Ismail Kadare, an Albanian novelist with a long and distinguished career, writes with a dizzying, evocative style in the recently published The Accident. The novel has a constraining impact: it catches you up in worlds that don’t make sense, but which the novelist apparently forces open to meaning and that he then denies. This work, James Wood assures readers in the New Yorker (Dec.20 & 27, ’10), is almost too allegorical. This in itself is worrying, since its surface meaning is elusive and so makes any “allegorical” significance of the turns of plot less a tease than an equation in a form of higher literary mathematics, and that way beyond my ken. Even if there were answers at the back of the book, the solutions themselves would be unsatisfying.
An Albanian couple’s death in an “accident” forms the basis of an investigation by a researcher whose findings occupy the bulk of the narrative. The conclusions reached, intended to determine if the deaths were indeed accidental or really murders, are never conclusive. The haze of testimony and speculation inevitably mixes with the political changes in Albania and the Balkans, most particularly the war crimes surrounding Bosnia in the trials at the Hague.
The narrative’s effect is to evoke nightmare, opacity, sexual extremes, dominance, pleas for freedom and assertions of control. The allegory has to suggest the complexities of post-communist Albanian society, as a political system somehow conjoining itself to a greater Europe. Who or what is free and on what terms?
The characters are multi-lingual, they cross borders with facility and interweave politics, sexuality, betrayal, and suspicion as the form liaisons in countless hotels in as many cities. Their passions are as much spent on understanding what they mean to each other as in physical acts of love. The disjointed use of time adds to the problematic effect of development of the relationship. The couple spends hours on the telephone recounting their dreams to each other, and they interpret these dreams which are further explored by the researcher/investigator.
The effect is to summon a sense of time and place which adds to the mystery of the former communist states of middle-Europe, the Balkans and the Mediterranean. The iron curtain caused much shade. Kadare negotiates time and place deftly, and does so with such characteristically uncertain conclusions, that he reinforces the sense of estrangement – this very like the effect of reading Kafka to whom he is often compared. So we both enter this world, remain excluded, and are left with sensing that there are no real answers to straightforward concerns about responsibility or culpability in terms of the historical record of the last fifty years. The accident might be cleared and traffic moving, but little has changed as the rest of the world goes on.