Authors: Ismail Kadare
Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense, #General, #Albania, #Brothers, #Superstition, #Mothers and Daughters
“Have you ever read Bürger’s
?” asks the narrator of Ismail Kadare’s
Twilight of the Gods of the Steppes
, as he wanders along a beach with a girl, at a writers’ retreat in Soviet Latvia. “Or Zhukovski’s
? It’s the same story, you know. He translated it from Bürger.”
“So who did Bürger steal it from?” the young woman asks.
“I opened my mouth to say ‘From us!’ but managed to stop in time so as not to put myself in the position of those representatives of small nations ever eager to say ‘we, our people, in our land …’ with a kind of pride or bombast that I found depressing because it always struck me that they didn’t believe what they were saying either.”
The story in question is “The Ballad of Constantine and Doruntine”, an ancient tale that is known wherever Albanian is spoken – within the current borders of the state, among the Arberësh of southern Italy, in Kosova, Montenegro and Macedonia. Versions of it exist in every Balkan language and in several other European folk
traditions. It was put into verse (and liberally altered) by the German Romantic poet Gottfried August Bürger (1748–1794) in the famous ballad “Lenore”, which is where Edgar Allan Poe probably found the name that he used in his own dirge, “Lenore”. Known in folklore studies as the “Lenore motif”, the legend tells of a brother (Constantine, or Kostandin in Albanian) who rises from his grave to fulfil his promise of bringing his married sister Doruntine back from a far-off land to see their dying mother.
tells the same story from an unconventional perspective – that of the detective whose task it is to unravel what really happened.
Like the legend of Rozafat – the bridge made safe by walling up a living victim inside it, developed most fully in
The Three-Arched Bridge
and recalled, from a great distance, in
The Great Wall
– the story of Kostandin and Doruntine is a recurring motif in Ismail Kadare’s vast oeuvre.
The Ghost Rider
is Kadare’s fullest exploitation of what might first seem just a Gothic treasure of Albanian national folklore, save that Kadare is reluctant from the start, as the passage from his early novel of life in the Soviet Union suggests, to cast himself or his narrator as a “representative of a small nation ever eager to say ‘we, our people, in our land …’” He would rather see himself as a representative of literature, a messenger from a broad, deep and mysterious place, telling stories that echo far beyond the boundaries of any one land.
The Twilight of the Gods of the Steppes
was first drafted shortly after Albania broke off relations with the Soviet Union in 1960.
The Ghost Rider
was written fifteen years later, after Albania broke off relations with the People’s
Republic of China, and thus found itself once again radically isolated – a tiny nation a few hours’ boat ride from Bari but a million miles from the concert of nations in the economic, cultural and political spheres. For Kadare, the Lenore motif rises up from the deep memory of national folklore at times when relations with the outside world are cut off. In the 1960s, Soviet–Albanian couples must have found themselves in situations reminiscent of Doruntine’s, if not of Kostandin’s. It may be especially significant that for his major treatment of the theme he uses a version of the ballad coming not from Albania proper, but from the Arbëresh tradition of southern Italy. “Marrying out”, even into the Albanian-speaking communities of nearby Sicily, was quite unthinkable at that time. Folktale and fiction allow Kadare to take a subtly contrary path that thinks the unthinkable without seeming to deal with present issues at all.
Kadare’s own position in the later 1970s was not an easy one. Translations of his work had been appearing in Paris since 1970 and he was now widely known in the West. That gave him a degree of protection, but at the same time made him especially vulnerable to accusations of collusion with the enemy – for why would bourgeois readers praise him so highly unless his novels were somehow speaking to bourgeois interests? Subjected to public anathema and to an excruciating self-criticism session at the Writers’ Union over his poem “The Red Pashas” in 1975, he was subsequently rusticated to the provincial city of Berat for the best part of a year, and banned from publishing novels for an indeterminate period (despite being at the same time an appointed member of the People’s
Assembly). For that reason, Kadare’s novels of the later 1970s – which in retrospect can be seen as the most creative period in his life – were disguised as short stories; several of them, including
The Ghost Rider
, were published in a collection entitled
During this period, Kadare’s works were regularly translated into French inside Albania by his long-standing collaborator, Jusuf Vrioni, and his retelling of the Ballad of Constantine was brought out by Fayard in 1986 as
Qui a ramené Doruntine
?, a literal translation of the Albanian title. It came into English much more quickly than most of Kadare’s works, translated from Vrioni’s French by Jon Rothschild in 1988, as
. Over the following twenty years, the paranoid Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha collapsed and disappeared, Ismail Kadare moved to Paris and, once there, undertook to republish his complete works in matching volumes in Albanian and French, organised by the historical periods of the novels’ action.
, set in a generic Middle Ages, (preceded only by
, set in Ancient Egypt, and short stories set in the mythological or classical past) was therefore included in Volume 1, published in 1993, in a significantly reworked and expanded version.
The revisions made by Kadare are essentially of an artistic nature – replacing brief generalities with additional narrative, including a few new named characters, or else expanding dialogues to give a fuller sense of the issues at stake – but they also include the restoration of historical and political references it would have been unwise to include during the Hoxha regime, notably to religious practices and, in this novel, to discussions that imply the
possibility of disagreement with state authority. Even so, it requires a leap of our imaginations to read in the character of Kostandin, as he is recalled by his comrades in chapters six and seven, a figure of resistance and dissidence. Yet that is what he is, and also what makes him unique in Kadare’s universe, which usually suggests the human values that it promotes by antiphrasis, understatement and what another critic has called the device of “distant echo”.
The medieval setting of
The Ghost Rider
is never precisely dated in the legend, but Kadare took care to connect his version of the story to the general history of his country. Albania occupies an area that was formerly the Roman province of Illyria, and it was Christianised very early on. When the Roman Empire divided in 378 AD, Albania was assimilated into the Eastern Empire based on Constantinople (Byzantium), but when the churches of Rome and Byzantium divided in the eleventh century, the Albanian lands remained predominantly Catholic. The area was frequently raided and partly colonised in turn by Bulgars, Serbs, Venetians and Norman knights, and between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries it found itself at the wavering frontier between Roman Catholicism and the Eastern Church. Out of these turbulent times, and pending the greater conflict between the Ottomans and the European powers which would see Albania absorbed into the Muslim world for many centuries, a nation that at that time called itself Arbëria was slowly emerging.
The Ghost Rider
relates the legend of Doruntine to the invention or emergence of the
, the Albanian “promise” or “troth” from which the rules of hospitality
and the blood feud are derived in the fifteenth-century Kanun of Lek Dukagjin, the famous and long-lasting code of Albanian customary law. But alongside his speculation on the origins of a key part of Albanian national identity – a part that Enver Hoxha, self-proclaimed “engineer of human souls”, was seeking to eradicate and replace with the “New Man” – Kadare uses the legend to broach more pressing and dangerous questions: What are the means of resistance that a culture can use when under attack? How do people organise themselves to survive oppression? It is not a coincidence that the police chief charged with elucidating the mystery of Doruntine’s return in Kadare’s novel often sounds like a harassed bureaucrat of modern times trying hard to hang on to rationality when all around him seem to have gone mad.
For this new edition of Jon Rothschild’s original translation, I have inserted the many additions made by Kadare in 1993, and also put personal and place names in forms closer to their Albanian originals. In addition, Ismail Kadare has authorised one or two further small changes that improve the coherence of the text, as well as the new title.
Princeton, NJ, May 2009
Most letters of the Albanian alphabet are pronounced more or less as in English. The main exceptions are as follow:
as in curt
as in ho
as in year
as in stoc
ard or the
as in ad
as in measure
Stres was still in bed when he heard the knocking at the door. He was tempted to bury his head in the pillow to blot out the noise, but the sound came again, louder this time.
“Who the Devil would pound on my door before daybreak?” he grumbled, throwing off the blanket.
He was on his way down the stairs when he heard the hammering for the third time, but now the rhythm of the metal knocker told him who it was. He slid back the bolt and opened the door. There was no need to say, “And what possesses you to wake me before dawn?” for the look on his face and his bleary eyes conveyed the message well enough.
“Something’s happened,” his deputy hastened to say.
Stres stared at him sceptically, as if to say,
“It better be good to justify a visit at this ungodly hour.” But he was well aware that his aide rarely blundered. Indeed, whenever he had been moved to rebuke him, he had found himself compelled to hold his tongue. Still, he
would have been delighted had his deputy been in the wrong this time, so that he could work off his ill humour on him.
The deputy glanced at his chief’s eyes for an instant, then stepped back and spoke.
“The dowager Vranaj and her daughter, Doruntine, who arrived last night under very mysterious circumstances, both lie dying.”
“Doruntine?” said Stres, dumbfounded. “How can it be?”
His deputy heaved a sigh of relief: he had been right to pound on the door.
“How can it be?” Stres said again, rubbing his eyes as if to wipe away the last trace of sleep. And in fact he had slept badly. No first night home after a two-week mission had ever been so trying. One long nightmare. “How can it be?” he asked for the third time. Doruntine had married into a family that lived so far from her own that she hadn’t been able to come back even when they were in mourning.
“How, indeed,” said the deputy. “As I said, the circumstances of her return are most mysterious.”
“Well, both mother and daughter have taken to their beds and lie dying.”
“Strange! Do you think there’s been foul play?”
The deputy shook his head. “I think not. It looks more like the effect of some dreadful shock.”
“Have you seen them?”
“Yes. They’re both delirious, or close to it. The mother
keeps asking, ‘Who brought you back, daughter?’ And the daughter keeps saying, ‘My brother Kostandin.’”
“Is that what she says: Kostandin? But, good God, he died three years ago, he and all his brothers …”
“According to the local women now gathered at their bedsides, that is just what the mother told her. But the girl insists that she arrived with him last night, just after midnight.”
“How odd,” said Stres, all the while thinking how
They stared at each other in silence until Stres, shivering, remembered that he was not dressed.
“Wait for me,” he said, and went back in.
From inside came his wife’s drowsy “What is it?” and the inaudible words of his reply. Soon he came out again, wearing the regional captain’s uniform that made him look even taller and thinner.
“Let’s go see them,” he said.
They set out in silence. A handful of white rose petals fallen at someone’s door reminded Stres somehow of a brief scene from the dream that had slipped so strangely into his fitful sleep.
“Quite extraordinary,” he said.
“It beggars belief,” replied his deputy, raising the stakes.
“To tell you the truth, I was tempted not to believe it at first.”
“So I noticed. It’s unbelievable, isn’t it. Very mysterious.”
“Worse than that,” Stres said. “The more I think about it, the more inconceivable it seems.”
“The main thing is to find out how Doruntine got back,” said the deputy.
“The case will be solved if we can find out who accompanied her, or rather, if we can uncover the circumstances of her arrival.”
“Who accompanied her,” Stres repeated. “Yes, who and how … Obviously she is not telling the truth.”
“I asked her three times how she got here, but she offered no explanation. She was hiding something.”
“Did she know that all her brothers, including Kostandin, were dead?” Stres asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“It’s possible she didn’t know,” Stres said. “She married so far away …” To his surprise his jaw suddenly felt as heavy as lead, making it difficult for him to speak. What’s wrong with me? he wondered. He could feel a heaviness in his lungs too, as if they had filled with coal dust.
He pressed forward, and the exercise helped to clear his dulled mind.
“What was I saying? Oh, yes … She married so far abroad that she’s not been able to return home since her wedding. As far as I know this is the first time she’s been back.”
“She can’t have known about the death of her nine brothers or she would have come then,” said the deputy. “The dowager complained often enough about her daughter not being at her side during those grief-stricken days.”
“The forests of Bohemia where she lives lie at least
two weeks’ journey from here, if not more,” Stres observed.
“Yes, if not more,” repeated his deputy. “Almost at the heart of Europe.”
As they walked, Stres noticed more white rose petals strewn along the path, as if some invisible hand had scattered them during the night. Fleetingly he recalled seeing them somewhere before. But he couldn’t really remember his dream. He also had a faint pain in his forehead. At the exact spot where his dream must have entered last night, he thought, before exiting the same way later on, towards dawn perhaps, irritating the wound it had already made.
“In any event, someone must have come with her,” he said.
“Yes, but who? Her mother can’t possibly believe that her daughter returned with a dead man, any more than we can.”
“But why would she conceal who she came back with?”
“I can’t explain it. It’s very unclear.”
Once again they walked in silence. The autumn air was cold. Some cawing crows flew low. Stres watched their flight for a moment.
“It’s going to rain,” he said. “The crows caw like that because their ears hurt when a storm is coming.”
His deputy looked off in the same direction, but said nothing.
“Earlier you mentioned something about a shock that might have brought the two women to their deathbed,” Stres said.
“Well, it was certainly caused by some very powerful emotion.” He avoided the word
, for his chief had commented that he tended to overuse it. “Since neither woman shows any mark of violence, their sudden collapse must surely have been caused by some kind of shock.”
“Do you think the mother suddenly discovered some-thing terrible?” Stres asked.
His deputy stared at him. He can use words as he pleases, he thought in a flash, but if others do, he stuffs them back down their throats.
“The mother?” he said. “I suspect they both suddenly discovered something terrible, as you put it. At the same time.”
As they continued to speculate about the shock mother and daughter had presumably inflicted on one another (both Stres and his deputy, warped by professional habit, increasingly tended to turns of phrase better suited to an investigative report), they mentally reconstructed, more or less, the scene that must have unfolded in the middle of the night. Knocks had sounded at the door of the old house at an unusual hour, and when the old lady called out – as she must have done – “Who’s there?” – a voice from outside would have answered, “It’s me, Doruntine.” Before opening the door, the old woman, upset by the sudden knocking and convinced that it couldn’t be her daughter’s voice, must have asked, to ease her doubt, “Who brought you back?” Let us not forget that for three years she had been desperate for some consolation in her grief, waiting in vain for her daughter to come home. From outside, Doruntine answered, “My brother Kostandin brought me back.” And the old woman receives the first
shock. Perhaps, even shaken as she was, she found the strength to reply, “What are you talking about? Kostandin and his brothers have been in their graves for three years.” Now it is Doruntine’s turn to be stricken. If she really believes that it was her brother Kostandin who had brought her back, then the shock is twofold: finding out that Kostandin and her other brothers were dead and realising at the same time that she had been travelling with a ghost. The old woman then summons up the strength to open the door, hoping against hope that she has misunderstood the young woman’s words, or that she has been hearing voices, or that it is not Doruntine at the door after all. Perhaps Doruntine, standing there outside, also hopes she has misunderstood. But when the door swings open, both repeat what they have just said, dealing each other a fatal blow.
“No,” said Stres. “None of that makes much sense either.”
“I agree with you,” said his deputy. “But one thing is certain: something must have happened between them for the two women to be in such a state.”
“Something happened between them,” Stres repeated. “Of course something happened, but what? A terrifying tale from the girl, a terrifying revelation for the mother. Or else …”
“There’s the house,” said the deputy. “Maybe we can find out something.”
The great building could be seen in the distance, standing all forlorn on the far side of an open plain. The wet ground was strewn with dead leaves all the way to the house, which had once been one of the grandest and most
imposing of the principality, but now had an air of mourning and desertion. Most of the shutters on the upper floors were closed, the eaves were damaged in places, and the grounds before the entrance, with their ancient, drooping, mossy trees, seemed desolate.
Stres recalled the burial of the nine Vranaj brothers three years earlier. There had been one tragedy after another, each more painful than the last, to the point that only by going mad could one erase the memory. But no generation could recall a calamity on this scale: nine coffins for nine young men of a single household in a single week. It had happened five weeks after the grand wedding of the family’s only daughter, Doruntine. The principality had been attacked without warning by a Norman army and, unlike in previous campaigns, where each household had had to give up one of their sons, this time all eligible young men were conscripted. So all nine brothers had gone off to war. It had often happened that several brothers of a single household went to fight in far more bloody conflicts, but never had more than half of them fallen in combat. This time, however, there was something very special about the enemy army: it was afflicted with plague, and most of those who took part in the fighting died one way or another, victors and vanquished alike, some in combat, others after the battle. Many a household had two, three, even four deaths to mourn, but only the Vranaj mourned nine. No one could recall a more impressive funeral. All the counts and barons of the principality attended, even the prince himself, and dignitaries of neighbouring principalities came as well.
Stres remembered it all quite clearly, most of all the words on everyone’s lips at the time: how the mother, in those days of grief, did not have her only daughter, Doruntine, at her side. But Doruntine alone had not been told about the disaster.
Stres sighed. How quickly those three years had passed! The great double doors, worm-eaten in places, stood ajar. Walking ahead of his deputy, he crossed the courtyard and entered the house, where he could hear the faint sound of voices. Two or three elderly women, apparently neighbours, looked the newcomers up and down.
“Where are they?” Stres asked.
One of the women nodded towards a door. Stres, followed by his deputy, walked into a vast, dimly lit room where his eyes were immediately drawn to two large beds set in opposite corners. Beside each of these stood a woman, staring straight ahead. The icons on the walls and the two great brass candelabra above the fireplace, long unused, cast flickers of light through the atmosphere of gloom. One of the women turned her head towards them. Stres stopped for a moment, then motioned her to approach.
“Which is the mother’s bed?” he asked softly.
The woman pointed to one of the beds.
“Leave us alone for a moment,” Stres said.
The woman opened her mouth, doubtless to oppose him, but her gaze fell on Stres’s uniform and she was silent. She walked over to her companion, who was very old, and both women left without a word.
Walking carefully so as not to make a noise, Stres
approached the bed where the old woman lay, her head in the folds of a white bonnet.
“My Lady,” he whispered. “Lady Mother” – for so had she been called since the death of her sons – “it’s me, Stres. Do you remember me?”
She opened her eyes. They seemed glazed with grief and terror. He withstood her gaze for a moment and then, leaning a little nearer the white pillow, murmured, “How do you feel, Lady Mother?”
Her expression was unreadable.
“Doruntine came back last night, didn’t she?” Stres asked.
The woman looked up from her bed, her eyes saying “yes.” Her gaze then settled on Stres as though asking him some question. For a moment, Stres was unsure how to proceed.
“How did it happen?” he asked very softly. “Who brought her back?”
The old woman covered her eyes with one hand, then her head moved in a way that told him she had lost consciousness. Stres took her hand and found her pulse with difficulty. Her heart was still beating.
“Call one of the women,” Stres said quietly to his deputy.
His aide soon returned with one of the women who had just left the room. Stres let go of the old woman’s hand and walked noiselessly, as before, to the bed where Doruntine lay. He could see her blond hair on the pillow. He felt his heart wrench, but the sensation had nothing to do with what was happening now. An ancient pang that went back to that wedding three years before. On
that day, as she rode off on the white bridal steed amidst the throng of relatives and friends, his own heart was suddenly so heavy that he wondered what had come over him. Everyone looked sad, not only Doruntine’s mother and brother, but all her relatives, for she was the first girl of the country to marry so far away. But Stres’s sorrow was quite unique. As she rode away, he suddenly realised that the feeling he had had for her these last three weeks had been nothing other than love. But it was a love without shape, a love which had never condensed, for he himself had gently prevented it. It was like the morning dew that appears for the first few minutes after sunrise, only to vanish during the other hours of day and night. The only moment when that bluish fog had nearly condensed, had tried to form itself into a cloud, was when she left. But it had been no more than an instant, quickly forgotten.