The Year of Reading Dangerously – Ismail Kadare
When Ismail Kadare won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005 it was a statement of intent: here was a writer largely unknown in the English speaking world, the kind of name that we normally associate with Nobel Prize (i.e. one we don’t know from a country we wouldn’t want to live in). Cannily, Canongate had recently signed Kadare and published his most recent novel The Successor with some success (sorry) in 2006. This was followed by reissues of some of his older work: the autobiographical Chronicle in Stone, the stories in Agamemnon’s Daughter, and the revised translations of The Siege (previously The Castle) and The Ghost Rider (previously Doruntine). The Accident (originally published in 2008) is Kadare’s first new novel since The Successor, and similarly takes the crime genre as its starting point.
The novel begins with the titular accident: an Albanian couple are killed when the taxi carrying them to the airport veers off then road. The cause is unclear:
“The driver admitted that nothing unusual had happened just before the accident, except perhaps that…in the rear-view mirror…maybe something had distracted him…the two passengers on the back seat had done nothing…nothing but…only…they…had tried …to kiss.”
The first part of the novel consists of the investigation into the accident, by the police, the European Road Safety Institute, the Serbian and Albanian secret services, and an unnamed researcher. The couple are Besfort Y, an analyst working for the Council of Europe, and Rovena, an intern at the Archaeological Institute of Vienna. Besfort is somehow implicated in the decision to bomb Serbia; a “quarrel over Israel” is also hinted at. Their relationship seems largely to consist of meeting in hotel rooms in various European cities. She is devoted to him but recently their relationship has changed: Rovena tells a friend that, “B. is trying to persuade me we don’t need each other anymore.”
“Our meetings are now in a new zone. It’s no exaggeration to say a different planet. Ruled by different laws. It has a chilly quality, frightening of course, but still I must admit it has its strange and attractive side.”
This ‘new zone’ includes treating Rovena “almost like a prostitute.” Rovena’s female lover (chosen so that Besfort will not become jealous) insists that she has been murdered:
“You could tell a mile of that he was the murderous kind. That dream of his, or rather his nightmare, about the Hague Tribunal showed that.”
(In Kadare, dreams are admissible in evidence) The perfect set up for a thriller, then. But Kadare is not interested in answers, only questions: they are not simply in the reader’s mind, but in the narrative itself (seven in the first brief chapter; six in the second, often following one after the other). The novel’s style might be summed up as follows:
“Dark surmises, grave suspicions, ambiguous phrases, obscure scraps of dialogue drawn from half-remembered phone conversations loomed out of the fog and vanished again.”
After the inconclusive investigation, the novel then moves into the realm of imagination to solve the mystery as the researcher imagines the last forty weeks of the couple’s lives. As we learn very little about their lives beyond their relationship, it is clear that the relationship is central to understanding the novel. Largely presented for Rovena’s point of view, Besfort remains an enigma – it is hardly surprising that she says, “I first got to know him through his back” and that their first rendezvous happens on a “day of fog and rain.” Their first taxi journey together has echoes of their last:
“I limply waited for him to kiss me, but this did not happen. He seemed even more dazed and absent than I was.”
Absent he certainly is as a character, almost a vacuum at the centre of the story. As a result of this we must take Rovena’s “crazy, inhuman desire to please” him on trust, accepting such clichés as, “Life with him was difficult, without him it was impossible” as accurately reflecting her feelings. We have some sympathy with the researcher when even his imagination gives up and:
“…the final week – usually the most keenly anticipated in a story of this kind – was omitted.”
For this novel to be regarded as successful it seems to me that one of two things must be assumed. Either it is to be interpreted as a fable (as with much of his work), perhaps exploring the relationship between a person and his or her country, and my lack of expertise in Balkan politics has prevented me from deciphering this. Or it is an examination of paranoia and the pointless interrogation of mysteries where none exist, and the researcher’s occult solution to being unable to arrive at the truth is in the spirit of satire. Neither explanation, however, do I find entirely satisfying.
Danger rating: By far Kadare’s most frustrating novel. If you have never read him before (and you should), better to start almost anywhere else. I would recommend The Successor or The Palace of Dreams.