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The File on H by Ismail Kadare

A laboratory of 
epic literature?
It’s a great feeling to go back to an author that you positively adore. I like to space out people like Kadare, Vonnegut and Hrabal (it would seem in the later’s case with many years between books) so that there are moments of unalloyed joy to look forward to amongst the often unpredictable excitement of reading things I once thought might be interesting but have forgotten why. Kadare is one of my favourite authors, my collection of whose work is still blissfully incomplete. The File on H was purchased in one of those mad rushes to own the entire back catalogue of authors with whom I found a sudden connection – these rushes are destined to peter out and this one certainly did, but the impulse to complete collections carries me onwards however shiftless I become. Nonetheless, it’s been quietly calling to me for a while, so I did finally give in to its siren song.

Whoopee!

To label this, the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2005 if such things matter to you, as satire is akin to scrimshawing with a guillotine. As a broad term, it might suffice for the bookseller or amateur taxonomist, but one risks detracting from the subtle joys of what is a damned fine novel.

Ostensibly the story of two naive foreign academics in Albania, searching for the roots of epic Homeric poetry in the smouldering literary furnace of the Balkans* it quickly turns to a kind of farce, not so broad as to become ridiculous, but sufficiently so as to create a sense of an other-worldly preposterousness which fans of the Darwin Awards and such like will recognise as representative of the ludicrous nature of the human condition.

Kadare, admittedly one of my favourite Albanians, touches on so many different themes and issues that to list them would try the patience of even the most dedicated review writer. A sample then:

Abortion, academia, blindness, death of tradition, espionage, hubris, infidelity, literature (ancient and modern), parochialism, paranoia, violence, xenophobia.

Each of them is lightly and deftly held up to consider and as quickly replaced, some to be subjected to further scrutiny in later passages. There is nothing elicited so vulgar as a belly laugh, despite there being quite a bit of lascivious prose (particularly about Daisy, the bored wife of the governor), but even the voice of the beggar-porter Blackie is laced with veiled meaning like the word “irony” through a stick of rock, and the mouth contorts involuntarily into a smirk at almost every new paragraph. Come to think of it, his high literary style whilst laying out a comical tale (albeit laced with pathos) has clearly inspired in me some kind of literary pretension. It has also had me itching to get back to it at every opportunity and has meant I raced through it in a week (given my reading opportunities are carefully portioned out into 10 minute sessions at lunch time during weekdays only).

If one has never read any Albanian authors, this is the one with which to start (and probably end). Comparisons to other Russian satirists are apt and indeed welcomed by this reviewer, and if eviscerating outrageous Communist paranoia is your cup of tea, then he’s definitely your surgeon-in-chief.
  
*Actually based on a real event. Kadare met, fortuitously, with Albert B Lord in the 1970s, scholar in the footsteps of Milman Parry’s own research into epic poetry who inspired Kadare with tales of their shared adventures in Balkans in the 30s (albeit Yugoslavia) recording traditional oral poetry in what is now Serbo-Croat.**

**Sorry. That was interminably dull and served only to prove I can read the translator's note at the end of the book. I'm sure you could do that just as easily.***

***Sorry again - I make no presumptions as to your ability to read or not so please carry on as before.

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