November 07, 2010

The Ghost Rider

Across Europe in the middle of the night, a horse carries a rider and his passenger towards Albania. They pass from Bohemia down through Austria, through province after province of the medieval empire and beyond into the territories of Venice, Hungary and Ragusa until their ultimate destination is reached: Albania. During this ride, they pass from the world of Catholicism- secure in its Germanic and Italian fastnesses- into the world of Orthodoxy. They pass from the Western Empire into the Eastern Empire. They arrive in Albania and the girl, the passenger, dismounts from the horse to tell her mother she has come back, to tell her mother that her brother brought her back. The girl married far away and does not know that her brother- that all her twelve brothers- died before her voyage took place. When her mother hears the news, she screams and both women in shock take to their deathbeds. Whatever happened now resonates through the village to which Doruntine, the girl, has returned and through the wider world, consumed as it is by theological speculation about the nature of life and death and the worship of a resurrected Christ.

We enter this story with the police inspector- Stres. Stres's job in this novel is to reconcile what is irrational and nonsensical with the official narratives of the truth. Stres has to show that whatever happened, several things did not happen. The brother did not rise from the dead and come back to carry his sister to their mother: no mere mortal could usurp the prerogative only granted to the supreme mortal. He has to demonstrate to a village seething with superstition and gossip that everything has a rational explanation: that the world has a reason to it. He has to ensure that in all of this he has regards to the far away Prince of Albania down on the plains. Lastly he is in our position. This story is written about an ancient folktale from Albania. We therefore stand like Stres before a story that we know has been told but we cannot beleive is true: we, Kadare the novelist and Stres the police officer have to understand, have to reconcile what we hear in the tale with what we know cannot be or can be true. Girls do not ride through Europe on the backs of horses with their dead brothers, do they? There must be another possibility- a lover, an imposter, an intrigue of some sort.

Kadare takes us through all of these possibilities and he through his character expresses the view that they are the most probable. They must be right. Yet all the possibilities disappear as soon as they are mentioned. If a man confesses to being an imposter, under torture he reveals the confession is false. If a lover is rumoured, then relatives from Bohemia turn up to deny that Doruntine, the girl, ever had a lover. If the journey is invented, then we learn that those same relatives have evidence that Doruntine set off from Bohemia on one night and we know, through our author's eyes, that she arrived in Albania several days later. At one point Stres goes up to interview Doruntine before her death, his questions rebound off her blank face. In her presence he and we have to believe that what she says is true, that she believed she was riding across Europe with her brother Konstandine. The facts before us, as so often in life, are blank and contradict our theses. Konstandine's grave is disturbed. Doruntine's story was the same in Bohemia as it was in Albania and even tantalising hints, a crossed off word in the note she left her husband, remain just that tantalising and unexplained.

Ultimately all our resources- intellectual and coercive- cannot extract from this story what it means or what it is. Stres with his powers of police work fails to find any rider who came in to Albania with a girl that night and yet the girl is here. Neither the local Archbishop nor the Prince seem able to assist. The puzzle cannot be solved. We cannot do it either- this is not a case in which we know more than the character. Indeed what Kadare does emphasizes how much less we actually do know: we cannot treat the myth as an investigation because we lack any of the sources that Stres has. To investigate the myth we need to create a fictional investigation. The past is blank and looks back to us with a blank face when we ask it whether these things happened or when they did or what they were. Kadare doesn't tell us to give up, he tells us to redirect our energies. This would be an unsatisfactory novel if you wanted to know what happened when the ghost rider took his carriage across Europe into Albania- but there are other subjects worth investigating, worth understanding.

Right at the end of the book, Stres gives a speech about his findings. What he finds he says is not that the girl was lying or any definitive proof of what happened. What he finds is the power of a myth: it was not neccessarily Konstandine who brought Doruntine back to her mother but the power of his promise. He promised a Besa to his mother, a sacred oath, that when Doruntine went away to marry, should she ever be required to return he would fetch her back. Whether Konstandine came back from the grave to fulfill that promise hardly matters besides the fact that the promise was fulfilled. Whoever did whatever they did believed in that promise and enacted what they did as a ritual fulfilment of that promise. We have a hint of who might have done it towards the end of the novel but Stres is clear that that is not what matters. What matters is that the promise became a fact which led to Doruntine's return. What matters is that human action was predicated upon something- something that may or may not be an illusion- but the action and the reactions are not illusions. Kadare directs us to remember the most interesting reflection about folklore and myth is not about whether it happened, but about its power once the story has been repeated.

In that context we can invert everything I have written up until that last paragraph. What the novel shows is not the weakness but the strength of the human imagination. Kadare, writing under communist tyranny, produces a story which shows that even at inception, a myth is more powerful than any intellectual or coercive power deployed against it. This is the reverse of 1984: you will remember in 1984 that Big Brother seeks to wipe out ancient rhymes and rituals (even down to 'Oranges and Lemons'): Orwell imagines that eventually Big Brother will succeed. Kadare argues that it never can and never will.