Translated from Albanian by New Amsterdam Books

I might have mentioned that April wasn’t such a great month IRL. It’s at times like these that I like to read depressing books – something that reminds me that things could be worse. Kadare’s Broken April fit that bill perfectly.

Albania. 1930s though there’s only a fleeting reference to Marx to place the timeline. Otherwise I would have thought we were at least a couple of centuries earlier, such is the strangeness of this world. We find ourselves on the High Plateau of Northern Albania, a landscape “peopled by phantoms”. Here, among the poor, the Kanun reigns supreme, a canon which ensures the continuation of the bloodfeud.

A man who kills must in turn be killed by a member of his victim’s family. Then it is the avenger’s turn to meet death, the violence continuing ad infinitum, until both families say stop. To refuse the assignation is a cause for dishonour, and the family risks being ostracised forever. Should the assassination attempt result in a wound, the would-be assassin’s family must pay a fine. Should the assassination be successful, blood money must be paid to the steward of the blood. A killer can be granted a reprieve from vengeance for up to 30 days – to enable him to travel to pay the fine (tax) and make it back to the safety of home. The only other place he might is safe is in a tower of refuge, a place with no light, where he will be holed up with other killers, and gradually lose his sight.

The novel starts on the 17th March, the day when Gjorg Berisha decides he will finally exact vengeance on the killer of his brother. He has tried once before but only wounded his target. A second failure will ruin his family. This time he is successful, and the rest of the novel deals with the next 30 days in which Gjorg must shoulder the heavy weight of his borrowed existence.

Seriously what a burden. What shocked me is that, other than Gjorg, the Berishas don’t question the custom, even though they have lost one son, and are about to lose another. It even turns out that the killing that Gjorg performs is the 27th in the cycle.

The custom is challenged, however, through two other narratives.

Gjorg must travel to Orosh to pay the killing fine. In reality it is a tax, for we discover that the steward of the blood keeps detailed records of the blood killings, and is secretly panicking because the number of killings and thus the revenue stream is diminishing. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Gjorg, 17th March would have been the first day in centuries to record a big, fat zero. But don’t let this statistic fool you. On arriving in Orosh, Gjorg must wait for days to pay his fine, so great is the queue of killers to do so. This is a country where “blood has been turned into merchandise”.

Can you imagine the poison that this must infuse into a society? The damage it must do to the social and psychological fabric? The sense of ensnarement and doom? Can you imagine making this area your honeymoon destination? Yet that is what the writer Bessian, who has written extensively about the High Plateau, does. He and his wife, Diana, are city dwellers from Tirana, and, while he approaches this tour as an intellectual, she is shocked by it. A chance, momentary meeting between Gjorg and Diana proves fateful for both ….

Kadare’s bardic story-telling also lured me into thinking that these customs were from times gone by. But bloodfeuds were still ongoing when his novel was originally published in 1978. Worse still the bloodfeud underwent a revival following the collapse of communism. According to the Tirana Times of 12.06.2018, Albania had 704 families affected by blood feuds, of which 591 still lived in Albania and 113 had left the country.

Oh my goodness, say it ain’t so.