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The Snake and His Wife

SPRING FLOWERS, SPRING FROST: A Novel, By Ismail Kadare, Translated from the French of Jusef Vrioni by David Bellos, Arcade: 192 pp., $23.95

July 21, 2002|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review.

What is Albania? During the mid-1980s, our image was of a country hunkered down behind the inscrutable wall of its Communist tyrant Enver Hoxha. Albania was the Tibet of Europe, swathed in fabrics of language and culture unidentifiable to the uninitiated. The war in Kosovo changed all that. CNN taught us that Albania was part of the Balkans, that its people were part of a larger European Muslim population (who knew there were Muslims in Europe?). But what did we learn of Albanian culture, of Albanian writing? Did, in fact, Albanians write?

"As he was crossing the intersection, Mark Gurabardhi noticed a crowd of people, which was growing by the minute, gathering on the right-hand side of the street. Most likely he would have walked past without a second glance if he hadn't heard someone say the word snake!--spoken not in fright but in astonishment." Where does a sentence like this one from the opening of Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare's marvelous new novel "Spring Flowers, Spring Frost" come from? Fans of the fantastical, veterans of Borges and Kafka, may recognize the familiar combination of the mundane and the extraordinary. The incidental traffic-related details combine with verminous surprise to provide a diagram for do-it-yourself Central European writers; remember that hit from Prague: "One morning, as he woke from troubling dreams, Gregor Samsa found himself transformed into a monstrous dung-beetle"?

And yet, along with the familiar Western name Mark comes the subcontinental Gurabardhi. His friends are named Zef and Cuf. Mark himself is a painter with a mysterious young girlfriend as a model, much like the dozens of disaffected artists that wandered through southern European literature in the 1950s, most prominently in Alberto Moravia's "Boredom." Mark is, in fact, wandering from the destiny of the men in his family--a long line of police officers--but he is also a dreamer (albeit as troubled a dreamer as Gregor). His dreams not only reach back into an Albanian mythology of snakes who marry young girls but also to the more famous stories of Albania's neighbor to the south, Greece.

His dreams take on color and complexity when the provincial town in which he works is shaken by a crime wave. First, a bank is robbed. Next, Mark's boss, the head of the cultural center, is murdered. Though the first crime seems to be a result of the modernization of Albania that followed the death of Hoxha, the second is the product of a revival of the Kanun, an ancient code of laws that had been suppressed by the Communists. Central to the Kanun is the Book of the Blood, " ... a list of all blood feuds since the beginning ... who redeemed the blood, and who still has to do some redeeming ... it even lays down cases where there is just a half-blood still to pay off."

In Mark's dreams these crimes mix with his vague memories of other original mythological sins. He dreams of the Greek gods reacting to Tantalus' betrayal of the secret of immortality as if Olympus were a suburb of Tirana. "Lights go on in the gods' villas and offices. Chariots dash through the night. Various classes of investigators are roused: special intelligence officers, then the spies who investigate special intelligence officers, then those who keep an eye on the spies. And in all the hustle and bustle the whole of the ministry's staff awakens--professional delators, epileptic whistle-blowers, informers whose words are believed once in a thousand years, lead-swinging supervisors, allegedly blind tipsters, people who claim they would prefer to die rather than cease to be informers, and, in their train, all the cloak-and-dagger men, alone with the bisexual scouts, the decoders of posthumous messages, the intuitives, the lunatics, and dealers in every kind of hocus-pocus."

Is this Albania--an imagination spiked with classical myth, superstition and totalitarian paranoia? Mark's friend Zef, who himself has mysteriously disappeared, "had likened the monstrosities of modern Albania to the ancient tale of the girl who had married a snake. And he'd added, with dark foreboding: All these faces that change their masks from one day to the next, like in some Greek drama

Mark is troubled by the more proximate intimations of the crime spree. Not only does he suspect that his girlfriend is implicated, but he also worries that the long bloodline of policemen in his family may be dangerous. "In recent times his second life--which for so many years had existed as a silent parallel--had not, as anticipated, dwindled to nothing but rather had seemed to reassert itself ever more firmly. It sometimes weighed upon him so much that he imagined that his police uniform was right there, waiting for him. At the back of the studio he had an old chest that he was afraid to open because he feared his uniform was already inside it."

Kadare, born in 1936, has spent a life fighting the twin enemies of Albania: totalitarianism and superstition. As a storyteller, rather than a painter, however, the uniform in his trunk is a good deal hipper than Mark's police uniform. With a breezy fluency, he solves his mysteries with a political and mythical flair that includes an image of Leonid Brezhnev and the blind Oedipus Rex stumbling out of the agora like a pair of vagabonds from a Bob Dylan tune. At the end, gods and demons gone, Mark looks to the sky, "a sky bereft of its masters, a sky in mourning stretching to infinity." It is an Albanian sky that looks very much like our own.

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