As we are on holiday in Albania, it seemed only right to read something by Ismail Kadare. Kadare is Albania’s foremost living writer and winner of the inaugural International Man Booker Prize in 2005.
The File On H was inspired by a conversation between Kadare and the American academic Albert Lord at a conference in Ankara, Turkey, in 1975.At that time Albania was under the rule of the increasingly paranoid Hoxha regime, see below, and to be seen speaking to a foreigner was dangerous for an Albanian. Reportedly the conversation only lasted 5 minutes . Lord told Kadare about an anthropological trip to Albania in the 1930s. This was the seed from which The File On H grew.
The novel is set during the rule of the self-appointed King Zog leader of Albania until it was invaded by Mussolini in April 1939.
Max Ross and Bill Norton, American academics, want to record the epic oral poetry of the Northern Alps. They believe there is a direct but hidden link with the epic poetry of Homer and hope to solve the mystery that surrounds the writing of The Odyssey.
The lunatic regime of King Zog has other ideas however. From the minute they apply for entry visas, the Minister of the Interior decides they must be spies. As he considers himself cleverer than the foreigners he hatches a plan to entrap them and then blackmail them into writing a biography of King Zog.
He contacts the governor of the town known only as N_ in the book and which the two academics have named as their intended destination .The governor is anxious to impress the Minister and so employs Dull Baxaha to undertake surveillance of the two strangers.
Meanwhile the announcement of the arrival of 2 foreigners in the town excites the local population particularly the women and the governor’s sexually frustrated wife, Daisy. She dreams of a new life of parties and an affair with one of the two foreigners whose very names sound exciting to her.
So far so serious but this is actually a very humorous tale. Kadare plays with language . Max Ross and Bill Norton have learned Albanian but speak an archaic form which causes consternation amongst the locals.
Dull Baxaha, an expert in ‘the oculars’, is a pure comic creation. His ‘reports’ show the language used in an increasingly isolated and suspicious regime where any opinion must be qualified just in case it may offend those in power.
The ‘tapgregorder’ brought by the foreigners also causes much fear and distrust . It is seen as strangling language and stealing voices.
Ultimately the origins of epic poetry together with the link to Homer remain unknown and all the major characters are thwarted.
Unsurprisingly given the above, The File On H was not well received by the ruling powers when first published in 1981. Kadare finally left Albania in 1990 seeking political asylum in France.
Kadare’s hometown in Albania is Gjirokaster in the SW of the country and close to the Greek border . His boyhood there was lyrically described in Chronicles Of Stone.
The old town clings to a steep hillside with a castle crowning its peak. The winding streets are cobbled with smooth stone and the Ottoman houses have grey slate roofs.
Ancient Gjirokaster is in stark contrast to the sprawling Soviet-style suburbs in the valley below.
It is possible to visit some of the old, restored houses for a few lekë and see the ancient plumbing system in action. Rainwater was collected from the ridged slate roof and fed into a cistern built into the basement of the house. Kadare describes his fear of the gurgling cistern in the bowels of his home as a young boy.
Rain I have noticed often appears in Kadare’s writing perhaps symbolising the sadness under which Albania lived for much of the 20th Century.
By coincidence, Gjirokaster is also the birthplace of Enver Hoxha, leader of country from 1944 until his death in 1985.
Hoxha was head of the Albanian communist party. He fought as a partisan against the Nazis together with Tito ,leader of the former Yugoslavia. Once in power at the end of the war Hoxha soon fell out with Tito who he suspected as plotting against him. He aligned the country first with Soviet Russia, until he decided Krushchev was not to be trusted, and then with Maoist China.
Eventually Hoxha ceased to trust Mao and Albania became a non-aligned but closed country. Ordinary Albanians were allowed no contact with the outside world .
A legacy of Hoxha’s increasing lunatic leadership is the system of bunkers he ordered to be built across the country. They were installed to be used in the imminent invasion that Hoxha anticipated coming from either the East or the West.
At one time it was estimated that there was one bunker for every four Albanians and they still litter the countryside today .
Hoxha’s regime was a brutal one visiting arbitrary violence on anyone he perceived as plotting against him.Long show trials were staged to inspire fear not just in the accused but also the general population. In Tirana, the capital city, the National History Museum has a large and sobering exhibition detailing the crimes of the communist regime.
One of the most distressing things I learned during my visit there was that the castle in Gjirokaster was used by Hoxha as a prison in which to torture and kill his opponents.
Whilst visiting the castle we had seen the large amphitheatre used since 1968 to host folk festivals and celebrations. In the museum we learned that Hoxha had buried many of his victims beneath this area and took pleasure in thinking of the festivities taking place above their bodies.
No mention of this is made in the castle itself . This perhaps sums up the ambivalence there seems to be towards Hoxha and all he represents in the country today. The past is still too recent.
However Albania is not a depressing place to visit. It is a young and vibrant country which extends a very warm welcome to visitors .
The ‘Blockus’ area of Tirana once closed and home only to the party grandees has been transformed into a throbbing hive of bars and nightclubs.
The beaches in the south are lapped by the turquoise Ionian Sea and still quiet even in holiday season.
And the food …..well that would take another whole blogpost !
I hope you are enjoying your holidays !