This 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.