Book Review: Ismail Kadare, The H File

By: | Post date: October 19, 2009 | Comments: 17 Comments
Posted in categories: Culture

The good thing about being confined to a chair in the sky is, you can catch up with your reading, because internet connectivity has not yet made it to Cattle Class. So I finally have been able to catch up on reading a book I was given for my birthday 14 months ago. Having internet connectivity means I skim instead of reading; it’s interesting not to have to, and I even managed to resist the urge to chapter hop.

The book was a present from my friends Vlado and Alison. Vlado is Serbian, the book is Albanian (with a Serbian bit part), and the driver for the book is Ancient Greek via Bosnian (Orthodox and Muslim).

Having established its Balkan bona fides, I’ll start again. The book is

  • Ismail Kadare. 2006 [1981]. The File on H. Tr. David Bellos from the French version of the Albanian by Jusuf Vrioni. London: Vintage Books.

And Vlado and Alison bought me it because one of our pub nights, I mentioned Lord & Parry‘s research in Albania and Bosnia on oral poetry, that the novel is based on. That’s the kind of pub nights I go to. (And I only knew vaguely of Kadare’s Three-Arched Bridge; I had no clue he’d written this, a couple of years after meeting Albert Lord.)

So how was it? It’s two novels. One’s an efficiently brutal portrayal of Nowheresville, ’30s Albania; I was about to say “satire”, but I’m not convinced its mix of petty officials, bored housewives, grandiloquent informants and taciturn mountain-men is that far from reality. Well-sketched, with some nice touches in the portrayal and denouement of the governor’s wife.

The other is a meditation on Lord & Parry’s work, tape-recording and setting down oral epic. Because I’ve already read the original publication, the recap in two chapters of a novel went on a bit much for me. And I’m not sure how much the depiction of the Slavs’ and Albanians’ claim to priority was a parody of Balkan rivalries, and how much it was a celebration of them. And Kadare mistakes his background reading: the repetitions of epics by a bard between performances aren’t that verbatim, but noone notices because they’re consistent where it matters. (I wouldn’t fact check Kadare, if he hadn’t turned two chapters over to a summary of oral epic theory.)

But the climax, though perhaps a little obvious, is effective. The songs were indeed being imprisoned, and they were being already spoiled by their incarceration by the time Parry & Lord arrived—not because of tape recorders, but because of printing: bards were already being questioned if their performances deviated from what the school textbook had printed. The climax shows the revenge of the oral, but it was a short-lived revenge: the oral tradition was indeed dying too fast to salvage by luddite autos da fé.

And the final scene clinches, with the fictional Parry & Lord ending up in an epic themselves, and the fictional Parry becoming a bard. As the translator notes, that happened to the real Parry & Lord. (I remembered it did, but it’s a good thing I didn’t see it coming in the novel.)

That kind of thing did happen in Greece as well: a folk song in Chios commemorates Psichari coming home to do research. It’s not a good folksong, but it still stuck around for decades. Maybe one of the last Greek folksongs commemorating a current event was in 1975. I’m happy to be proven wrong about it being one of the last, but Greece is no longer that kind of culture. And the event commemorated wasn’t in Greece: it was the fall of the Whitlam government in Australia, worded like the Cretan laments for the Passion of Christ. Out of place, of course; so much so, the reference to “Lawless Jews” of the song—taken straight from the Passion laments—raised eyebrows, and got defensive commentary. (I’m a few thousand km away from my library right now, so you’ll have to wait for the references. Meantime, here’s a Greek Jewish blogger’s less than sympathetic take on that element of Greek folklore.)

Modern Greece had ballads, but nothing like the thousand-verse epics of Bosnia and Albania. They may have existed in mediaeval times, and given rise to the written Lay of Digenes Akrites. But we’re only guessing that there were sit-down thousand-verse performances of Akrites, as opposed to hundred-verse ballads like what has survived orally. Because the ballads are shorter in Greece, they aren’t as dense with formula as Homer or Bosnia; but formulas are blatantly there.

Anyway. I’m going to try heading out to dinner now for a second time…


  • John Cowan says:

    Jack Cowen

    I am neither Jack nor Cowen, please, for the same kinds of reasons that our kind host is not Νικ Νίκολας.

    Suffering is not unique to the Jews.

    Of course not.

    there is NO museum to what happened, HERE in the good ol' US of A, to the Native Americans

    There is, however, the National Museum of the American Indian, partly on the Washington Mall, partly in New York City, which certainly doesn't scant the subject.

    If I am not mistaken, there is no Black Slavery museum, is there?

    Not yet. I agree that one is needed, and so do the folks at Feel free to send a donation their way so they can get their proposed museum on the Mall set up.


    The notion that something (in this case the Holocaust Museum) is bad because other things comparable to it don't exist (yet) has always baffled me. Here in NYC, for example, we can't modernize the stairs that most people use to get to the subway, or between levels, even though they are much too steep and narrow, making access difficult. Why? Because all the available "accessibility" money is tied up building and operating elevators for a few people with wheelchairs and political clout.

    In any case, the things that happened in America and Turkey and Russia are essentially depraved-indifference murders rather than genocide as such: there was no intent to destroy the people as a people (there eventually came to be such an intent in the U.S., but only after most of the physical killing had ended). The Jewish holocaust is especially notable as the first large-scale application of "administrative massacre", or killing a class of people because they are inconvenient. The Cambodian killing fields are a notorious later incident of administrative genocide.

  • PeterD says:

    Jack Cowen,

    The Nazi holocaust "was a crime against humanity perpetrated on the Jewish people," the mentally handicapped, Gypsies, communists, and many others. Suffering is not unique to the Jews. Ask the Native Americans. Ask the African victims of European colonialism. Ask the Armenians, Greeks. . . Just ask.

    And speaking of Native Americans. . .

    It is indeed rather odd that there is a Nazi holocaust museum in the U.S. dedicated to what the Nazis did to European Jewry (with only a passing mention to the other worthy victims), but there is NO museum to what happened, HERE in the good ol' US of A, to the Native Americans. Is not the U.S. "either the largest or the second largest" North American nation "in the world by population, including among its citizens many holocaust—Did you notice I did not capitalize the "H" in "holocaust" like you did?—survivors and their descendants"?

    If I am not mistaken, there is no Black Slavery museum, is there? Is not the U.S. "either the largest or the . . .

    What about a museum to the millions of southeast Asians killed by you know whom?

    Maybe TURKEY would be so kind to open a museum honouring America's victims. Do you think it would be kinda DISHONEST and INSICERE considering the bloody Turks do not have a museum devoted to the holocaust of over one million Armenians? Just asking.

    Yes, Jack, the Nazi holocaust and ALL holocausts deserve to be remembered.

    P.S. Happy belated nameday, Niko. I'll get to your post. 😉

  • opoudjis says:

    > It begs the question: Why is there a Holocaust museum in the United States?

    By way of response, the following comment by Panagiotis at Sarantakos' blog, to the post on the 1891 Corfu pogrom:

    "I've heard it said that children need clear models (good guys and bad guys), so school histories may be written the way they are for paedagocial reasons. (That's a hypothesis, and I ask those who teach to correct me.) But the aim of history is to repeat the good and to avoid repeating the bad. (Cornelius, how does Thucydides put it?) Not to marvel at ourselves for the majesty of our ancestors that we claim to have inherited, over the remaining barbarians ("when they were still eating acorns, we already had cholesterol!")

    It's worth knowing that we too could have built Auschwitzes, and we too could have staged Distomos and Kalavrytas somewhere else (and maybe we have). It's not the German DNA that's to blame."

    > When you visited the museum, did you by any chance bump into the disheveled professor Elie "Purity of Arms" Wiesel?

    Why no. Instead, I bumped into this photo. The girl who took me to the museum was non-plussed at why that photo in particular affected me so much.

  • John Cowan says:

    Why is there a Holocaust museum in the United States?

    I can't speak for the museum, but I have two answers, one particular, one universal. The first is that the U.S. is either the largest or the second largest Jewish nation in the world by population, including among its citizens many Holocaust survivors and their descendants. The second is that the Holocaust was a crime against humanity perpetrated on the Jewish people (as ordinary murder is a crime against the community perpetrated on an individual), and as such deserves to be remembered by the whole world, the United States not excluded.

  • Peter says:

    (I think I saw it at the Washington Holocaust Museum.)

    It begs the question: Why is there a Holocaust museum in the United States?

    When you visited the museum, did you by any chance bump into the disheveled professor Elie "Purity of Arms" Wiesel? He brought his Holocaust circus to Montreal not too long ago.

    Most Jews in Europe decided there would not be a better Poland, or a better Greece, or a better France, and made aliyah.

    Not so, N.

  • John Cowan says:

    Arrgh. Ancestral [f], of course.

  • jcowan says:

    There is a very long tradition of metathesis in the name of the great Sephardic אַבְּרַבַנְאֵ family of merchants, bankers, physicians, scholars, poets, mystics, civil servants, diplomats, and spies. Abravanel is closest to the Hebrew; Abrabanel would of course be pronounced the same in Spanish; Abarbanel is common, though usually called "erroneous"; Barbanel, Bravanel, Abravaniel, and other variants are all on record or in use today. Abranavel is probably always an error, but to my mind is well within the tradition.

    The origin of this b/v is probably to be found in historical Spanish phonology. After the fall of Latin [h], a new [h] arose in Spanish from ancestral [h] when not followed by [w]: thus [horma] 'mold' < Lat. FORMA and [horno] 'oven' < Lat. FORNIX 'arch', but [fwego] 'fire' < Lat. FOCU 'hearth'. This secondary /h/ came to be written h parallel to the preservation of original h in writing, so we had horno, horma in parallel with haber [aver]. Eventually the secondary [h] was lost as well.

    So when Jews named [abraham] came to Iberia, Spanish people following their spelling rules might write *Abrafan, which could easily become Abraban, Abravan, hence the patronymic Abravanel.

  • opoudjis says:

    @ abravanel (I cut and pasted this time to make sure): I'll follow up on Judaeo-Greek at Hellenisteukontos; but as for your response:

    "Hopefully my post will sound painfully oversensitive in the years to come. 🙂 "

    … Would that it did. Would that Greece could try embrace the notion of a nationalism not parcelled up with Herderian élan. (I'm talking in code on purpose.) And because this is my personal blog: I was moved to tears by this letter by the suicide letter of Szmul Zygielbojm. (I think I saw it at the Washington Holocaust Museum.)

    I was moved because it pleads and pains over the suffering of Jewry, and criticises Polish inaction, but it ends with a declaration of love for Poland. For a better Poland. And I was the more moved, when I found out about the Kielce pogrom; the better Poland Zygielbojm hoped for did not happen.

    Most Jews in Europe decided there would not be a better Poland, or a better Greece, or a better France, and made aliyah. I won't second guess that. To those who stayed behind—they are owed a better Poland, and a better Greece, and a better France.

    And to anticipate the inevitable riposte, that has nothing at all to do with the Naqba.

  • abravanel says:

    Just for the record: I agree with you as a matter of principle but as you've might have guessed Greece is currently having trouble dealing with its contemporary Jewish presence. Hopefully my post will sound painfully oversensitive in the years to come. 🙂

    As for the ellinika by the Romaniote, the dialect formerly known as Yevanic or JudeoGreek (got to be PC if I don't want to get the 3rd degree on my political stance by your friend), there is currently a folder in my pc scrapbook named "Jewish Greek" with stuff I've been collecting in order to write a post.

    My field of academic expertise is not linguistics so take my words as these of an educated layman, but layman nevertheless.

    My feeling insofar is that from the things I've read, (as far as I can understand at least), is that historical circumstances may have been overlooked. For example the Constantinople Jews of the late 15th century are primarily Romaniote Salonica Jews forced to move en masse by the Sultan. Was this the end of the Romaniote community in the city? Probably not because the sefardim arriving found functioning synagogues, the Etz aChaim was known by the sefardic populace as qaal de los yavanim.

    What does this matter? Hell if I know ! :-> What I do know is that there is stuff laying around that might prove useful: for example there is a number of 3rd century Jewish graves still surviving in the Aristotle University campus that bear inscriptions of Greek Jews of the epocha that might prove interesting. Maybe the gravestones salvaged by Enepekidis (?) during the sack of the graveyard as byzantine might prove jewish upon inspection. Already an esteemed friend informed me on obscure publications on various extensive jewish inscriptions.

    To return to the subject I must admit that my main focus was not the byzantine period cause everything is so hazy; I shall mail you in the next couple of days a couple of papers that might prove interesting which have some examples of pure romaniote dialect as known in the 19th century in Ioannina and Corfu.

  • opoudjis says:

    (Or maybe the Serbian monk *does* have that agenda; and Kadare is not above the Albanian–Serbian rivalries he portrays. But the dramatic point of the Albanian monk's agreement is that it illustrates the danger to orality that Kadare philosophises about. That's the agenda the writer is really interested in.)

  • opoudjis says:

    Link to commentary from the translator into English (who admits not to knowing Albanian, and says how the insanity of Albania's copyright status means it makes more sense to go via French anyway.)

    And why does everyone in the blogosphere misread the bloody climax? ("Then, with tragic consequences, they insult a Serbian monk by claiming that the Albanian songs are original whereas the Serbian are mere imitators.")

    The catastrophe doesn't happen because the Irishmen dispute the primacy of Serbian. That's not the overt reason, and I don't think it's even the covert reason the Serbian monk instigates his Albanian counterpart to pay them a visit. The overt reason is what Lord himself notes in his account: the tape recorder (and print) undermines oral culture; both the Serbian and the Albanian monks realise it, and the Serbian monk's rhetoric is explicit.

  • opoudjis says:

    @ John : thank you. Powerful stuff; more powerful, I daresay, than Kadare's, because Kadare was not as caught up in the epic process…

  • opoudjis says:

    And yes, I did already know about the Kohanim origin of the Vulcan hand gesture. 🙂

  • opoudjis says:

    @ Abranavel : nuqneH! I actually discovered your blog about a month back, and was looking for an excuse to link to it—although I thought my excuse would come from the Judaeo-Greek I have blogged about at my linguistics blog. (In particular, whether you had more information to share about Lazare Belleli.)

    A part of me says that the folklore needs to be known about, all in all; not celebrated, nor censored, but documented and talked about. A little part of me is vaguely nostalgic—we had Judas burning in the village in the '80s. But you're right, and so was the Synod. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the Synod's wording, explicitly talking about "our fellow citizens": for the Greek Orthodox Church to have said that at any stage is, sadly, unexpected.

    I did some reading about Judas-Burning through the PhD thesis of Tassos Karanastassis, who claims that The Mass of the Beardless Man, that parodic masterpiece of the 15th century, originated in millenarian panic over the arrival of the Sephardim in Thrace in 1492 (7000 Anno Mundi). The evidence was circumstantial, but plentiful, including commonalities with songs from Judas-Burning.

    Anyway, welcome, and I may have some questions for you chez vous!

  • abravanel says:

    The joys of the internets – meeting a fellow trekker on a post mentioning the greek take on the Passion during a comment on a Kadare book.

    Wanted just to point out that "this isn’t simply a case of jews being oversensitive; it is the Greek Church herself who has condemned it. And the Church condemned it only when it became painfully clear that it only led to more and more pogroms, (the Corfu, the Rhodes, the Odessa…) in a string of violence which continues unchallenged in Greece.

    Until then Live Well and Prosper although probably you were already aware of it. 🙂

  • John Cowan says:

    I could; I was still under thirty. "Surely," I said, "it is impossible Homer should perish. I myself have every word of him."

    "Long may you live, my friend; but no man lives forever. Believe me, Homer is in more danger than you know. Nowadays, one can manage less and less without writing, one is always getting some call for it. Onomakritos has his nose forever in his scrolls of oracles, and an oracle's brief enough. Hippias, who deals with Father's private letters, writes something nearly every day. And he keeps all his drafts upon the wax; left to himself, he couldn't quote you half of it. I've given it thought, and I tell you this: what men have written down, they have no need to remember. And soon they will feel no need to try. Then what's still unwritten will fade away."

    Pisistratos gave his grave Zeus-like nod. "I believe that my son is right." He opened a coffer inlaid with ivory that stood by him on the table. "This is what we have so far."

    The roll he took out was much joined and pasted together, but written clearly. He began to read me a passage; I think it was the Deeds of Diomedes. He must have had the tail of his eye on me, for he stopped and said, "Yes?"

    "There are two lines missing there," I said, and gave them him. Hipparchos signed to the clerk to note them down on the wax. Pisistratos read on. He read very well, not performing at all, but giving each sound and stress its value. I wondered how much of it he had picked up from Solon. And then, with a shock, I heard a line quite new to me. Pure gold; it must be Homer; and I'd never been taught it, which meant that Kleobis [Simonides' teacher] had not known it either. If they saw me look up, they were both too polite to mention it. At all events, that reconciled me to the Rhapsodia. They don't hold it nowadays; but no matter, the work is done.

         –Mary Renault, The Praise Singer

  • John Cowan says:

    "Hipparchos tells me," [Pisistratos] said, "that your good memory is famous. I hope that you [Simonides] can help us. Next year is the Great Panathenaia, and we shall be holding the Rhetors' Contest. It always takes time to choose which to invite, and find out where they are traveling, and get word to them to come."

    I bowed gravely; or so I thought. Sometime later, Hipparchos told me that I looked down my nose. No poet has much time for rhetors; mere learners by rote, marketplace reciters, who have their Hektor's Farewell, or Cave of Polyphemos, or Arming of Achilles, which they give each time, or sometimes two bits that they stitch together with lame frayed lines of their own devising.

    "I should like you," he said, "to join my son as one of the judges."

    "I am honored, sir." Which was true, as far as it went. "Are they to be judged for their declamation?"

    "Well, we must take that into account, of course. But the reason we are offering a talent of silver as the prize is… but let Hipparchos tell you, since I can see him fidgeting to talk."

    "It all began," he said, "when we were living in Thrace, after the Alkmaionids had broken with us and joined the enemy party, and we had to leave in a hurry. […] We were digging for gold," he said, "which Mount Pangaios is full of, and recruiting warriors, which Thrace is full of, and biding our time. Since none of us were digging with our own hands — the Thracians would always sell us their tribal enemies — Father was often short of pastime, and when a rhapsodist came our way he was glad to hear of it. In Thrace, I can tell you, a dancing ape is an event. The rhetors spread the news that we paid well, and soon we were getting more of them… Well, you will guess what is coming."

    "Bad stitching," I said.

    "Just so. Not only between the patches, but in them too. They left out, and even put in; one would find all sorts of things coming in from Macedon and Epiros and who knows where. And these were the better sort, not strolling mountebanks. They had one great scene each, first garbled, then ruined with their ranting, instead of letting the music tell the tale. Then one day came an old, old man, who knew the Iliad whole. My dear, it was like tasting wine after grape-skin pressings. The exquisite treasures those swine had passed over, or broken in their rooting… ! We feasted the old man, clothed him and shod him like a lord, plied him with gold, begged him to live as our honored guest; but no. His pupil had been killed in a brawl, or gone off with a woman, or some such calamity; he must travel to get another, and teach him all he knew. He did not look fit to stand another winter. At last, in our extremity, I cried lout, 'Let us get it written! I have a good scribe; I can even write myself. Just stay here till it is done. Then it will live, even if your next pupil fails you.' I can only say, Simonides, I that old man looked at me like some high priestess of noble birth, offered well-paid work in a brothel. Can you understand it?"


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