Strife in the Peninsula

Situated in southeastern Europe is the Balkan Peninsula. Historically, the region played a very fundamental role. Sure, it was bereft of robust and valuable natural resources that would have made it a prized economic possession for the powerful and influential empires that flanked it. However, its true value lies in its location; it was strategic geographically and geopolitically. It was strategically located at the crossroads of three major empires – Ottoman, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian. Its access to critical waterways made it a highly valued location and an important trading center. Since ancient times, the Balkans also served as the gateway between the East and the West. Its location at the crossroads of two continents made the region a melting pot of diverse cultures and ethnicities.

The region’s recent history, however, was riddled with strife. The First Balkan War (1912-1913) saw nation-states in the region wrestle control from the Ottoman Empire. It would then be immediately followed by the First World War which was sparked by the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina by members of Young Bosnia, a revolutionary organization comprised mainly of Serb and pro-Yugoslav members. More wars would ensue, from the Second World War to the Cold War. Along with these shifts in history is the continuously shifting political climate of the region. The passage of time would witness the dismantling of once-powerful monarchies and the division of equally powerful empires.

The region’s tumultuous history and complex political climate formed the backdrop of many works of writers who trace their provenance in the region. Among these children of the Balkans was Albanian writer Ismail Kadare who rose to global prominence following his groundbreaking win at the 2005 Man Booker International Prize; he was the first winner of the said award. Kadare is a name that is often a part of Nobel Prize in Literature conversations. He started his career as a journalist while, at the same time, working on his poetry. However, it would be his prose that would bring him global recognition. At the age of 26, he published his first major novel, Gjenerali i ushtrisë së vdekur (1963). It was translated into English in 1971 as The General of the Dead Army and would remain his most popular work. His works also drew the ire of the regime of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s long-time dictator.

“This sort of crisis is not common, but it is well documented. You re making a passage, undergoing a tansition. Because this experience is over, you think you have accomplished it painlessly. You forget that even moving house is a form of stress, let alone what you’re going through now. It’s like being transported to another planet.”

~ Ismail Kadare, The Accident

Kadare would draw details of his country’s and region’s history to complete his 2008 novel Aksidenti, one of several works produced by his prolific career. Originally published in Albanian, it was made available to the anglophone world in 2010 through the translation of John Hodgson, with the title The Accident. The titular accident happened one rain-soaked morning in Vienna, Austria. A taxi plying the airport autobahn and carrying two passengers veered off the road at kilometer marker 17 and crashed through the safety barrier. While the driver was severely injured, he would survive the crash. His two passengers, a man and a woman, unfortunately, got ejected out of the back door and died before help could arrive.

Accidents happen all the time and, on the surface, the tragedy seemed like a normal one. But this is a work of fiction and the work of a highly-heralded writer at that. The accident would have been written off as it is had it not been for a remark from the taxi driver. For reasons never elucidated, or perhaps an offshoot of the trauma he just experienced, the driver kept reiterating what he witnessed a couple of minutes before the unfortunate crash. He cannot account for the events that happened but what he saw while he glanced at the rearview left an impression on him. His passengers were in the act of “trying to kiss”. The kiss was again a seemingly innocuous act. However, for reasons that were (again) never made clear, it was suggested that the kiss might have indirectly caused the accident. As the dust started to settle, what ensued was a search for answers

As the story moved forward, the victims were identified as two Albanian nationals, both emigrés working in Vienna. The man was identified as Besfort Y. He was employed by the Council of Europe, a human rights organization, as an analyst for Balkan affairs. The woman, meanwhile, was identified as Rovena St., an intern at the Archaeological Institute of Vienna. Unbeknownst to many, the two were involved in a passionate love affair. For twelve years, they have been carrying out their romance in hotels all over Europe. Again, being in a relationship was normal. Even the details of their relationship taken from testimonies of people close to them showed that there was nothing out-of-the-blue about their relationship. There were moments of tenderness and there were bumps. They break up then they make up. It was the typical on-and-off type of relationship.

There was nothing unusual on the surface. Or so it seemed. The documents uncovered about their identities showed that there were suspicions surrounding Besfort. It was alleged that he might have played a part in the bombing of Yugoslavia during the Balkan War. His name was also connected to an investigation being led by The Hague for war crimes. Soon enough, the Serbian government picked up on the trail and started conducting its own investigations. Not long after, the Albanian secret service also got involved. This invites the question: was this a murder masquerading as an accident? The deeper each side digs into the case, the murkier and more confusing the case got. Both groups of investigators were not leaving any stone unturned. They uncovered several interesting leads and yet their inquiries were for naught as nothing of these leads amounted to anything substantial.

“He imagined her breasts and the insults and pain he felt at the prospect of never seeing them again made his response unexpectedly quiet. He would leave her in peace, but she should understand one thing, that her description of him was unfair. He had been her liberator but this was not the first time in history that a liberator had been taken for a tyrant, just as many a tyrant had been taken for a liberator.”

~ Ismail Kadare, The Accident

The story was set in the contemporary. However, the pages of the book were haunted by the ghosts of the Balkan Wars that rocked the peninsula from the 1990s to the early 2000s. The novel’s most scathing and critical commentaries, however, were reserved for the regime that Kadare alternately criticized and commended. The shadows of Hoxha and his gruesome regime loomed large in the story. The horrors of the regime were captured by Kadare. For instance, a character was forced to accept an engagement because of an ongoing purge against vice at the university she was attending. Furthermore, women who were “suspected of loose morals, along with homosexuals, gamblers, and people who encouraged degeneracy were all carted off.” These were on top of other horrible acts that “Uncle Enver” would mastermind from his rise to power until his death in 1985.

As if to further underline his homeland’s tumultuous contemporary history, the word “tyranny” was ubiquitous in the story. Beyond tyranny, another prevalent word was whore. Albania was even compared to the love of a whore. In a way, Rovena developed into an allegory of Albania. She was treated like an object, a whore. Within the ambit of her relationship with Besfort, she was servile. On the other hand, she also had a rebellious streak and was the embodiment of liberality, a representation of seminal subjects tackled in the story – the recognition of same-sex marriages and relationships and the exploration of sexuality. At one point, Rovena voiced out: “You’re no longer my master. I won’t stand your tyranny any longer.”

Kadare subverts the story when he injected himself into the narrative. Following the failure of the two governments to resolve the case or to come up with something substantial, the investigation was carried on by an enigmatic Albanian character simply referred to as the researcher, who also doubled up as an investigator. Driven by an unusual obsession, he took every piece of evidence and tried to build the tapestry and bridge the missing links. As he tried to fit the pieces together, he also drew his own conclusions and interpretations. His sections of the story were also riddled with explicit perversive passages beyond the sexual nature of the relationship between Rovena and Besfort. Images of the movements of Rovena’s breasts were incorporated by the researcher in his notes.

It was at this point that the cracks in the narrative started to manifest. A typical crime story would usually start from a point of confusion. The story would keep the reader in a sense of tenterhook but would then build its way towards a point of clarity. Sure enough, the story did start with a point of confusion. However, as the story progressed, it only branched out to more points of confusion. As tumultuous as the backdrop was the story itself. With the introduction of the researcher, the story’s point of view started shifting between him, Besfort, and Rovena. The story weaving in and out of different timelines further exacerbated the sense of confusion. As the imagined, the real, and the dreamed converged, what emerged was an obfuscating portrait.

“Strike. Do what you have to do. Just do not leave me alone. This is not a matter of love. It is beyond love. You have invaded me in a way perhaps forbidden by nature’s secret laws. They say that between lovers unnatural exchanges often take place across mucous membranes, in a kind of reverse in cest, in which the blood of the family and alien blood perversely change places.”

~ Ismail Kadare, The Accident

If the story losing its plot was lamentable enough, the lack of characterization and character growth was even more glaring. With the researcher’s involvement, one can only expect a deeper examination of the profile of the two characters. As the story moved forward, one expects a sterner psychological profile. It never happened as they were pared down. Besfort was kept at a distance and remained a puzzle all throughout the story. Meanwhile, the repeated and explicit objectification of Rovena reduced her into nothing but a projection of male desire. One can’t expect them to jump out of the pages but, at least, a sense of connection would have helped in the appreciation of the story.

In a conversation with his friend, Besfort mouthed: “Albania wears you down. She drives you to despair and sends you round the bend but there’s no escaping her.” It can reel you in at some points and plod at others but The Accident was, through and through, the story of Kadare’s homeland. Sure, it was weighed down by its flaws but the story also had its bright spots. Kadare’s renowned caliber for writing was evident in the story; he is cited as one of the best writers of his generation for a reason. His strokes of brilliance, however, came intermittently, such as fragmented images of post-Hoxha Albania and the interesting depiction of unusual generic domestic scenes. Parts-romance, parts-crime story, The Accident is a multilayered narrative that explored power dynamics – both amongst individuals and states – and even the art of storytelling itself.

“The stories we tell on earth are pure fragments, crumbs of the great nrrative of the dead. For thousand of years, in hundreds of languages, the dead have been weaving their story. But it will remain in the grave forever and for all eternity never heard by a living soul. Your final confidence, between you and the grave. Between the grave and you. Think of yourself there, with no advocate, no wtiness afraid of nothing, because you yourself are nothing.”

~ Ismail Kadare, The Accident
Rating

43%

Characters (30%) – 13%
Plot (30%) – 
11%
Writing (25%) – 
14%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
5%

It was in early 2018 that I first encountered Ismail Kadare. I listed his latest translated work, A Girl in Exile in My 2018 Top 10 Books I Look Forward To List. I didn’t get the chance to read the book but I would encounter the Albanian writer again a year later. I obtained two of his works through an online bookseller: The General of the Dead Army and The Accident. I didn’t have any iota about the influences of Kadare until I started writing a review of the former; I read The General of the Dead Army shortly after acquiring it; I ended up loving it and how it captured the contours of a country I rarely get to read about. However, it would take me three more years before I get to read The Accident. Time, however, has not dulled my anticipation for the book which I also included in my 2022 Beat the Backlist Challenge. At the start, the story held promise. I was actually reminded of Danielle Steel’s The Kiss, a typical romance story that started with the same premise. But, of course, it was different. The writing, overall, was fine and was its strongest facet. I cannot say the same for the plot. I found the story confusing. The idea of a conspiracy was built brick by brick but, eventually, none of that materializes. The ending was ambiguous and none of the mysteries was solved to my satisfaction. This unsatisfactory experience, however, is not holding me back from reading Kadare’s other books.

Book Specs

Author: Ismail Kadare
Translator (from Albanian): John Hodgson
Publisher: Grove Press
Publishing Date: 2010
Number of Pages: 265
Genre: Mystery, Romance, Political, Literary

Synopsis

From Man Booker International Prize winner Ismail Kadare comes a dizzying psychological thriller of twisted passions, dual identities, and political subterfuge. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the war in the Balkans, The Accident closely documents an affair between two young lovers.

On a rainy morning in Vienna, a taxi pulls onto the autobahn only to crash into the median barrier moments later, hurling its two passengers – a man and a woman – from the backseat as it spins through the air. The driver cannot explain why he lost control; he only says that the mysterious couple seemed to be about to kiss.

As the investigation into their deaths deepens, a lonely researcher will uncover a mutually destructive relationship that blurs the line between fact and fiction, fear and desire, and love and fixation over the course of twelve years. An alluring mixture of vivid hallucination and cold reality, The Accident is a fever dream of a novel that marks a bold and fascinating departure from Kadare’s previous works.

About the Author

To learn more about the renowned Albanian writer, click here.