Friday, November 26, 2010

Power Struggles and Riddles, in Romance and Political Intrigue

Books of The Times
The name of the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare regularly comes up at Nobel Prize time, and he is still a good bet to win it one of these days. He writes in a language that is not English.
Published: November 23, 2010
By Ismail Kadare
He comes from a country that most of us know next to nothing about, where he was oppressed not just by a run-of-the-mill totalitarian but by the bizarre and paranoid Enver Hoxha. He is fluent in the styles of modernism and postmodernism both. And, an unlooked-for bonus, he is seemingly incapable of writing a book that fails to be interesting.
His new novel, "The Accident," is not one of his major achievements, and readers looking for Mr. Kadare (pronounced kah-dah-RAY) at the top of his form should probably start with "Chronicle in Stone," which came out in English in 1987, or "The Three-Arched Bridge," from 1997. But "The Accident," fluidly translated by John Hodgson, is provocative nonetheless, not least because of the way it starts out as one kind of book and turns into something else entirely. This, you feel, is how Mr. Kadare sees the world: as a place always shifting and remaking itself.
"The Accident" begins like a thriller, or an update of an Alan Furst novel. A taxi flips over on a Viennese autobahn, ejecting its two passengers through the back doors. By the time help arrives, they're both dead. The driver, apparently traumatized, can't account for what happened except to say that he chanced to look in the rearview mirror and saw the passengers, a man and a woman, "trying to kiss."
The victims, it turns out, were Albanians and longtime lovers: Besfort Y., an analyst working for the Council of Europe on Balkan affairs, and Rovena St., an intern at the Archaeological Institute of Vienna. Because Besfort may have been involved in the bombing of Yugoslavia during the Balkan War, the Serbian government begins to investigate, and pretty soon the Albanian secret service does too. Could the accident have been a political murder? A double suicide?
When these inquiries fail to turn up anything substantial, a character called the researcher - a stand-in for the novelist - takes over and begins obsessively trying to put together the pieces. He pores over the evidence, such as it is - "dark surmises, grave suspicions, ambiguous phrases, obscure scraps of dialogue drawn from half-remembered phone conversations" - and he also gives vent to his own imaginings. His account of the couple's relationship, which consists mostly of meetings in four-star hotel bedrooms, jumps back and forth in time and alternates between Besfort's point of view and Rovena's.
Seen one way, their story seems to be that of a fairly ordinary, hot-and-cold relationship, intensified, perhaps, by Balkan politics and by the long periods they spend apart, brooding. The bitterness of their quarrels is often redeemed by the sweetness of their reconciliations; actually breaking up, though they talk about it a lot, appears to be out of the question. They may not be in love, exactly, but they're not done with each other.
There is also a kinky side, though. The researcher creepily records - or imagines - the way Rovena's breasts swell and shrink, depending on how the relationship is going, and describes in soft-porn detail the couple's visit to an Albanian swingers' club. Or maybe the researcher is getting off on making all this up. We never know for sure. We do know that Besfort encourages Rovena to take other lovers, or at least tolerates them, and then consumes himself with jealousy and treats her like a call girl. And inevitably struggles in the relationship take on the dimensions of a political power struggle. The researcher suggests in a few places that the whole story can be read as an allegory of the Hoxha regime, with first Rovena and then Besfort in the role of the tyrant.
"I'm abdicating," Besfort says. "Nobody will ever topple me."
Rovena responds: "Do what you want, take power or reject it. There is no way I can escape from you."
In the end the researcher's frustration - the impossibility of knowing anything for certain - drives him over the edge, and he takes the novel with him, entertaining wilder and wilder speculations before coming up with a solution. Maybe one or the other passenger in the back seat was a simulacrum? Maybe simulacra are more real than what they represent? Maybe the clue to what happened is preserved, like a riddle from "Through the Looking-Glass," within the rearview mirror itself and will be revealed a thousand years from now?
What gets left behind in all this metaphysical guesswork is Rovena and Besfort, who instead of developing and becoming more interesting as the book goes on, are, if anything, pared down and reduced. They become so unknowable they're barely characters at all. Presumably this is deliberate on Mr. Kadare's part, but it means that the reader has to give up some of the traditional pleasures of the novel - the illusion of getting to know flesh-and-blood people - for the more head-spinning sensation of looking at them through a fun-house mirror. For all we know, this is really what it felt like in Hoxha's Albania, and "The Accident" may be less a parable than a kind of topsy-turvy realism. In either case, it takes you to the sort of place novels don't routinely visit these days, and also leaves you grateful you don't have to dwell there.
A version of this review appeared in print on November 24, 2010, on page C14 of the New York edition.

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