Book Review: Broken April

One day St. Macarious was walking through the desert, and came upon a pagan skull. The skull said that he had been a pagan priest in life, and was now in hades, where there was no communion; they could only ever see the back of each other’s heads, and never encounter one another face to face. When St. Macarious prayed for the departed, however, his prayers descended on them as refreshing dew, and they began to be able to see the heads turn, and the outlines of faces. So the departed pagan thanked St. Macarious for his intercession on their behalf.

In Broken April, by Ismail Kadare, the high plateau of northern Albania looks much like the hades of never seeing face to face. It takes place sometime in the 19th century; there are telephones and rumors of hydroelectricity, but wealthy people still travel by carriage and there’s no mention of WWI. The highlanders have no organized government or police, and are strictly ruled by the Kanun, a 16th century lawbook which offers detailed descriptions of how to conduct daily life, settle disagreements, arrange weddings, and so on, as well as codifying the two main themes of the book: blood feuds and besa.

Besa means something like peace, truce, or protection. Guests are under the besa of the house where they are staying, and are guaranteed protection by their host. A murderer can be granted a short (24 hour) or long (30 day) besa by the family of the man he has killed before himself being in danger of vengeance. Certain roads are under the besa of the community: no one can be killed on them without incurring the vengeance of the entire town. As you might guess by these rules, there’s a lot of vengeance going on outside the besa.

Gjorg’s (Gyorg) family has been engaged in the blood feud for several generations: they say that his great grandfather welcomed a stranger as his guest. He fed him and gave him a bed, then the next day walked him to the edge of town. As he turned away, his guest was shot by a man from a neighboring family who had gotten into a quarrel with him at an inn. The village elders decided that according to the Kanun Gjorg’s family had a responsibility to avenge their guest, because he had not fully turned away from the village at the time he was shot, even though his host had. However, the avenger must in turn be avenged by the rival family, and a multi-generational blood feud results. the killers don’t particularly hate one another; they are doggedly fulfilling the requirements of honor. At the beginning of the book Gjorg kills the murderer of his brother, and is granted the 30 day besa before they can kill him in turn. He must first go to the Kulla of Orosh to play the customary blood tax, a long day’s walk away from his village.

Meanwhile Bessian, a writer from Tirana (the capital), and his new wife Diana are touring the high plateau by carriage. Bessian is fascinated with the Plateau in a similar way to how writers of the British Isles are often fascinated by highland Scotland. He finds it ruggedly romantic, with something frightening and beautiful that is quickly being displaced in the modern city. Diana seems to be accompanying him with a certain repugnance on account of the harshness of life under the Kanun.

The fourth POV character is Mark Ukatsierra, Steward of the Blood at Orosh. He collects the blood tax, and part of his job involves encouraging blood feuds as a way of generating income for Orosh. It’s kind of a grating transition, and is mostly an excuse for an info-dump about the politics of killing on the Plateau. Mark has a massive record book where Blood Stewards have been carefully keeping track of blood debts since the 16th century, the beginning of the rule of the Kanun. He tends to the feuds as the steward of agriculture tends to the crops, accounting for their droughts and floods. There were 700 deaths from the feuds that year, and there has never been a single day without a death for the history of the records. But he’s worried because deaths have been lessening: that week there was one day when only a single man was killed in the feud, (Gjorg’s victim). Mark could be a character from a standard fantasy novel: the slightly ill bureaucratic villain with a stake in continued hostility. Even his title: Steward of the Blood of the Kulla of Orosh, living in his cold stone tower, with the stream of murders that hasn’t let up for over 300 years.

One of the surprising things about the story, and the one that made it most like hades, is the extent to which the characters fail to communicate with or even find one another. Aside from the carriage rides of Diana and Bessian, where they see a lot of the sides of each other’s heads, and she stares out the window a lot, there is only a single in-book interaction between the main characters: Diana sees Gjorg at an inn; noticing the black ribbon he wears to show that he has killed in the feud, she asks the inn keeper about him. The inn keeper asks Gjorg for his name, and Diana meets his eyes briefly. She’s struck by his pallor, and he’s struck by her beauty. then, without a word, she gets into the carriage and rides away. Gjorg spends most of his truce wandering around looking for her, and she goes into a tower of refuge to look for him, but it’s basically the backs and sides of faces for the rest of the book. They even see Mark’s back on a donkey at a few points, trudging through the mist. Only once a man is killed, usually by ambush with a cry of warning given seconds between the fatal shot, is it important to turn his face toward upward, toward the light.

You might want to read this book if you’re looking for a description of how life under law can become hell even before death. If so, it does that quite well. I kind of hope you’re not looking for a book like that, though.

One thought on “Book Review: Broken April

  1. Nice review! I see you’ve read more of Kadare’s works. Have you read The Palace of Dreams too? I liked that book the most out of his works that I’ve read this far.

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