Friday, 24 April 2015

Spring Flowers, Spring Frost by Ismail Kadare

This may be the first book I've read by an Albanian writer. In some ways, it reminds me of Milan Kundera, but I like it more than I do Kundera's books. There isn't that pervasive detachment, the insistence that people cannot make connections under a fascist state. The setting, although not the specific country, is familiar, a state where surveillance could be anywhere, and people can disappear without warning.

Indeed, one of the colleagues of Mark, the main character, has recently disappeared, and no one investigates too closely. There is not even a moral dilemma about whether or not to do so - it's just accepted as something that happens.

This is not just an Albania that is priding itself on modernizing (and in this smaller mountain town, even that is debatable). It's also one where old stories and legends are still around - most prominently in the legend of a book that details every blood feud in the Albanian hills, those settled and those still outstanding. In a world where the disappearances seem antiseptic, a messier kind of erasure looms.

This book flips back and forth every other chapter (approximately) between Mark's life and a story or fable or legend he has thought about briefly in the preceding chapter, including one of a young woman who was happily married to a snake. The juxtaposition of folklore with the main story is very evocative, and the legends entirely new to me. (Presuming they haven't been made up wholesale for this book.)

Instead of everyone cheating on everyone, as often happens in a Kundera book, the romantic and sexual side of Mark come out in his relationship with his younger girlfriend. Neither is attached to anyone else, although he suspects her of having cheated on him on her trip to the capitol. They can't show their relationship in public, and the reasons for this are never quite clear. (I suspect they would be to someone who knew the social and political milieu better than I.)

There are also stories of a secret archive hidden in the mountains, to which the new absolute leader of the country came on the eve of assuming power, and left looking ashen. There is much here about the sins, past and present, of those in power, and the assumption of power as the assumption of all future guilt - that while you may not have committed atrocities yet, you will.

In this mix of autocratic state and swirling maelstrom of folk belief, Mark attempts to make art and stay under the radar. But neither will entirely go away, even if he can shield himself from the worst effects of either. They will affect those around him, and there is no barrier of stories or secrets tall enough.

It's an odd book, different from most of what I read, and intriguing as such. The inclusion of folklore is, of course, right up my alley.

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