This novel by the Albanian master is set in 1930s , the Albania under the rule of King Zog. Two researchers of Irish - US background , Bill Norton and Max Roth, takes up a journey to Albania. The Homeric scholars are in search of the oral tradition of epics, still prevalent in these part of the world. Their mission is to establish facts on the origin of Homers epics, which are now a hot topic in the academic circle. There had been debates in the academia on Homer ; is he the 'poet genius' or ' a compiler or editor' of the existing folk lore and rhapsodies of the region.
Their enthusiasm and eagerness to travel did not go well with the Albanian Authorities. Suspected being spies, the authorities were put on high alert. Albania, under constant troubles with its neighbours, is an isolated and remote country. Every foreign national is looked upon as someone who has come on espionage and was put under constant surveillance. The two scholars were also were monitored.
Along with their arrival at the small town M_, they were watched for every movement of theirs. The 'tape-recorder' , the new invention at that time, they were carrying did not make it any easier for them. There were numerous stories and rumours about the two in the local gossips. As they set about to work, staying in a remote Inn, which is frequented by the travelling rhapsodists, the suspicion grew. Though they were successful in getting many singers for their projects, their eventual debate with a Serbian Monk over the originality and superiority of Albanian Folk Songs over the Serbian ones, lead to the tragic consequences and the abandonment of their visit.
Witty narrative, to the extend of being ridicule, Kadare makes a point to picture the state of his country through this satire. But, whenever the narration is on the project and on the visiting foreigners, it turns very serious and analytical. It also brings out some of the interesting aspect of oral tradition of epics, which I found very similar to what was happening in India. He talks about the highlanders of the Albanian mountains, who preserved the tradition through their poems, it was more structured and taught in India since the Vedic period. The question of attributing the epics to one person is also questionable, as these would have gone through multiple changes generations after generations.
The book is an interesting and easy read. however, the characters lack depths and superficies , barring Daisy, the wife of the local Governor, who fantasise of having an affair with the English speaking foreigner. This may not be the best work of this genius, but an important one, nonetheless.
Ismail Kadare, is a prolific writer, s a perennial favourite to win the Nobel, especially after he was awarded the Man Booker International in 2005. This book was written, after his meeting with Americal Folklorist Albert Lord, who had travelled to the Balkans in the 30s to record and research on Homeric traditions.
The File on H.
Ismail Kadare ( translated from French of Jusuf Vrioni , by David Bellos)
Further Read: David Bellos on translating Kadare.