Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 12, 2011

The Accident, by Ismail Kadare, translated by John Hodgson

As soon as I saw this at the library I made a hasty lunge for it in case anybody else took it from the display shelves ahead of me!  Although I am usually a bit out of my depth with Ismail Kadare’s novels, (see my review of The Siege) I really enjoy plunging in and trying to make sense of his complex allegories, and The Accident was seriously interesting reading.

(But if you are an academic who specialises in reading Kadare and his ilk, it might be better stop reading here or you will probably end up tearing your hair out in dismay at my puny efforts to understand what he is on about.)

Beware: Spoilers (lots)

There are three parts to this novel, and on page 45, Kadare tells us what they are:

  • Part 1 is purely imagined (and since it doesn’t finish till page 46, you read all of it without knowing this)
  • Part 2 is ‘clothed in words’, and
  • Part 3 is the story as ‘finally told to others’.

Which of any of them is the ‘truth’ is up to the reader to resolve.

Part 1

There’s been a car accident in which a taxi veers off the road and the couple in the back seat are thrown from the car and killed.  But why?  The taxi-driver says he doesn’t know what startled him, only that they were ‘trying to kiss’ just before it happened.  And that’s odd.  What does he mean, ‘trying’ to kiss?? So investigators get involved.  There are suggestions that they or he may have been criminals or spies.  (It is set in the Balkans, after all).

But Kadare doesn’t write whodunnits, and so right from the beginning I am alert to the idea that there must be a parable or an allegory, that these people are symbols or something to do with Kadare’s favourite theme of the dangerous absurdity of totalitarianism, state control and so on.  The book is set in the aftermath of the Balkan wars when authorities (all from one authoritarian state or another) had an excess of agents and analysts with not enough to do after Tito had gone and Yugoslavia had been dismembered.  Or maybe the habit of surveillance under the Communists morphed easily under The New World Order into monitoring suspected terrorists and saboteurs of the new Balkan states of Serbia, Albania et al?

Anyway, analysts go to work dismembering the love affair of the two victims, Besfort Y. and Rovena St.  One particularly indefatigable researcher has a team of people matching up Rovena’s letters to friends with documents that show the couple’s movements (hotel bills etc) and it seems from their interpretations that Besfort was into humiliating women along the lines of Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias (where the man leaves a wad of money under his lover’s pillow to insult her, even though he really loves her).  According to Shpresa, Rovena’s friend, Besfort was treating her as if she were a whore or a call-girl, but Rovena was making excuses for this behaviour.

This notion of a fundamental lack of respect undermining relationships between equals is then analysed as symbolic of the politics of the Balkans v The West, but the catalyst for Shpresa’s revelations is the ‘cynical note’ found in Rovena’s handbag: it says ‘Ok, on the same terms as last time’ (p28).  This note gets translated into every conceivable European language in an effort to make its meaning conform to the Albanian original, but of course it can’t be because it’s ambiguous anyway.

Most bizarre is how seriously this investigation is done.  So much time and effort over the deaths of two obscure lovers.  This goes beyond the obsessive curiosity of a police officer stuck with an unclosed file.  It involves high level security officers comparing Besfort Y with ‘stars of the first magnitude’ who ‘succeeded in bamboozling the governments of the West’ (Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright).  These investigators conclude that Besfort’s commitment to subjugating his woman is as satisfying for him as destroying a State because his note ‘After Serbia was destroyed you turned me on again’ is evidence that his political passions destroyed his love life (p32).

In a post-modern flourish, Kadare includes his own name in a list of personalities assembled by the analyst in his report: it includes everyone from Mother Teresa to Tony Blair, defenders and architects of Belgrade’s bridges, and a string of contemporary authors from Seamus Heaney to Günter Grass and Harold Pinter.  All this is because in the aftermath of the Balkan War, the Hague Tribunal is keen to uncover war criminals on all sides, victors as well as the vanquished.  Serbia is singled out as wanting to recover Kosovo through the help of ‘pathos and pity for her ruin’ since they failed to win it by force of arms (p33).

Then the researcher takes a different tack which takes him down even more obscure paths.  He interviews Lulu Blum, another friend of Rovena’s who is convinced that Besfort murdered her.  This is because she knows about a dream he had about being prosecuted in the Hague Tribunal, an institution which most of us in the West (I assume) consider to be a worthy one which prosecutes war crimes but is represented here as a sort of modern day Spanish Inquisition inspiring terror of denunciation amongst Croats, Serbs, Albanians and Montenegrins.  Lulu Blum thinks that Besford was a secret agent (pursued by the Israelis) and that because Rovena knew too much Besfort tried to protect her by pretending that they were whore and client rather than lovers.

(Like the reader) the researcher is completely confused by this, and begins to lose his grip, tormented by not knowing what happened between the lovers.  What did they know, see, understand that others could not?  So he decides to construct their last 40 weeks in a coherent way (40 weeks corresponding to the traditional mourning period, in reverse), dividing his reconstruction into ‘days and months, or acts or cantos, like an ancient epic’ (p45).  This (at the end of Part 1) is where Kadare announces that the tale will have the three phases referred to above i.e. that all of what we have just read is ‘purely imagined’ (p45).  Hmm.

Part 2

Ok, so we start again, 40 weeks before the couple die in the car, and Kadare briefly starts the narrative just as if we were reading an ordinary story.  Sometimes it’s from Besfort’s POV, sometimes from Rovena’s in first person and sometimes from the perspective of an omniscient narrator correcting Rovena’s romanticised memories with the facts but there’s nothing like the way Part 1 provokes a sense of an author messing with one’s mind. But this coherence doesn’t last…

We discover that Lulu Blum is a therapist; (although we suspect that she is as nutty as a fruit cake) we learn from her that from the start Besfort appealed to Rovena as the mysterious academic who was in some sort of trouble for offending the Israelis.  It was always a problematic relationship in which she chased him and had to subsist on infrequent contact when he could fit her into his schedule.  Is this a metaphor for relationships of the Balkan States under Tito?  Who knows?  Whatever, there were betrayals, conspiracies real and imagined, bitter recriminations and arguments and finally a cooling of the relationship.

(There is also a rather droll segment about the bogus conspiracies that Albanians cooked up to amuse themselves, inspire terror or ingratiate themselves with the dictator, presumably Enver Hoxha.)

This is where it gets quite weird, because Besfort is angst-ridden about how to end things with Rovena.  He doesn’t want there to be bitterness, and he thinks it’s impossible to avoid that unless they modify their relationship before it ends.  He asks her to be his ex-wife (though they never married).  Conversely, Rovena has an affair with Lulu Blum (also called Liza for reasons I failed to notice) because this is a way of having a break from him without there being a rival.  (This might have made sense if Lulu hadn’t taken it so seriously: she proposes a lesbian marriage on some Greek island, and it is she who denounces Besfort as a terrorist and a war-monger because of his activities as a diplomat. )

There are references to Albanian folklore which has frequent instances of taboo-breaking, when brides are revealed to be sisters and enemies are revealed to  be sons, and these stories prey on Rovena’s mind.  She cannot become like a sister as their love cools because that would make their love incestuous.  Besfort wants them to meet again as strangers because then they are free to walk away or fall in love again as at the beginning.   Weird as it all sounds, it makes a kind of sense if interpreted as being all about how to end an affair, how to redefine the self in the aftermath and how countries like the Balkans who were united have to do the same.  And the taxi-driver’s comment that they were ‘trying’ to kiss, makes a sort of sense if there is ‘an eternal pact between a whore and her client: no kissing’ (p150).

In Part 3, the researcher is going mad with frustration.  He thinks he’s done a reasonable job of reconstructing Besfort’s last weeks but cannot find any trace of a reason for his mysterious request for leave from the Crisis Department in Brussels for three days, just as the legendary Albanian hero Ago Ymeri had been given leave from a medieval prison for three days.  Now, Kadare never makes idle allusions to something like this so a Google search about this Albanian legend seemed in order.

The Google search for the legend proved fruitless, but I did discover that this Ago Ymeri also features in a novel by the Albanian author  Bashkim Shehu, who wrote The Last Journey of Ago Ymeri (1995) in which a man who tried to escape Albania by sea was killed but resurfaced in the same seaside village some years later.  Dragoti (the would-be escapee) doesn’t remember any of this but claims to have returned from the Underworld, and Qemal, the local official who tries without success to track down the records is locked away in an asylum even though he knows for sure that Dragoti is his old school chum who was supposed to be dead.  [1] This plot line in what is apparently also a novel full of Balkan political allusions (did Kadare also read this book??)  reminded me straight away of Besfort’s earlier allusion to Orpheus and Eurydice, in which Besfort suggested that perhaps Orpheus wasn’t crossing over into the Underworld to get his wife back, but rather to try to get his love for her back, something which can never be done once love is dead.  And it also prefigures what is going to happen to the researcher trying to sort out the Besfort mystery i.e. it drives him mad.

That is, I think it does. With Kadare, one should hesitate before presuming to know what he is on about.  It is a mystifying book, but a compelling one, which kept me completely absorbed all day when I should really have been doing purposeful things on my weekend!

It is great to see that Text Publishing is bringing the work of Kadare to Australians in translation, and there are plenty more to enjoy.  (Click on the Text Publishing link below to see what’s available.)  The unsung hero of this work is the translator John Hodgson (who doesn’t even get his name on the cover) and he has done a wonderful job, even to the extent of the scraps of doggerel rhyming nicely.

[1] My source for this is page 158 of The Columbia Literary History of Eastern Europe since 1945 by Harold B Segel, which I found on Google Books, see here for the link.

Author: Ismail Kadare
Title: The Accident
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2010
ISBN: 9781921656613
Source: Kingston Library.


Responses

  1. Gosh, you did well to analyse that one so clearly. What a difficult book it sounds. I am tempted to ask, “Where’s the reading pleasure in that then?”, but of course, we humans are drawn to cryptic crosswords and fiendish sudoku, so perhaps that’s part of the answer. I think you have nothing to fear from the academics who may be reading this review — I doubt that any other reviews would be clearer

    • Bless you, Tom, you are kind! I must admit that I wouldn’t enjoy a diet of nothing but challenging books, but I do like giving the brain a bit of a workout. I love Sudoku too and all sorts of word games, but alas, that’s the only kind of exercise I enjoy, and I have to force myself to do the other kind to keep body fit as well as mind.

  2. I thought The General of the Dead Army and The Siege were a little slow but The Pyramid and The Three Arched Bridge were great. The Succescor was the most recent one I read and it was very good.

    • Hello Lester, how nice to meet another enthusiast and thank you for taking the time to comment:)
      I’m hoping that my library will get a copy of The Successor because that’s the most recent one but I think I may need to buy The Pyramid etc. However, I’m going to read The Concert first, that’s been on my TBR for a while.
      Best wishes
      Lisa

  3. Oh Lisa, you must stop being so self-deprecating! Your write great reviews and you have as much intelligence as anyone to put your stamp on an interpretation. I’ve only skimmed this as I might read the book … but it looks to me like you’ve done a great job.

    • Thank you Sue, but I still have my doubts!

      • That doesn’t deserve an answer!! LOL.

  4. Lisa, I don’t know when you find the time to read as much as you, let alone write such great reviews. I really am curious. I assume you are a speed reader and I am wondering how long it takes you to read an average sized novel??

    • I am a very quick reader, about 650+ wpm (depending on the text of course), but I read this one quickly because I was so exhausted after just one full week back at work that I was too tired to do anything else except read all Friday night and Saturday. (My pedometer tells me that on an average day at work I walk 15000 steps, compared to about 4-5000 around the house – if I take the dogs for a walk, that is – so that speaks for itself, I think. No wonder I was tired, it’s a shock to the system after all those weeks of idleness during summer holidays).

  5. I love Kadare I ve not read many and this is one I ve not read this one yet ,I note the change from french translation by belios as most of his other books have been ,Kadare is always a challenging writer to read I find but thought provoking ,all the best stu

    • I didn’t realise there was a change of translator, Stu – do you think there is a noticeable difference?

  6. […] the man and woman. The attention given to the accident is remarkable; as Lisa Hill writes in her fantastic and detailed review of the novel, the novel shows the “excess of agents and analysts with not enough to do after Tito had gone and […]

  7. Lisa, only now have I come about this book by Kadare and your review on it. In a group of friends we are undertaking to explore the levels of its story. Finding your review very inspiring to come to grips with it a little more I have two specific questions I would like to put to you and see this as the only way to try to come into contact with you on them:
    1. You write: “This (at the end of Part 1) is where Kadare announces that the tale will have the three phases referred to above i.e. that all of what we have just read is ‘purely imagined’ (p45).” What makes you understand that the three phases spoken about here apply to the structure of the book itself? I find that interpretation really inspiring, but I cannot so far see it explicitly expressed in the book itself.
    2. You write: “… Besfort suggested that perhaps Orpheus wasn’t crossing over into the Underworld to get his wife back, but rather to try to get his love for her back, something which can never be done once love is dead.” What makes you say that love once dead can never be gotten back. Do you find that understanding in the book or is this your own understanding/conviction you express here. Personally I find the idea that Besfort – and through him Kadare – is trying exactly this one of the major possible clues to the book.
    Best wishes, Ulrich

    • I am so sorry, Ulrich, it is four years since I read this book, and I borrowed this one from the library so I can’t browse through it again to see if I can answer your questions.
      But I think if there’s a group of you reading this together, you can certainly have a lot of fun deciding on your own interpretations.
      Thank you for dropping by,
      Best wishes
      Lisa


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