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Book Review: Ismail Kadare, The H File
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 . 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…