Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The File on HThe File on H by Ismail Kadaré
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ismail Kadare's "The File on H." is the first book by an Albanian author that I have ever read. The events of this very unusual novel (first published in 1981) take place in mid-1930's in northern Albania, close to the forbidding Bjeshket e Namuna mountains.

Two Irish, Harvard-based Homeric scholars come to Albania to study the evolution mechanisms of oral epic poetry. The epics they study focus on historical tradition and are propagated by rhapsodes (epic poetry singers), who perform them with the lahuta (gusle) accompaniment. They assume that the propagation mechanisms of contemporary epics are the same as in the times of Homer, and they believe that through the study of these mechanisms they can answer questions like "Was Homer a poet of genius or a skillful editor?" They deconstruct the epics attempting to discover the "foundations of a common Greco-Illyrian-Albanian protouniverse".

I find the "research thread" of the novel absolutely fascinating. Being an applied mathematician I am enormously excited when I read about history/culture scholars devising a neat method of measuring the rate of change in the epics' contents over time. This is really cool stuff.

Alas, "The File on H." has other threads that are not quite to my taste. There is a broad satire thread that lampoons the provincial mores of residents of a small Albanian town, whose excitement about the foreigners' arrival is combined with a little dose of xenophobia. This immediately brings Gogol's famous "The Government Inspector" to mind. There is an "informer thread" - the foreigners are spied on around the clock and the "informers" report on their behavior to the Governor. Finally, there is a thread about Daisy, the Governor's wife. It culminates with some hilarious events at the end of the novel, yet I find it incompatible in tone and theme with the rest of the novel. It feels as if the author is trying to artificially lighten the mood, but - to me - it just spoils the book.

References to complicated Albanian-Serbian relations provide an interesting background that reinforces the serious tone of the novel. The story based on the folk belief that if a stonemason walls in another person's shadow, then that person will soon die, provides a neat setup for the ending of the book. The writing is uniformly good (the English version is based on the French translation). I may change my rating in the future, when I further digest the themes of the novel, and for the time being I will assign it a rather neutral rating.

Three stars.

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