Before Ismail Kadare emerged as a patently major writer a few years ago, even readers interested in looking beyond these shores would have been hard put to name an Albanian novelist or, for that matter, a single, salient fact about Albania.
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Much, it would appear, has changed in the intervening period. The last despatch from Tirana I recall hearing was that its mayor was transforming it into a modern, capitalist capital, initially by painting the buildings in gay colours. Soon, it seemed, Tirana and Albania would be unrecognisable.
Of course, there is a limit to what you can do with a lick of paint. No-one knows this better than Kadare for whom, as for most writers, memory is the potent weapon in his armoury. In The Accident the act of remembering, of reconstruction, of painstaking reliving and reimagining the past, is paramount. On first reading it is a difficult novel on which to gain a foothold. Just when you think you’re making progress, when you think all is becoming clear and comprehensible and explainable, Kadare introduces doubt into your mind, until you question your ability to put two and two together.
Down this path comes paranoia, the sense that what someone sees and what you read may not be what it seems. Shifting frequently between the waking world and that of dreams, Kadare dispenses with narrative norms and offers a novel that demands you go back to its beginning and read it again.
The eponymous accident is where the book begins and ends. A taxi is taking a couple via an autobahn to an airport. Both, we learn, are Albanian. En route the taxi veers violently off the road, killing them outright. The man, whom we come to know as Besfort Y., is an analyst working for the Council of Europe on western Balkan affairs. The woman, who is called Rovena, is beautiful and younger than her partner. She is an intern at the Archaeological Institute of Vienna.
Eyewitnesses describe how the taxi’s doors flew open and the couple were thrown out. Questioned after he regained consciousness in hospital, the driver has little to add. Nothing unusual had happened during the journey as far as he can recall. But he does eventually remember one odd thing: “The two passengers on the back seat had done nothing … nothing but … only … they had tried … to kiss.”
As an overture to a more conventional thriller, this could hardly be better. If only most thriller writers could write with Kadare’s economy and pace. Who the couple were and what their relationship was will emerge in the pages that follow. Their affair, conducted in hotels across Europe, is described elliptically. Sex is at its heart and Kadare, like Milan Kundera, is adept at using its clichés – the high-gloss girl, the airbrushed rooms, a powerful man, late-night bars, a final whisky, mood music, lingerie, post-coital conversation – to maximum effect. The Accident is an erotic novel but in no way voyeuristic. This, Kadare seems to be saying, is the manner in which many people with peripatetic jobs conduct their lives. It is, in certain circumstances, what passes for normal.
In the beginning at least the power resides with Besfort Y. He is an important man, a mover and shaker. Months can go by without Rovena hearing from him. Though she is often on the brink of ending the affair – to the extent that she has sex with another man and, more seriously, a woman – she is always drawn back to him. There are three parts to the novel, offering a beginning, middle and end. Each is divided into a number of chapters. In Part Two, the chapters have headings, such as Forty weeks before. A hotel. Morning and The same morning. Rovena again.
Twenty-one weeks before. Snowstorm, clarifies nothing but adds to the mood of movement. The couple are always somewhere, as if eager to evade capture.
The war in the Balkans has left its scars. Mention is made of atrocities, of children horribly murdered, by the Serbians and the Albanians. To what extent Besfort Y. is implicated in these is unclear. He is summoned to The Hague. Is he to be tried for crimes against humanity?
A researcher, looking into the initial accident, chases shadows. Did the couple die in the accident? Or only one of them? Could Rovena have been murdered by Besfort Y.? Had she learned too much about him and the secrets such men carry everywhere with them? Was what the taxi driver said he witnessed what he really saw?
Kadare, magician that he is, offers just enough information for his readers to make myriad interpretations. He is the most beguiling and teasing of writers who understands that what may not be apparent now may well be in a distant future. As he writes in the final pages of The Accident, “From every great secret, hints occasionally leak out.”