WRITING STYLE: 5/5
ENTERTAINMENT QUOTIENT: 5/5
Albania is one of the remotest Balkan states in Europe, with a population of no more than 3.5 million people, which makes finding a literary translator to English, an arduous task. No surprise then, that Ismail Kadare has remained a shadow in the sphere of world literature. The fact that his initial prints were translated from French – in effect a double translation – shows that the state of apathy cannot possibly be exaggerated. This is despite him being one of the most mentioned Nobel laureates-in-the-waiting. Kadare is, by any measure, one of the greatest contemporary writers of prose, and Broken April, one of his earliest works, is apt testimony to this.
People of every region have their own specific customs and practices, which have been adhered to for centuries and hence, which are considered sacrosanct. Traditional Albanian laws, called ‘Kanun’, from the Greek word ‘canon’ meaning pole or rule, are principally based on four tenets, namely Honour, Hospitality, Right Conduct and Kin Loyalty.
Thus when Gjorg’s brother is killed by a neighbour, his own life becomes forfeit – for the laws of Kanun ordain that a death must be honoured by his kin, by seeking vengeance, and then be hunted down in turn. Although he does not want to have any hand this business, he knows that it is futile to argue over a custom which has been followed for generations. And so on that fateful day in mid-March, as he pulls the trigger to avenge his brother, he simultaneously seals his own fate.
Citing that the rules have been observed to the hilt – the body of the man is turned on his back with his rifle placed near his head, Gjorg breaks bread with the man’s family as is required of a gjak (the killer who has fulfilled his duty), and mourns with the family at the man’s funeral – the village requests the bereaved family grant Gjorg the month long bessa (period of truce) so he may peacefully payoff his debts to his family and windup any unfinished business. The bessa is granted, but that is it. Thirty days of peace.
It is said of the young that life is an infinite continuum. Spring gives way to summer, whence the frost covered earth begins to melt, and longer days permeate the evening mist. Days roll on as do months, and March is followed by April, May and June. But for Gjorg Berisha, time is earmarked to end mid-April. For him there will be no May or June. All time after his bessa ends will be Aprildeath; A never ending April, a Broken April.
During these events, a couple from the city come to spend their honeymoon in the region – a bizarre choice but for the fact that the groom, Bessian, is a writer and admirer of the Kanun, and is all too eager to introduce his naïve wife to their traditions.
In their travels they cross paths with Gjorg who he identifies as a gjak immediately, from the black band he wears on his arm. They speak from a distance and his wife only just glances at him from the carriage while passing – but in that moment, she observes first-hand the desolation of a gjak who is living out his bessa, what her husband has been trying to portray all through their journey. In that fleeting moment he seems to draw her soul to share with him, his grief.
The carriage passes as both carry on with their respective journeys, but unconsciously, their actions and thoughts become reflective of a deep seated yearning they both are unaware of, and which draw them both to their end.
The absolute driving force of Broken April is its evocative prose – language without its mechanical structure, but one which is so powerful, the reader too feels he is a part of the story. This coupled with a befuddling form of broken narration, makes this work, a yardstick for any novel you will read subsequently – and that is saying a lot.
If for no other reason, than to boast about knowing an author before he became a Nobel laureate, grab a copy of Broken April before the idiocy of the world puts it out of print.