Books: Don't disturb the fairies

THE THREE-ARCHED BRIDGE by Ismail Kadare, Harvill pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
ISMAIL KADARE is Albania's best known writer, a novelist surely in the same league as two other Balkan literary giants, the Turk Yashar Kemal and the Bosnian Ivo Andric. Like them he is a prolific and stylistically versatile author who has sought to explain his problematic country through massive political epics as well as in novellas that variously take shape as allegories, folk tales, magical autobiography (Chronicle of Stone, Serpent's Tail) or ancient Albanian history. His last two books to appear in English were both novellas: The Pyramid (Harvill), a sombre and enthralling allegory about Enver Hoxha's demented Stalinist rule of Albania, and The File on H (Harvill), a Gogol-style comedy about paranoid government officials in the time of King Zog.

The Three-Arched Bridge is a 170-page work divided into 60 very brief chapters. Rich in loaded symbolism, it is a convincing depiction of medieval Albania just prior to the Ottoman invasion. The date is 1377 and the dour narrator, the monk Gjon, is chronicling in hurried trepidation the construction of the first ever stone bridge over the river Ujana. "Arberia", formerly the ancient Illyria, is ruled by a fragile association of warring princes, soon to become compliant vassals of the encroaching Ottomans. The bridge is a source of great anxiety not only for the owners of the "Ferries and Rafts" company, but also for the local peasants who still cling to animistic beliefs about the sanctity of the Ujana's naiads and water fairies. More sinisterly, the joining of the great Ottoman highway, the Via Egnatia, by a system of bridges, will allow the easy transportation of bitumen and pitch, the basics of medieval warfare. And it just so happens that the bridge-building entrepreneurs also own bitumen mines near the strategic port of Vlore, which is soon to be shared by treaty with the Turks. The bridge company has sent out spying emissaries who speak a bastard mixture of unintelligible languages, and will stop at nothing to get the bridge built.

This includes taking the bridge saboteur hired by "Ferries and Rafts" and bricking him up in the first arch. This immurement not only halts the sabotage, it embodies the ancient folk tale sung by every Albanian minstrel, which tells how a human sacrifice is necessary for any great construction. Just as strange and arresting are those scenes in the book where the monk discusses with travelling foreigners the relative antiquity not only of Albanian and Slav folk tales but of their respective languages. The supposed affinity of Illyrian and classical Greek (which together with an Albanian origin for Homer was explored at length in The File on H) is coupled with a remark from Gjon that strikes a pertinent note with regard to present-day Kosovo:

"`We [Albanians] have had our roots here,' I continued, `since time immemorial. The Slavs, who have recently become so embittered, as often happens with newcomers, arrived from the steppes of the east no more than three or four centuries ago.'"

Ismail Kadare is a poet as well as a novelist and the other principal pleasure in this book is his rich and vigorous prose. The hurly-burly of the bridge builders, the worrying appearance of wandering dervishes (Turkish spies?), the ghostly presence of the bricked-up corpse of Murrash Zenebisha, are all described with vivid immediacy. As too are the narrator's first impressions of the inroading Turks: "Increasingly often you hear their attenuated melodies, heavy with somnolence. Everything about them makes me anxious ... and above all their language: their words, in contrast to their drowsy songs, end with a crack like a blow from a mallet."

These fine suggestive descriptions are occasionally weakened by a plodding and overstated narrative. Gjon's perpetual artless consternation at times can be irritating, and for me the book lacks the sustained power and bite of the earlier novellas. Anyone who has read Ivo Andric's towering masterpiece The Bridge Over the Drina (Harvill) will probably find Kadare's treatment of the same pan-Balkanic theme rather slight in comparison. Nevertheless it provides an excellent introduction to an outstanding writer, and prepares the reader for major works like The General of the Dead Army (Quartet), The Concert (Harvill), and The Pyramid. As Kadare has been nominated no less than 15 times for the Nobel Prize, there is no real excuse for ignoring his prophetic books.