Broken April, Ismail Kadare

Broken April is in large part a description of the brutal blood feud traditions of the Albanian highlands, based on a four-century old set of rules called the Kanun. The way Kadare describes it, with family members being obliged to avenge deaths, and the taxes on each killing to be paid to the regency, doesn’t come off as social realism, or a damning indictment of a capitalistic system of bloodletting. The system seems totally out of everyone’s control. The transcriber of the Kanun comes up with inventive solutions to corner cases. (If a man kills a woman who is carrying his male child, the male child belongs to the man’s family, so does the woman’s family now have to sacrifice one of their own?) But the transcriber doesn’t have any vested interest in events, and even the prince of the region is made an ignorant administrator, with his stressed assistant going crazy from doing the bookkeeping of all the violence and taxes on it.

The robotic processes that are set in place are close to Kafka, and specifically The Castle. In The Trial, there is a central administration, but its mysteriousness is mostly in its lack of activity for the bulk of the book; between the first scene and the last, no process takes place. The Castle has a constant parade of lives being ruined and Castle edicts being set down, all emanating from functionaries that owe their power to no seen people, just mysterious buildings (the Castle itself and the Herrenhof).

Kadare goes ahead and tours his castle itself, and all that’s inside is the perpetuation of traditions that the entire country is locked into; the source is long gone, and he isn’t rewriting the rules. Politically, Kadare thinks that it’s wrong to attribute acts in the name of the Kanun by blaming the people for being maniacs. He blames the Kanun, and its long-dead creators. This requires him to grant his characters less autononmy and moral dignity than they may deserve. They simply don’t have a choice, because the blood feuds are embedded in the culture. Broken April reads like The Castle without K. Even the visiting tourists walk away stunned without having actually done anything.

Kadare doesn’t always push the deterministic angle, but it dominates the book. The book is least successful when it tries to show cognitive dissonance experienced by the inhabitants as they carry out the brutality. It seems forced, and jarring. It’s at its best when the insane logic of the Kanun inexorably plays itself out like a force of nature, which makes disputes about its morality seem not only irrelevant, but nonsensical.

David Riesman called such societies “tradition-directed,” where mores are so dictated that the issue of individual character never comes up. Broken April, more or less, bears him out. There is nothing close to empathy between any of the natives. Riesman says that the intractable force of tradition abates when the society is made to be self-conscious by interacting with other traditions, which end the monopoly. Any nationalistic reassertion of the old culture becomes a choice rather than a dictum. If this is true, Kadare’s books should be relics of the pre-Communist era, fundamentally different from the re-emergence of the Kanun in the last ten years. I wouldn’t know. But why is it then that Kafka’s processes, so close to Kadare’s, are tagged as modern?