hold them responsible for it – the responsibility lies with Caesar’s actions. Conflating the two would indicate a serious lapse in our moral framework – just as Gjorg’s own analysis of his situation, in conflicting causal and responsible factors appears, to the sensibilities with which we approach the novel, a serious moral error.

This, then, is the kanun – inevitable as chance, immutable as nature. But there is something more to it. Because Gjorg has spent his entire conscious life in the shadow of the kanun‘s blood-feud rules, he cannot even conceptualize an alternative life:

“Beyond the blood-law. He almost let out a sigh. What must life be like in a such families. How did they get up in the mornings and how did they go to bed at night? It all seemed almost incredible, as remote perhaps, as the life of birds.”

Like all cast-iron traditions, the kanun exists and maintains its hold by giving life a meaning, a meaning that would be lost if the kanun were to disappear, reducing life to an unbearable husk drifting aimlessly across an ocean of nothingness. Through his suspended sentence of death, because of his suspended sentence of death, Gjorg feels life throbbing in his veins, a life that is denied to those who live prosaically outside the blood-feud bind:

“He felt that his heart leaped from his chest, and, opened up in that way he was vulnerable, sensitive to everything, so that he might rejoice in anything, be cast down by anything, small or large – butterfly, a leaf, boundless snow…”

With heightened senses, everything appears sharper, and with dazzling clarity, a clarity of the fragile and passing nature of everything, the very nature that imbues life with meaning:

“The world shone like glass, and with a kind of crystal madness, it seemed that it might begin to slip at any moment and shatter into thousands of tiny fragments.”

But into this bleak and frightening world enter two strangers: Bessian, a writer, who has written panegyrics to the mountains and the mountaineers, and his newly-wedded wife, Diana. At a roadside inn, Bessian and Diana catch a glimpse of Gjorg, who must travel to the castle of the “Prince”, in order to pay the blood-feud tax. As Bessian explains the rules of the kanun, with its “towers of silence” – dark towers where killers can retreat to live forever, exempt from being hunted down, fed by family members who place bowls of food on the threshold – and its “safe roads”, where alone, in all the mountains, there is permanent truce – Diana’s imagination is captured by the inevitable, approaching death of Gjorg, combined with her horror of the kanun and its rules. And before Diana’s understandable shock, Bessian’s attempts to romanticise the custom seem pale and contrived:

“It is at once terrible, absurd, fatal, like all the really important things…” 

But it doesn’t feel important. It feels absurd and unnecessary, a tragic waste of human life. The feeling is driven home later, when Bessian and Diana are guests of the Prince and his kinsman. At dinner, Diana’s skepticism has a disconcerting effect upon the kinsman:

“Some of the opinions offered – quite discreetly, by his master, the prince, which had always seemed to him to have the force of law, to be beyond discussion, quietly fell apart annihilated, as soon as they came before that young woman’s eyes…”

Because what we accept as natural, as fixed by unchallengeable decree, can be ripped off its foundations in the face of the incredulity and incomprehension of another, someone who doesn’t, after all, accept it as given. That is one way. The other way is to historicise tradition, to examine its construction and the motivations of those who maintain it. Later, Bessian gets into a violent argument with the medical assistant of a community judge, a man who measures the depth and extent of wounds in order that the appropriate permissible revenge, in accordance with the kanun, may be calculated by the judge. A city man himself, rationalist and skeptical, the doctor meets Bessian’s lyricisation of the kanun with all the withering force of Marxist materialism. The blood feud, he explains to Bessian, has long transformed itself into an inhuman machine, a capitalist enterprise aimed at and run with the objective of making profit, especially during a time of economic problems: the blood tax is the focal point of the economy of the blood-feud, and it is in the personal interest of the Prince and those who depend upon it to have it continue unabated, at the cost of sustained and continuous killing. Bessian is furious; but as we see the Prince’s kinsman lodging the numbers of those killed in a daily ledger-book, lamenting the steady decline over the course of the years, and almost weeping with relief when Gjorg’s arrival ensures that the 17th of March did not become the first day in three centuries without a single blood-feud death, the tradition loses whatever glory Gjorg’s own reflections, and Bessian’s paeans, almost convinced us of. We feel more inclined to agree with Diana, as she berates her husband:

“Your books, your art, they all smell of murder.”

As the book hurtles towards a climax, with Diana seeking the man who had captured her imagination, who she feels is her “mountain Hamlet”, and Gjorg himself frantically seeking her, the woman he had glimpsed for a moment in a carriage, before his broken April runs out – these parallel themes of myth, tradition and the clash of moral frameworks become inextricably intertwined with one another, so that at the end of it all, there are no conclusions: it is with a haunting sense of ambiguity that one closes the book, a sense that remains long afterwards.

And in addition to that, the book, like all great books, – while in no sense aiming to be didactic, in any shape or form – invites us to think; to think deeply about whether the assumptions that we hold for ourselves as given, as immutable, as simply natural cannot themselves, when viewed from a different vantage point, appear irrational, contrived and absurd. We are in a position where we can despair at the savagery of the kanun, and lament Gjorg’s servile submission to it – what then is our own equivalent of the kanun?

Lastly, a note on language: I’ve mentioned before how Kadare is a beautiful writer; his use of imagery and metaphor to establish mood is brilliant, and his prose leaps off the page – singing, dancing with abandon. A few of the more outstanding examples:

“He had the feeling that bits of his brain had frozen, like those patches of snow along the sides of the road.”

“Little by little the stories came out from under their cloaks, like blackbeetles, wandered out quietly, passed one another.”

“Stone casts a heavy shadow.” 

“… silent but not completely desolate as a field strewn with stars might be desolate.”

I cannot recommend this book – and Kadare in general – highly enough.


Filed under Albania, Ismail Kadare