The Ghost Rider – Ismail Kadare

The Ghost Rider - Ismail Kadare - coverThis is the first novel I’ve read by Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare. It was an excellent introduction to the winner of the first Man Booker International prize (2005). Originally published in Albania in 1980, translated into French in 1986, with an English translation following in 1988 – at this time called Doruntine. Canongate’s new edition is an updated translation, which features text which, previously, had been too sensitive to include.

The novel itself, a relatively short one, on one level is an Albanian folk story (The Ballad of Constantine and Doruntine) which has been re-imagined as a medieval police thriller. The story it’s based upon is relatively simple: a dead son, who had promised his mother that he would bring her daughter home to her on her death bed, rises from the grave to fulfil his promise, his obligation to his mother.

Beyond this, however, is a more complex tale which seeks to describe a sense of what it is to be Albanian. By choosing this particular story, it shows the reader how national identity was created and sustained in Albania, a small nation with many larger forces who sought to influence and control her throughout her history. It also, though perhaps not quite so explicitly (indeed, the useful introduction points to instances of where Kadare was able to insert passages in the updated text which would have been unwise to include in the original publication, given that in 1980 Albania was still subject to Hoxha’s paranoid Stalinist rule), a critique of the unjust nature of the Albanian state at the time of writing.

By writing a historical novel based upon a folk tale Kadare was able to, more safely than had he written something which was contemporary, obscure the image in the mirror he was holding to Albanian society. Also, in using a folk tale well known to anyone (the knowledge of this tale spread far beyond the borders of Albania) allowed Kadare to show continuity. A tale whose origins are lost in antiquity, which has outlived the imperial forces which buffeted the tiny nation and survived the depredations of waves of invaders over many years, shows continuity and is, however obliquely, a way of telling the regime in power at that time that power over the Albanian people is transient and that, while they may be oppressed now, they will survive and outlive Hoxha’s government.

The Ghost Rider, takes the ancient folk tale and, in adapting it to a medieval setting and adding the police procedural plotting, creates a richly layered and subtle novel. I have to confess that, not being that well-informed when it comes to Albanian history, I found the introduction to be invaluable in pointing me in the direction of sources which would help me to understand the context of the story itself. If you intend to read this novel (though not necessary) you would find it rewarding to acquaint yourself further with the history and setting as it makes for a far more rewarding reading experience. Doruntine’s mother had made one of her (many) sons promise that should there be an occasion of great joy or sorrow within their family that he would travel to Bohemia, where his only sister was living with her husband, and bring her home. Unfortunately, he and all of his brothers had died through injury on the battlefield or subsequent disease in one of the many wars which threatened Albania in this period.

Distraught, she had cursed his grave for failing to keep his promise to her (the Besa, which is more fully examined in the novel and provides some of the interrogation into what it means to be Albanian). Therefore, when her daughter arrives, claiming to have been brought home by her brother, 3 years after he’d died, this creates a mystery to be solved by the local police chief Stres. It also leads to the death of Doruntine and her mother, bringing further tragedy to their family.

In attempting to provide an explanation for the mystery Stres finds himself forced to examine how power is applied, the role of religion in his society and, more disturbing at a personal level, there is even the possibility of incest raised in the course of his investigations. Even the marriage of Doruntine to a man from outside Albania would have had resonance amongst Albanians both historically and within the context of the Hoxha regime.

Stres finds himself under pressure from the local church to quash the gossip that Doruntine’s brother had risen from the grave, as this would constitute a grave heresy – they would only believe that Christ could rise from the grave:

“‘This affair must be buried, ‘ he said evenly. ‘Or rather, one aspect of it, the one that is at variance with the truth and damaging to the Church. Do you understand me Captain? We must deny the story of this man’s resurrection, reject it unmask it, prevent its spread at all costs.'”

The Archbishop also puts himself at great pains to point out to Stres that in all matters, the Church has supremacy over secular institutions, and he would be well advised to remember this:

“‘I have seen emperors slaughtered, roped to wild horses, eyes gouged, their tongues cut out, simply because they dared to think they could amend this or that tenet of the Church. Perhaps you remember that two years ago, after the heated controversy about the sex of angels, the capital came close to being the arena of a civil war that would certainly have lead to wholesale carnage,'”

The potential heresy had wider political implications for the local Church:

“‘Today more than ever,’ the archbishop went on, ‘when relations between our Church and the Catholic Church have worsened . . . Nowadays your life is at stake in matters like these. Do I make myself clear, Captain?'”

Religious matters and the ever-present questions about what it means to be an Albanian give the novel heft. Beyond this, however, The Ghost Rider is simply a good yarn. Though, naturally, set in the medieval period, policing wouldn’t be done in exactly the same way as we’d expect now, this aspect of the novel rattles along at a fair pace. In this way, it reminded me more than a little of The Name of the Rose. Though, of course, this novel has its roots in folk tales, where Eco’s novel is a wider meta-textual piece of writing.

Excellent stuff.

Available from Amazon

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6 Responses to The Ghost Rider – Ismail Kadare

  1. Stewart says:

    I have this sitting in a pile of books to be read. I have many such piles. I’ve read a few Kadare, and have many more in the aforementioned piles. Those I’ve read are Spring Flowers, Spring Frost, which I remember very little of, so can offer no thoughts there; Agamemnon’s Daughter, which I read twice, the second time after having ‘caught up’ with my Albanian history, and that I reviewed here; and Three Elegies For Kosovo, which are very slight stories, mythic in their way, looking at the Kosovo issue from the perspectives of the Serbians, the Kosovans/Albanians, and the Turks. I may read it again before writing it up.

    I think the only thing that galls me about the Kadare books that we get are that, save Three Elegies For Kosovo, which was translated from the Albanian by Peter Constantine, we are in effect reading him through two filters, that of the French of Josef Vrioni, then the English of, say, David Bellos. However, Bellos makes his case here.

  2. Richard says:

    Yeah, I agree. I always worry about reading work in translation that you’re reading what somebody else thinks the author is trying to say. And I suppose doubley so if it’s a translation of a translation. It’s something that has always put me off reading Stanislaw “Solaris” Lem, actually: I’m sure that I read he was another who was translated into French and then English (plus the jacket for that novel is a still from the-not-so-good-as-the-Tarkovski-original-film starring Clooners).

    It’s odd that he should be so poorly served by English translations – I’d have thought that his recognition through the International Booker, for example, would have encouraged some investment there? Though I suppose that it’s equally possible that critical recognition hasn’t translated into increased sales.

    I picked up The Siege at the weekend, actually, and intend to read that one quite soon. Thanks for pointing out the review and the article, I shall have a look at them this evening (oh – and I also picked up the Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö you reviewed a couple of weeks ago – sounds like it might be fun!)

  3. Stewart says:

    I’m sure that I read he was another who was translated into French and then English

    Yes, he was…and remains so. Complete Review had a little dig at this the other day in an article about translated sf.

    picked up The Siege at the weekend, actually, and intend to read that one quite soon. Thanks for pointing out the review and the article, I shall have a look at them this evening (oh – and I also picked up the Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö you reviewed a couple of weeks ago – sounds like it might be fun!)

    If only I’d known in advance. I was cleaning up my shelves the other night and found I had two copies of The Siege. Hope you enjoy — is it Roseanne? — the Swedish one, too.

  4. Richard says:

    Ahaha, sadly, he’s probably right. Though not necessarily because reading SF is inherently conservative, rather that most readers, regardless of their choice of reading material are conservative. Of course, I could be projecting my own reading habits here. It is a shame mind, the better SF writers have more varied palates, I suspect, than many of their readership (though this probably doesn’t apply – in any genre – to the real trash).

    Interesting that he should mention Živković, actually. He was one who was recommended somewhere else (possibly by Lucius Shepherd?) as being well worth reading. Actually, when I was in Stockholm last month, I picked up a short story anthology of European SF, which I hope should be interesting (the UK choice is Ian MacDonald, whose recent stuff is certainly excellent – and less focused on the west than many of his peers). Mind you, for all that it is out of the UK/US axis, it seems a little bloke-heavy. I suppose that one can’t have everything.

    Aye, Roseanne it is.

    Gah! That’s a shame: so far I’ve only duplicated once… 🙂

  5. winstonsdad says:

    I ve only read broken april by Kadare ,I did enjoy it ,having worked with some kosovian albanians in 90’s the area and its peoplke have always appealed to me I have the siege on my shelves near top of my pile and saw some more of his in my local library to get at some point ,this sounds quite good ,as stewart was saying about translation my belief it is translated to french then english as it works bettewr ,but I could be wrong ,all the best stu

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