A small, mountainous country on the eastern shores of the Adriatic, Albania was always one of the lesser-known places on the European subcontinent: a preserve of fierce mountain tribesmen whose exotic garb inspired Lord Byron to pose for a portrait in Albanian dress. Modern Albania is still one of the last places on earth that Americans are not allowed to visit. Isolated from the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc ever since the Khruschev era, when it aligned itself with the People's Republic of China, Albania went its own way under the dictatorship of its long-time president, the late Enver Hoxha, who in 1967 ordered all its churches and mosques shut down to proclaim it an ``atheist state.''
But, as is evident from the work of Albania's best-known writer, Ismail Kadare, old beliefs die hard - or they live on, beautifully, powerfully, and even perniciously, in customs, legends, and works of art.
In ``Broken April,'' Kadare portrays the intricate and chilling machinery of the centuries-old highland code of hospitality, honor, blood feuds, and revenge-killing known as the Kanun, which binds whole families and villages in elaborate cycles of regulated murder.
The story, set in the early part of this century, begins when Gjorg, a frightened young mountaineer, fulfills his family obligation by killing the man who caused the death of his older brother. It is the 17th of March. Following a month's official reprieve, known as a bessa, during which no one can take his life without incurring further penalties, Gjorg must either choose to wall himself up indefinitely in a windowless tower of refuge or continue in the living world as a moving target, marked for death by the family of the man he has killed. As of the 17th of April, his life will be changed utterly, and all for an accident that took place 70 years before, setting the chain of revenge in relentless motion.
While the desire for revenge sometimes seems ``natural'' - a common element in human nature, what Gjorg feels is not the kind of passionate outrage that provokes quick retribution, but rather, a sense of cold, leaden obligation: a burden that weighs heavily upon him. Yet, once he has discharged his debt, he enters ``a different order of days,'' ``terrifying and majestic,'' ``accompanied as it were by an inner tremor.''
The intensity of Gjorg's experience living so close to death and the somber shadow of the code that governs the lives of the people of the high plateau are freshly revealed, like mountains seen from a distance, by the introduction of two characters from the Albanian lowlands, a couple who are visiting the plateau on their honeymoon.
Bessian Vorpsi is a writer whose work displays the extent of his fascination with the kanun and the myths and customs of the highland. He is anxious to share its stark splendors with his bride, Diana. She is at once repelled by what she sees, yet more sensitive than her husband to its reality: the pain and fear. In some ways, her silent revulsion speaks more eloquently than his words.
The debate is continued later in the book, as Mark Ukacierra, the current ``steward'' in charge of overseeing blood feuds and collecting the heavy tax that goes with them, rails inwardly against Marxists and other ``androgynous,'' ``degenerate'' critics from the lowland cities, who claim that the blood feud is nothing but a capitalist enterprise carried on for the sake of profit.
Later still, we hear the voice of an outraged doctor, who accuses the writer, Bessian, of exploiting - and falsely glamorizing - the human misery of the situation for the sake of his art: ```Instead of doing something for these unfortunate mountaineers, you help death, you look for exalted themes, you look here for beauty so as to feed your art. You don't see that this is a beauty that kills....'''
KADARE'S writing combines the transparency of a fairy tale with the sophisticated understanding of a literary critic who has deconstructed and reconstructed whole libraries of folklore.
In ``Broken April,'' he achieves a precise and delicate balance of wonder and horror, simplicity and irony. Every viewpoint is given full, yet succinct, expression, so that the stark drama of the story is heightened rather than diminished by the presence of the spectators and commentators.
Born in a mountain village in 1936, Kadare is famous in his native land as a poet, critic, and novelist. Three other of his fictional works have been translated into English in the past few years: ``The General of the Dead Army,'' ``Chronicle in Stone,'' and ``Doruntine,'' prompting American reviewers to compare him with Dostoevsky, Marquez, and (less incongruously) Isak Dinesen. Certainly, he is an accomplished storyteller with a keen sense of literary history. His style (insofar as one can judge from a translation) has the force and seeming simplicity of strong poetry.