The Accident

The Accident

3.8 8
by Ismail Kadare

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From Man Booker International Prize winner Ismail Kadare comes a dizzying psychological thriller of twisted passions, dual identities, and political subterfuge. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the war in the Balkans, The Accident closely documents an affair between two young lovers caught in each other’s webs.

The Accident opens upon the death of a


From Man Booker International Prize winner Ismail Kadare comes a dizzying psychological thriller of twisted passions, dual identities, and political subterfuge. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the war in the Balkans, The Accident closely documents an affair between two young lovers caught in each other’s webs.

The Accident opens upon the death of a young man and woman, both Albanian citizens, who perished when their taxi careened off the road, flinging them both from the backseat of the car. The driver survived, though his claims of being distracted by what he saw in the rearview mirror don’t convince officials that it could’ve caused him to lose control of the car, that he must’ve suffered psychological trauma that’s caused him to believe he actually saw what he claims: that the pair was about to kiss.

They don’t believe him because, as an investigation into the accident and the lives of its victims are opened, officials learn that the two had been lovers for twelve years. But the nature of their relationship is frustratingly opaque. The man, Besfort Y, was an analyst working for the Council of Europe on western Balkan affairs; the beautiful young woman, Rovena, an intern at the Archaeological Institute of Vienna. They’d been leaving the Miramax Hotel and were on their way to the airport. Though the accident is a bit curious, it’s still tremendously surprising to the police and archivists when the governments of two Balkan countries ask to inspect the file on the accident, and to learn that Serbia and Montenegro had been keeping both victims under surveillance for quite some time. The Serbian response sparks the Albanian secret service into action too, suspicious of an organized political murder. On their way to discounting their theory, the Albanian government unearths a tremendous amount of information on the couple’s perplexing union, including letters that vary wildly in tone, from ordinary correspondence between lovers (mostly from her) to others written in a manner that suggests their relationship was nothing more than that between a call girl and her client—cold, distant, factual (mostly from him). They discover that the relationship had taken a horribly toxic turn within the last year, that Besfort was becoming tired of Rovena, wanted to get rid of her; that she was in agony over his ability to both neglect and oppress her at the same time. They also learned that Besfort Y had many contacts throughout Europe inside most of the human rights organizations, that he was closely tied to political and military information, and that he was the kind of person to be a thorn in the flesh of Yugoslavia and might in a way be called responsible for its bombing—thus Serbia and Montenegro’s interest in him. Still, the war was over at the time of his death, making political motives unreliable.

Their investigation also leads them to famous pianist, Liza Blumberg, known as Lulu Blum, who claims to be Rovena’s former lover, and who is convinced that Befort Y intended to murder Rovena, even if it meant that he’d die with her. Lulu later reveals that Besfort often confided top secret, conspiratorial information to Rovena and later regretted it—easy motive for a violent man to turn on his too-informed lover. Correspondence between Rovena and other friends soon confirmed that she was desperate to free herself of Besfort, but hadn’t the willpower. But a witness from Besfort’s life claims that he too was afraid—of what he didn’t know, but that it merely had to do with a woman with whom he “mistakenly” got involved. It was evident that the case was at a standstill; both governments soon felt the case go cold and abandoned their efforts to solve the mystery. It wasn’t until some time later that a single researcher took up the investigation and nearly solved the riddle of the accident. He imagines the last forty weeks of their lives:

As the passion fades and hostilities rise between the lovers, both are prone to reminisce about their beginnings. Rovena remembers first hearing about Besfort as a university student, whispers of some quarrel over Israel that would likely result in him losing his teaching job. Upon their first meeting, Besfort invites the then-betrothed Rovena to a three-day conference in central Europe where they sleep together on the first night, their passionate affair immediately consuming. The minute she arrives home, Rovena tells her fiancé that she is in love with another man who is sometimes intimate with other men, as Besfort revealed to her now that Albania had changed enough for bisexuality to be accepted, or at least not feared.

From the get-go Rovena can tell that Besfort is haunted—his moods vary wildly, she feels suffocated by him and yet disposable. Still, she decides to devote her life to him, following him throughout Europe whenever he needs to switch countries, living from hotel rooms. Rovena’s tolerance of the arrangement doesn’t last long, however; as the years pass, Rovena begins to resent Besfort for making her feel like a kept woman. Her needs lead her to a one-night stand with a German man at a club. It is not her first infidelity: back when she was still a student and Besfort was traveling, she’d slept with a Slovakian friend too. And some years later, their estrangement allows for her romantic relationship with Lulu, an involvement that began merely as a way to start freeing herself from Besfort’s control and influence. The sexual nature of the women's relationship does make Besfort even more controlling, causing him to call her all the time. Lulu tries everything she can to convince Rovena to forget Besfort, that he’s poisoned her mind and heart. She even goes as far as to propose marriage, but her proposal has the opposite effect on Rovena: all it really does is make Rovena bitter and angry that Besfort isn’t the one who asked her to marry. Rovena’s contact with Besfort increases at this time, leading to jealousy on Lulu’s part and desperate attempts to win Rovena back. Eventually Rovena’s indecision wears on Lulu who soon collapses with frustration, screams for Rovena to return to her warmonger and terrorist.

The resulting jealousies and estrangements lead to a transformation in Besfort’s lust, but in no way diminish it. He begins to inch closer to his initial impulses to completely dominate Rovena. He decides that the only way he can establish full control over her is to take her very life in his hands; in other words, to murder her. Without going that far, he instead suggests a divorce, a shift to client and call-girl. An introduction of other men and lovers as a means to not only be free of their own toxic bonds, but to cause a distance that will deepen their lust for one another. Though his mind is twisted and tortured enough that he winds up shooting in her bed one evening, but purposefully in a place that won’t kill her. She doesn’t fight him, knows it’s coming and allows it to happen; she rises after he falls back to sleep, dresses the wound, and also go back to bed. It’s not discussed again.

Under this new arrangement, the pair secretly travels to The Hague under the guise of a having a holiday in Denmark. On the second night of their arrival, Rovena wakes up alone in the hotel room. For a moment, she’s startled by her solitude and fears she’s not in the right room. She notices that the aftershave on the bathroom counter is familiar, but none of Besfort’s clothes are hung in the closets as usual. His bags are the same, but inside she finds a folder full of war pictures of dead children—and their addressed to Besfort. As she travels into town, she learns of a tribunal at The Hague and deduces that Besfort must be there, that they’ve traveled in secret because he didn’t want anyone to know he would be at the courts—but was he summoned himself or his he merely a spectator? She never finds out for sure.

A week before the accident, Rovena and Besfort are once again apart, though connected through thought. She wants to call him, but restrains herself; he sits a thousand miles away worrying that she might be pregnant. The researcher shockingly stops here, never making it through their last week or the day of the accident. It remains incomplete to him. He knows only of Besfort’s request for a leave of absence from work three days before the accident was granted, but not why the leave was requested or where he was those three days. He knows that Lulu alleged that Besfort murdered Rovena the night before the accident. The researcher attempts to talk to the cab driver again, convinced he holds the key, but the man won’t give him anything new. He speaks again to Lulu, who holds firm that Rovena and Besfort had a maniacal, treacherous love built on dangerous games and the quest to procure a still-imagined level of love and necessity. He needed to own her, thus his reduction of her from idealized lover to call-girl and then, as she surmises, to her ultimate death at his hands. She also felt his impulse to kill her was borne in part from his fear that he’d bared his secret depths to this woman and could no longer accept that truth. To not believe that he killed her would be to not believe in their love. Finally Lulu reveals to the researcher that she knows Besfort killed Rovena because she herself harbored a secret plan to do the very same thing. She is also convinced that Rovena was killed before the accident and was not present in the car at all; that Besfort carried a dummy with him, a doll. The researcher starts at this news—there were indeed police reports that mentioned a dummy. But when he confronts the driver again, whom he now thinks was involved in the cover-up, the man still claims that he’s unsure about what he saw. The researcher is convinced that the driver was startled when Besfort attempted to kiss the doll, or perhaps even the corpse of Rovena, and that’s why he lost control.

Lulu then reneges her story about the murder when she's convinced that Rovena is alive, that she attended Lulu's recent concert, her hair dyed blonde, her name know Anevor (Rovena backwards), that they made love before Rovena fled in the early morning hours. In the end, the researcher must surrender to the fact that it’s impossible to deduce the last week of Besfort and Rovena’s lives, or the true nature of their unnatural and obsessive love.

Editorial Reviews

Charles McGrath
[Kadare] is fluent in the styles of modernism and postmodernism both. And, an unlooked-for bonus, he is seemingly incapable of writing a book that fails to be interesting…The Accident, fluidly translated by John Hodgson, is provocative…not least because of the way it starts out as one kind of book and turns into something else entirely. This, you feel, is how Mr. Kadare sees the world: as a place always shifting and remaking itself.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Man Booker International-winner Kadare (The Siege) builds a strange world out of a "most ordinary" traffic accident. Diplomat Besfort Y. and his longtime girlfriend, Rovena, are killed in a Vienna taxi accident after distracting the driver by "trying to kiss." As it turns out, Besfort may have had a checkered political past, and as various Balkan intelligence agencies review the accident, speculations emerge: was Rovena really a long-suffering girlfriend, or was she a call girl? Was Besfort murdered for political purposes? Was he involved in the collapse of Yugoslavia? But without hard facts, the case grows cold until an unnamed researcher at the European Road Safety Institute decides to write a speculative account of the last 40 weeks of Besfort and Rovena's lives. Kadare's excursions into an eccentric style--meticulous procedural scenes bloom into the surreal, languid eroticism mingles with the banal, dreams are scrutinized as readily as actual events--provide moments both curious and brilliant as the researcher teases out an almost entirely speculative narrative rife with complexities and possibilities. Should be manna for the Gauloise and bitter espresso crowd. (Nov.)
Kirkus Reviews

An ill-fated love affair symbolizes the chaos of contemporary Balkan politics in the latest novel from the acclaimed Albanian author (The Ghost Rider, 2010, etc.) who was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for Literature in 2005.

It begins as what seems to be a political thriller, in the immediate aftermath of a fatal taxicab accident on the Vienna Autobahn. Separate investigations are conducted by the governments of Albania and Serbia, as the two passengers killed were Albanians (and, as hastily gathered documentary evidence suggests, lovers who met frequently over a span of 12 years). The surviving cabdriver confesses he might have been distracted by catching sight of the couple "trying to kiss." But it's apparent that much more intimacy than that was shared by Besfort Y., a government operative employed by the Council of Europe and somehow involved with war-crimes trials then proceeding at The Hague, and his putative mistress Rovena, an intern at the Albanian Archaeological Institute. Summaries of investigative reports are juxtaposed with an unidentified "researcher's" imagined history of the couple's unequal relationship, as evidence implies a pattern of dominance and submission enacted by the sometimes cruel Besfort and the essentially passive Rovena. The enigma remains modestly intriguing throughout, yet the novel is anything but a thriller. Neither character, as seen in retrospective (and often flawed) remembrance and in speculation, is given enough life—or even specificity of detail—to elicit much reader interest; it's as if we're invited to empathize with chess pieces. The novel comes alive, fitfully, only when Kadare ingeniously connects the couple's deathward progression with motifs from indigenous history and folklore (a device that is always one of the author's greatest strengths).

Minor work from a major writer.

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Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2008 Ismail Kadare
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2995-6

Chapter One

It seemed the most ordinary kind of incident. A taxi had veered off the airport autobahn at kilometre marker 17. Its two passengers were killed outright, and the driver, seriously injured, was taken to hospital unconscious.

The police recorded the usual facts in such cases: the names of the victims (a man and a young woman, both Albanian citizens), the registration number of the cab, the name of the Austrian driver and the circumstances, or rather their total ignorance of the circumstances, in which the accident had occurred. There were no signs that the taxi had braked or been hit from any direction. The moving car had slid to the side of the road and somersaulted into a gully, as if the driver had suddenly lost his sight.

A Dutch couple whose car was behind the taxi reported that for no obvious reason the car had suddenly left the carriageway and struck the crash barrier. The terrified pair, if they were not mistaken, had seen the taxi's back doors open as it spun through the air, throwing out the two passengers, a man and a woman.

Another witness, the driver of a Euromobil truck, said more or less the same thing.

A second report, compiled one week later in the hospital after the driver had regained consciousness, only confused the story further. The driver admitted that nothing unusual had happened just before the accident, except that perhaps ... in the rear-view mirror ... maybe something had distracted him ... At this point the policeman lost his patience.

What had he seen in the mirror? The driver could give no answer to the policeman's persistent questioning. The doctor warned him not to tire his patient, but he pressed his point. What was it that he had seen in the mirror above the steering wheel? In other words, what strange thing had happened on the back seat of his cab? Had there been a fight between the two passengers? Or was it the opposite, maybe, a particularly passionate embrace?

The injured driver shook his head. No.

"Then what?" The policeman almost shrieked. "What made you lose your head? What the hell did you see?"

The doctor was about to step in again when the patient resumed his feeble drawl. His reply seemed interminable, and when he finished, the policeman and the doctor stared at each other. The injured driver said that the two passengers on the back seat had done nothing ... nothing but ... only ... they had tried ... to kiss.

Chapter Two

The driver's evidence was not believed. He was considered to have suffered psychological trauma, and the file on the accident at kilometre marker 17 was closed. The reason for this was simple: whatever the driver's explanation for what he saw or thought he saw in the mirror, it did not change the crux of the matter, that the taxi had overturned as a consequence of something that had happened in his brain, an absence of mind, hallucination or blackout, which it was difficult to believe had had anything to do with his passengers.

As usual, other information surfaced when their names were disclosed. The man, an analyst working for the Council of Europe on western Balkan affairs; the beautiful young woman, an intern at the Archaeological Institute of Vienna. Clearly lovers. The cab had been ordered from the reception of the Miramax Hotel, where the two had stayed for the whole weekend. A technical inspection of the vehicle reported no signs of tampering.

The policeman, in a last effort to flush out any contradictions in the taxi driver's story, asked a trick question. "What happened to the passengers when the car hit the ground?" The driver's reply, that he alone had hit the ground in the car and that the couple were already separated from him in mid-air, showed he was not lying about what he had seen, or thought he had seen.

Although initially routine, the case, because of the taxi driver's strange testimony, was filed away as an "unclassifiable accident".

This was why, several months later, a copy of the file reached the European Road Safety Institute and was passed to the fourth section, which dealt with unusual accidents.

Although the description "unusual" implied that only a handful of such accidents occurred, compared to the common sort caused by bad weather, speeding, exhaustion, drink, drugs and so forth, there was still an astonishing variety of "unclassifiable accidents". The files recorded the most extraordinary incidents, from murderous assaults or vandalised brakes to sudden apparitions that blinded the driver.

Some of them, the most mysterious of all, involved the inside rear-view mirror. These formed a sub-section of their own. Seen in a mirror, only something especially hair-raising could cause an accident. In the case of taxis, the most frequent examples involved passengers threatening the driver with a weapon. There were also many cases of sudden illness: strokes, explosive vomiting of blood, insane fits accompanied by screaming. Sudden fights between passengers, and even knife attacks, were hardly exceptional, but they sometimes distracted inexperienced drivers. Less common were incidents in which one passenger, usually a woman who had climbed into the taxi a few minutes earlier clinging devotedly to her lover, suddenly screamed that she was being abducted and attempted to grab the door handle to leap out. There were even some instances, although they could be counted on the fingers of one hand, in which the driver recognised a passenger as his first love or a wife who had left him.

Explanations were found for most of these initially mysterious cases, but this did not at all mean that everything reflected in rear-view mirrors could be accounted for.

Besides hallucinations, there were cases involving something similar: drivers who were hypnotised by their passenger's eyes, suddenly intoxicated by an enticing glance from a beautiful woman on the back seat or, again the opposite, shaken by a stare from a void that devoured them like a black hole.

What the taxi driver testified to following the accident at kilometre marker 17 on the airport road, although too ordinary to be called a mirage or hallucination, defied all logical explanation. His two passengers' attempt to kiss, which the driver said had caused his confusion and, as a result, both their deaths, was a mystery that deepened the more one struggled to understand it.

The analysts dealing with the accident shook their heads, frowned, smiled cynically and then grew irritated as they went back to the beginning again.

"What does it mean? 'They were trying to kiss.'" It was an unnatural way of putting it, in fact illogical. You could imagine that one of them wanted to kiss the other, while the other refused, or that one of them was nervous, or both were nervous, or that both were scared of a third person, and so on. But it made no sense that two people in a taxi, with only the driver present, were "trying to kiss". Sie versuchten gerade, sich zu küssen, as the police report stated. Obvious questions arose. They had just left a hotel where they had spent the night, so why were they "trying to kiss"? In other words, if they wanted to kiss, why didn't they just do it, instead of prevaricating? What was stopping them?

The more you tried to unravel it, the more inextricable it became. Supposing there had been some obstacle between the two passengers which prevented them from coming close—why had this so distracted the driver? Hadn't he carried plenty of passengers who had kissed, or even made love, right there on the back seat? And how had he noticed such a subtle nuance as this attempt to kiss, or rather a desire to kiss, accompanied by an unseen impediment that prevented it?

The frustrated analysts recalled the saying that a fool may throw a stone into a well which a hundred wise men cannot pull out, and noted in the margin that unless it was the old excuse of a driver recognising a passenger as his former wife or lover, which young taxi drivers often produced, having heard it passed down by older colleagues, this must be a genuinely psychotic case and not worth the trouble of dealing with.

Meanwhile, any connection between the driver and the woman in his cab, an Albanian citizen, was ruled out, and a medical report described his psychological condition as entirely normal.


Excerpted from THE ACCIDENT by ISMAIL KADARE Copyright © 2008 by Ismail Kadare. Excerpted by permission of GROVE PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

ISMAIL KADARE was born in 1936 in Gjirokastër, in the south of Albania. He studied in Tirana and Moscow, returning to Albania in 1960 after the country broke ties with the Soviet Union. Translations of his novels have since been published in more than forty countries, and in 2005 he became the first winner of the Man Booker International Prize.

From the Hardcover edition.

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