After completing the two selected books on Afghanistan, the next country on my reading list was Albania. Researching for books on Albania was quite interesting as I realized that I don’t know anything about this country at all. As a quick background – geographically located in Southeast Europe between Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece, Albania has an interesting political history. Albania was ruled by the Ottoman Empire till 1912 (when it declared its independence), but was conquered by Italy in 1939 and then by Germany in 1943. In 1944, it became a Socialist State and the Party of Labor and Enver Hoxha took control of the country till the early 1990s. During the communist era, Albania experienced many social and political changes, as well as isolation from the international community. In 1991, the Socialist Republic was dissolved and the democratic Republic of Albania was established. With it’s nearly five centuries of Ottoman rule and the subsequent communist regime, Albania has a unique and distinct culture from other European countries.
Looking for books online I came across two books that I liked – Ismail Kadare’s Broken April and Balkan Beauty, Balkan Blood: Short Stories by Robert Elsie. Balkan Beauty, Balkan Blood: Short Stories was my first choice as it’s contemporary Albanian literature and a collection of short stories by multiple authors. However while searching for this book online I faced my first reading project hurdle. This book was not available as an e-book and the hard copy of the book had to be imported. This was to take 3-4 weeks’ time. So in the interim I decided to read my second choice, Ismail Kadare’s Broken April.
Ismail Kadare (also spelled Kadaré) is Albania’s best known novelist and poet. Per Wikipedia, Kadare’s novels draw on legends surrounding the historical experiences of Albanian people, the representation of classical myths in modern contexts, and the totalitarian regime in Albania. His works have brought him into frequent conflict with the authorities and he sought political asylum in France in 1990. He now divides his time between Paris and Tirana.
Broken April is one of the darkest yet most fascinating books that I have ever read. It focuses on the ancient Albanian code of law, called the Kanun and the tradition of blood feud. The book starts with Gjorg who is forced to commit a murder under the laws of the Kanun to avenge the death of his brother. He then has to travel to the kulla of Orsha to pay the blood tax and has 30 days as part of a truce before he can be killed by the avenging family. The second part of the book introduces a husband and wife on a honeymoon trip to the high plateau with the husband telling his wife all about the Kunan. During their journey they come across Gjorg and the wife’s heart goes out to Gjorg. The third section involves the steward of the blood who is responsible for collection of blood tax and is currently facing an all-time shortage in collection of revenues as people are not killing each other enough. Most of the book concentrates on the workings of the Kanun through the changing perspectives of these characters and at some point all their paths cross, setting in motion events ensuring that the lives for none of them will ever be the same again.
First and foremost I was quite surprised by the usage of the word “kanun” for the ancient code of laws in Albanian; as we use the same word in Hindi (one of our main languages) for our laws in India. A quick online research showed that it’s an ancient Ottoman word and hence used in Albania. I am sure that’s how it traveled to India too but I’ll definitely research a bit more on other common words that we may share.
Also, while reading the book I went online to check if this entire concept of Kanun is fictional or if it actually exists. I was quite surprised to learn that Kanun actually exists, it was prevalent till the early part of this century and is reviving post the end of the communist rule.
The second a macabre yet fascinating element of this book is the entire economy surrounding blood feud. There are specific rules and processes around the killings, dead men’s shirts are hung from houses to remind living relatives that they are waiting for vengeance, in case there is an injury instead of death then there is a specific compensation payable (and there are rules, an arbitrator and a doctor to ascertain the damage and the compensation payable) or you can consider it as half death payment, there is a tax payable for the killing, there is a book that records all the killings and history of the feud should one family forget about revenge, fields lie fallow while hunted men hide and the situations reverse once one set of revenge has been taken, etc etc.
Apart from the blood feud, there are other codes of conduct for everyday living and the traveler in me loved their beliefs about guests. Under the kanun, a house is first for god and guest before it is for its master. Hence every guest for one night is elevated to the position of god. These people provide food and shelter to the guest, are ready to sacrifice for them and even avenge their deaths (while the guest is under their protection). Another custom mentioned in the book is that of the wedding bullet. The bride’s family provides a wedding bullet to the groom at the time of the wedding. Should the wife decide to leave her husband for any reason, the husband can shoot her with that bullet and her death will not need any revenge.
This book kind of leaves you sad with the entire tragedy surrounding men who are forced to avenge killings and in turn be killed so early in their lives. Even if they seek refuge in the tower of immunity they are stuck there for years without any contact with the outside world. Women have no say or any standing in the society. Towards the end you actually feel sorry for all the wasted lives and for these people who just don’t have a chance to live normal lives that we live.
This book is beautifully written and is definitely a must read for anyone interested in learning about the Kanun and its working and the Albanian way of life in the olden times.
For other books on Albania, I am sharing my short list below for anyone who is interested in further reading on this country. I myself hope to read all of these books someday –
· Balkan Beauty, Balkan Blood: Short Stories by Robert Elsie
· Biografi by Lloyd Jones
· Broken April by Ismail Kadare
· The Albanian Affairs by Susana Fortes
· The Albanians by Miranda Vickers
· The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania by Robert Carver