Read from May 25th to June 19th 2015
Ghosts of the Tale
I have always had a fascination for stories built on myths, legends or folkloric tales, for they tend to give another dimension to the nations subconscious that I’ve always believed populated by the latters. And I find it extremely interesting to see how these stories feed at the same time on the old and new, on the local and universal, on the real and the imaginary, how they can gain and lose specific meanings in time without losing beauty and depth.
And here it is, Ismail Kadare’s novel, The Ghost Rider, a strange tale (known apparently by all Albanian people), based on an ancestral belief – besa – a sacred promise that must be fulfilled no matter what. The narrative, whose general lines the author respects, is simple enough – a brother rises from his grave to keep the promise he made to his mother when he was alive and bring his sister back from a faraway land where she had gone to live with her husband. Simple is also, apparently, its message – the power of a word of honour that exceeds even death. Obviously there are other messages too, which speak about love and grief, about family and solitude, about estrangement and renunciation, etc.
The mastery of Kadare in manipulating the tale lies in the fact that he keeps all these messages and adds others, incorporating both politic and aesthetic concepts within myth, without transforming it in a mere allegory. Therefore, the novel can be read in many ways, and each reading key is as true and as insightful as the others.
First, there is a fascination for the story per se, that desire to fill in the blanks, to hunt for details, like the true nature of the relationship between brother and sister, between life and death, between sacred and profane. So, even though this first reading is the most literal, it is not less beautiful: it is the completion of the story, a rewriting that adds missing data, skilfully restoring the slate tablets with information about journey, characters, reactions and so on:
In a trembling voice, one of the mourners sang of Doruntine’s marriage and of her departure for a distant land. A second, her voice more tremulous still, lamented the nine boys who, so soon after the wedding, had fallen in battle against the plague-ridden army. The third took up the theme and sang of the grief of the mother left alone.
Like in a detective story, the whys and hows are one by one answered, even though the answers are never definitive, since there is always some fact or person that contradicts one information or another. Nevertheless, the characters gain depth and personality, and a life of their own that the scheme of the original myth couldn’t provide.
Then there is a second reading, which removes the story from illo tempore to anchor it in a specific time: the present of the author. Thus it becomes the story of a sombre period, an allegory of the communist oppression. In this key of reading, what is the Church but the Comunist Party, and what is Kostandin but the national hero whom not even death can prevent to bring back freedom – Doruntine? And even though she dies away, her story is enough to keep up hope, encouraging people to remember it, to respect it, if only by mourning it. So, even this apparently more prosaic reading reveals more than a political event, rising over transience to point out the right to fight against tyranny that kills the spirit. Moreover, it helps to draw the portrait of a quiet people that kept its beliefs and traditions even under duress, with a passive resistance that fooled for a while the Power. In this respect, Stres, the brave detective caught between the two worlds, emphasizes the importance of hanging on the true image of oneself, the more it seems dangerous, the more it seems improbable:
“The question is this: in these new conditions of the worsening of the general atmosphere in the world, in this time of crime and hateful treachery that could be called unbelief, who should the Albanian be? What face shall he show the world? Shall he espouse evil or stand against it? Shall he disfigure himself, changing his features to suit the masks of the age, seeking thus to assure his survival, or shall he keep his countenance unchanged… I am a servant of the state and have little interest in the personal aspects of Kostandin’s journey, if in fact there are any. Each of us, commoners and lords alike, be we Caesar or Christ, is the shroud of unfathomable mysteries. But, functionary that I am, I have spoken of the general point, the one that concerns Albania. Albania’s time of trial is near, the hour of choice between these two faces. And if the people of Albania, deep within themselves, have begun to fashion institutions as sublime as the besa, that shows us that Albania is making the right choice. Albania aims to keep its eternal image.”
Finally, a third reading (among many others I will not continue to develop here) returns the story to its true land, the imaginary. It is the story of literature, of the make-belief, the same story The Buried Giant tells, of how reality slips imperceptibly into myth. Like in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, here again is presented that decantation of reality only literature can create:
“A legend is being born right before our eyes,” Stres said, handing him the sheaf of reports with their underlined passages. “Just look at this. Until two days ago, the songs gave little detail, but since last night, and especially today, they have taken shape as a well-defined fable.”
This is the story that reveals the complexity of the main character, Stres, playing a triple part: he is the author who not only reinterprets the tale many times but rewrites it, retells it and invests it with new meanings; he is the main character converted from a mere unbeliever to a keeper of legends, who protects not only the people but the story itself from being destroyed; he is also the reader, who choses to take it in as he sees fit.
“Each of us has a part in that journey, for it is here among us that Kostandin’s besa germinated, and that is what brought Doruntine back. Therefore, to be more exact I would have to say that it was all of us – you, me, our dead lying there in the graveyard close by the church – who, through Kostandin, brought Doruntine back.”
Overall, a great novel, by an extremely interesting writer I (shame on me) knew nothing about until several months ago, when my friend Ema encouraged me to read him. I pass on this wonderful discovery and for whoever in need of more insightful reviews than mine about this book I would recommend at least two: one in Romanian, on Ema's blog , and one in English, on a Scottish writer's blog, Jim Murdoch