July 09, 2007

Spring Flowers, Spring Frost

Ismail Kadare likes setting his novels in spring- Broken April for example is set in the Albanian Spring- so is this latest novel of his. Kadare is interested in the way that the Albanian past and present interlock- his Albania is the land of the Kanun (the ancient clan law) or of Homer- from novels like Broken April or the File for H forwards he has been fascinated by that historicity. Furthermore Kadare grew up and lived much of his adult life under the regime of Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator of Albania and again has charted the insidious and secretive workings of the totalitarian state- through novels like the Successor. Spring Flowers, Spring Frost set once again in the spring is yet another meditation on those two political themes- but its a meditation with a difference because both Communism and the Kanun are bound together in this fable of the coming of modernity to Albania.

The story is told through the medium of an artist, Mark Gurabardhi, who is the son of a policeman and whose options in life were dual- to follow his father to the police force or to become a painter in an obscure town, B.... Mark lives in B... alone, and spends most of his time roaming through the streets and bars of the place- a time interrupted by lovemaking with his girlfriend, whose name is never mentioned, whose nude body is the subject of his latest study. Mark's fantasies and dreams fill part of the novel- and are immersed in both kinds of historicity- the idea of a trial- in particular the trial of Tantalus, who stole immortality from heaven, and was punished by being placed in a pool of water from whence he could see all kinds of luxurious food but could never reach the plates in front of him is central to Mark's fantasies. Motifs are picked up and laid down again and again- myth and secrecy dominates the tale.

Modernity as it intrudes does so as a mere material reality- from which Mark's dreams and reality spins away. So for example constantly we are told of memos being sent from the Council of Europe to Albania to regulate this and that- to find out this and that about Albania- constantly political parties offstage are plotting to exploit this and that. Constantly Mark himself comes up against the reality of modernity and translates it into his own language- so for example in thinking about a man drowned beneath the straight of Otranto- his fantasy of the ghosts screaming out that the straight itself be punished by being dammed, takes place amidst a scene where condoms sink to the bottom of the sea accompanying sepulchral mirrors and the caterwauling of the gibbering and vengeful underworld.

Myth and Communism though are related in the tale by one facet that we often forget about both- the extent to which they are filled with secrecy. We know from Mark's tale that somewhere in the mountains lies hidden the Book of Blood- the book recording the debts in blood payable from clan to clan, we know that an Albanian leader- indeed at the end we are told that Brezhnev himself- have visited the mountains and torn at the roots but whether its the book of blood or photos of the central committee killing people, Mark and we do not know. Ultimately Communism came into Albania to eliminate the Kanun, but what Kadare leaves us in no doubt through this story that it did was merely to replace the Kanun with the secrecy of hushed words in the ears of the secret police- the Kanun therefore survived as an interpretation a structure into which the world might fit. Myth survived as Mark uses it as an explanation of reality, an insight into reality.

Of course the story itself is equivocal- the Kanun partly explains and partly doesn't what has happened. Our narrator himself is untrustworthy- he assumes his girlfriend is sleeping with her brother simply because a traditional Albanian woman is more a sister than a girlfriend. Throughout the tale Mark wonders in darkness seeking out perpetually the reasons for unexplained actions- why has his girlfriend been called home to see an old uncle who has come down from the mountains, why do the inner party seem so interested in this out of the way town, why has his mistress started taking the pill- and he finds the solutions in the myths and swirls of memory about the region- ultimately the Kanun allows Mark to interpret his world.

And Mark is aware of it- at the last we come back to Oedipus Rex- the story of Oedipus who murdered his father and slept with his mother. Or rather did he- his mother confessed to sleeping with her son- but was it Oedipus- because his mother the queen committed suicide- was it that at the womb of Oedipus's tyranny, the stories became invented about Oedipus and out of the womb of the tyranny was born as well the dragon of reputation that would follow Oedipus and overshadow him even after his tyranny was dead. So with Mark's life the secrets of communism, the secrets of the present, the secrets of trials that never were made public or the secrets of modern bureacratic machines become explained as myths- become part of a textured reality where Oedipus and Brezhnev and Hoxha and George Bush all join hands and fuse in and out of each other- secrets from the immortality of the Gods to the murder of Mark's boss may be hidden but they are explicable, explicable from the framework of myth.

But this leaves Mark with an anxiety, what if the Gods have left, drained themselves away and in the twilight of the world there are no answers, or what if the Gods are arriving- left in the spring of his imagination he can't tell whether the frost of secrets or the flowers of truth are more exposed, all he has is old stories and modern realities.