The Three-Arched Bridge

The Three-Arched Bridge

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by Ismail Kadare

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In the Balkan Peninsula, history’s long-disputed bridge between Asia and Europe, the receding Byzantine empire has left behind a patchwork of warring peoples who fight over everything, from their pastures of sheep to the authorship of their countless legends.

One such gruesome tale declares that a castle under construction cannot be finished until a young


In the Balkan Peninsula, history’s long-disputed bridge between Asia and Europe, the receding Byzantine empire has left behind a patchwork of warring peoples who fight over everything, from their pastures of sheep to the authorship of their countless legends.

One such gruesome tale declares that a castle under construction cannot be finished until a young mason’s bride has been walled up alive, one breast left exposed to suckle her growing infant even after her death. Myth becomes perverse reality when a mason is plastered into a bridge over a strategically important river, where his will not be the last human sacrifice.

Editorial Reviews

The Los Angeles Times Book Review - Richard Eder
“Kadare once again turns the proverb inside out: . . . he hurls his words—not glass but resounding crystal—against the stone houses of history.”
Richard Eder - The Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Kadare once again turns the proverb inside out: . . . he hurls his words—not glass but resounding crystal—against the stone houses of history.”
Kirkus Reviews
A spare and haunting story of how a bridge becomes both a unifying and divisive force, by the great Albanian author ("The Pyramid"; "The Concert", 1994, etc.) who has been frequently nominated for the Nobel Prize.

Originally written in 1976/78, and published in French in 1993, this is the first-person narrative of Gjon, a monk who serves a small Balkan village during the later years of the 14th century (in a country then known as Arberia). When a madman's prophecy encourages the building of a stone bridge across the nearby river, conservative voices lament the passing of old ways, local boat- and raft-men scheme to subvert the project, and furtive damage to the structure's foundation provokes the following sentiment: "The bridge was built during the day and destroyed at night by the spirits of the water. It demanded a sacrifice." A villager suspected of sabotaging the bridge becomes that sacrifice and is walled up inside one of its arches—in a sequence recounted by Kadare with virtually Homeric restraint and power. The bridge is completed, and the resulting "miracle in stone" becomes, as Gjon reluctantly understands, his countrymen's "bridge" to forced assimilation with the encroaching Ottoman Empire, whose soldiers are among the first who dare cross it. This gripping parable closely resembles the indigenous legends and ballads that its narrator repeatedly invokes (including the story of a girl returned to her village by her dead brother that Kadare retold in his novel "Doruntine" (1988) and resembles also, by design, Bosnian author Ivo Andric's great novel "The Bridge on the Drina" (1977). In fact, Kadare's story stands to Andric's approximately as William Styron's "Lie Down in Darkness" does to "The Sound and the Fury", or Isabel Allende's "The House of the Spirits" to "One Hundred Years of Solitude": both homage and partial imitation.

Shakespeare and Chaucer would have understood. Imitation or not, this is a masterpiece. The Nobel can't come a moment too soon.

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Arcade Publishing
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5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I, the monk Gjon, the sonne of Gjorg Ukcama, knowyngethat ther is no thynge wryttene in owre tonge about theBrigge of the Ujana e Keqe, have decided to write its story,especially when legends, false tales, and rumors of every kindcontinue to be woven around it, now that its construction isfinished and it has even twice been sprinkled with blood, atpier and parapet.

Late last Sunday night, when I had gone out to walk on thesandbank, I saw the idiot Gjelosh Uk-Markaj walking on thebridge. He was laughing to himself, guffawing, and makingcrazy signs with his hands. The shadows of his limbs prancedover the spine of the bridge, stretching down past the archesto the water. I struggled to imagine how all these recent eventsmight have imprinted themselves on his disordered mind, and Itold myself how foolish people are to laugh whenever they seehim crossing the bridge, bellowing and waving his arms,thinking he is riding a horse. In fact, what people knowabout this bridge is no less confused than the inventions of themind of a madman.

To stop them spreading truths and untruths about thisbridge in the eleven languages of the peninsula, I will attemptto write the whole truth about it: in other words, to record thelie we saw and the truth we did not see and to put down boththe daily events that are as ordinary as stones and also themajor horrors, which are about as many in number as thearches of the bridge.

Muleteers and caravans are now spreading all over thegreat land of the Balkans the legend of the sacrifice allegedlyperformed at the piers of the bridge. Few people know thatthis was not a sacrifice dedicated to thenaiads of the watersbut just an ordinary crime, to which I will bear witness amongother things before our millennium. I say millennium, becausethis is one of those legends that survives for more than athousand years. It begins in death and ends in death and weknow that news of death or rumor leavened by the yeast ofdeath is the least likely thing of all to fear death itself.

I write this chronicle in haste, because times are troubled,and the future looks blacker than ever before. After the chillingevents at the bridge, people and the times have calmed downa little, but another evil has appeared on the horizon—theTurkish state. The shadows of its minarets are slowly fallingover us.

This is an ominous peace, worse than any war. Forcenturies we had been neighbors with the ancient land of theGreeks; then suddenly, insensibly, by subterfuge, and as if in abad dream, we awoke one morning to find ourselvesneighbors of the Empire of the Ottomans.

The forest of its minarets grows darker on all sides. Ihave a premonition that the destiny of Arberia will soonchange, especially after what happened this winter, whenblood was shed for the second time on the newly finishedbridge—this time Asiatic blood. But everything will find itsplace in my chronicle.


At the beginning of March in the year 1377, on the rightbank of the Ujana e Keqe, no more than fifty paces from thestakes half-embedded in the ground to whose iron cleats theraft that traversed the river was moored every night, a travelerwhom nobody in this district knew fell in an epileptic fit. Theferryman, who had seen everything with his own eyes, saidthat this unknown vagrant of half-saintly and half-crazyappearance, after wandering along the riverbank for a stretchbetween the jetty and the spot where the river is fordable insummer, gave out a sudden shriek as if his throat were cutand fell face down in the mud.

Even though this was the spot on the bank where peopleand livestock crossed the river by raft, it was still a merebackwater, unused to sensational events. Of course suchthings had happened, as at every river crossing, and especiallysuch a crossing as this, where the ever-changing butever-constant waters of the river suddenly cut across theancient highway, which was of such great length thatnobody knew where it came from. Yet such events had beenrare. Usually, people who gathered to cross the river simplywaited as people do at such times, in silence. In bad weather,wrapped in sodden black skins, they mutely watched theswirling, dun-colored waters of the river. Even the harnessbells of the horses alongside them had a muffled sound, as didthe voices of the small children, who would grow increasinglydistressed by the appearance of the raft as it approached, withits hunchbacked ferryman.

A kind of wilderness stretched all around; the lowriverbank, sometimes sandy, sometimes muddy, receded intothe distance, patched here and there with reeds. There was notthe smallest house to be seen; even the walls of our presbyterywere not visible, while the nearest inn was some thousandpaces off.

There was a metal plaque by the stakes where the raft wasmoored at night, on which the words "Boats and Rafts" wereinscribed in crooked lettering. For many years since suchplaques had been put up everywhere, not only in the lands ofour own liege lord, Count Stres of the Gjikas, or StresGjikondi, as they call him for short, but also far away, evenbeyond the borders of the state of Arberia, in other parts ofthe peninsula. This had started in the winter of the year 1367,ten years earlier, when all the rafts used as ferries acrossrivers, estuaries, and lakes were bought up by a peculiarperson who came from God knows where, and whose namenobody knows. They even say that he has no name apart fromthe phrase "Boats and Rafts," which has sprouted upeverywhere like a plant that takes root wherever there is waterand moisture. They say that he has the same plaque with thesame words even at the great house from which he manageshis affairs, and that he even signs the documents of courtaccounts "Boats and Rafts," almost as if the words were hisemblem, just as a white lion with a flaming torch between itsteeth is the emblem of our own liege lord.

After this new master bought the rafts and boats, theferrymen and boatmen became his employees, apart from theodd rare exception, such as the wretched ferryman at theStream of the Tree Stumps, who would have starved soonerthan accept a wage from this damned Jew. Just after thewinter of 1367, this metal plaque appeared on our riverbanktoo, with the tolls for crossing inscribed on it: "For persons,one-half grosh; for horses, one grosh."

In times of drought, when the Ujana e Keqe subsided andran low, travelers, even when laden with sacks, would crossthe river on foot, ford or no ford, to avoid paying the toll. Butthey were not uncommonly drowned, deceived by the river,which was not for nothing called Ujana e Keqe, "WickedWaters." Weather-blackened memorial crosses were stillvisible on both sides of the river. They say that the owners of"Boats and Rafts" were careful to affix such crosses on thebank for every person drowned, with the aim of remindingother travelers what trying to cross the river without the aid of"Boats and Rafts" might mean.

Together with the raft, "Boats and Rafts" also bought theold jetty, a relic of Roman times. Blacksmiths had repairedafter a fashion its bent iron cleats, so that the ferryman couldtie his hawser more easily, especially in winter.

The raft brought in large earnings, not only from thepassage of men and livestock but from the caravans thatcarried from Arberia to Macedonia the salt from the greatcoastal salt pans, and especially from the carts that suppliedthe Byzantine naval base at Orikum near Vlore. There hadbeen detailed agreements dividing this income between ourliege lord and "Boats and Rafts." In fact there had never beenthe least hint of a quarrel over this point, a rare thing on theface of this earth. It seems that "Boats and Rafts" was alwaysreliable down to the last penny.


A small crowd of people, both familiar faces and strangers,had gathered round the man who had fallen in a fit. He shookand foamed, as if straining to thrust his limbs right across theUjana e Keqe, while stretching his neck in the oppositedirection. Someone tried two or three times to hold his head,as they usually do in such cases, so that he would not crackhis skull in his convulsions, but it was impossible to hold stillthat half-bald cranium.

"It is a sign from on high," said one of the bystanders. Thiswas a thin man who, when we later asked what his businesswas, said he was a wandering fortune-teller.

"And what sort of sign is it?" someone else asked.

The man's blank eyes gazed at the trembling victim, thenat the surface of the river.

"Yes," he muttered. "A sign from on high. Look how hismovements span the waters, and the waters pass on theirmovements to him. My God, they understand each other."

Those standing around looked at each other. The man onthe ground seemed somewhat calmer now. Someone washolding his head.

"And what sort of sign is it, in your opinion?" someoneasked again.

The man who said he was a wandering fortune-teller halfclosed his lifeless eyes.

"It is a sign from the Almighty that a bridge should be builthere, over these waters."

"A bridge?"

"Didn't you see how he stretched his arms in the directionof the river? And that his body shook, just as a bridge shakeswhen a number of carts pass over it together?"

"Brr ... It's cold," someone said.

The sick man was quiet now, his limbs only occasionallytwitching in their last spasms, as if they had wound down.Someone bent over and wiped the foam from the edges of hislips. His eyes were desolate and dull.

"This is a holy sickness," the fortune-teller said. "In ourparts, they call it the foaming. It always comes as a sign. Thesign can portend evil and warn of an earthquake, for instance,but this time, praise God, the omen was a favorable one."

"A bridge ... this is strange," the people standing aboutstarted saying. "Our liege lord must be told of this." "Who isthe lord of these parts?" "Count Stres of the Gjikas, long life tohim. Are you a foreigner then, not knowing a thing like that?""That's right, brother, from abroad. I was waiting for the raftwhen that wretch..." "This must certainly reach the ear of ourliege lord. Well, a bridge? To be honest, we would never havethought of such a thing!"


Three weeks later I was summoned urgently to the count. Hisgreat house, fortified at every corner with turrets, was only onehour's journey away. When I arrived, they told me to gostraight up to the armorial hall, where our liege lord usuallyreceived princes and other nobles whose journeys broughtthem through his lands.

In the hall were the count, one of his scribes, our bishop,and two unknown houseguests dressed in tight-fitting jerkins,in fashion who knows where.

The count looked annoyed. His eyes were bloodshot forlack of sleep, and I remembered that his only daughter hadrecently fallen ill. No doubt the two strangers were doctors,come from who knew where.

"I can't get through to them at all," he said as soon as Ientered. "You know lots of languages. Maybe you can help."

The new arrivals did indeed speak the most horribletongue. My ears had never heard such a babble. Slowly Ibegan to untangle the strands. I noticed that their numberswere Latin and their verbs generally Greek or Slav, whilethey used Albanian for the names of things, and now andthen a word of German. They used no adjectives.

With difficulty I began to grasp what they were trying tosay. They had both been sent by their master to our liege lord,the count of the Gjikas, with a particular mission. They hadheard of the sign sent by the Almighty for the construction of abridge over the Ujana e Keqe, and they were prepared tobuild it—or in other words he, their master, was—if thecount would give them permission. In short, they wereprepared to build a stone bridge over the Ujana e Keqe withina period of two years, to buy the land where it would stand,and to pay the count a regular annual tax on the profits theywould earn from it. If the count agreed, this would all be laiddown in a detailed agreement (item by item and point by point,as they put it) that would be signed by both sides andconfirmed with their seals.

They broke off their speech to produce their seal, whichone of them drew from inside his strange jerkin.

"We must heed the sign of the Almighty," they said,almost in one voice.

The count, with weary, bloodshot eyes, looked first at thebishop and then at his own secretary. But their gaze appearedsomewhat blurred by this mystery.

"And who is this master of yours?" our liege lord asked.

They started off again with a tangle of words, but thethreads were this time so snagged that it took me twice as longto comb them out. They explained that their master wasneither a duke, nor a baron, nor a prince, but was a rich manwho had recently bought the old bitumen mines abandonedsince the time of the Romans, and had alsobought the larger part of the equally ancient great highway,which he intended to repair. He has no title, they said, but hehas money.

Interrupting each other, they noted down on a piece ofpaper the sums they would give to buy the land and the sum ofthe annual tax for the use of the bridge.

"But the main thing is that the sign sent by the Almightymust be obeyed," one of them said.

The sums noted on the paper were fabulous, and everyoneknew that our liege lord's revenue had recently declined.Moreover, his daughter had been ill for two months, and thedoctors could not diagnose her malady.

Our liege lord and the bishop repeatedly caught eachother's eye. The count's thoughts were clearly wandering fromhis empty exchequer to his sick daughter, and the bridge thesestrangers were offering was the sole remedy for both.

They started talking again about the heavenly messageconveyed by the vagrant. In our parts, they call that wretch'sailment moon-sickness, one of them explained, whereas here,as far as I can gather, it is called earth-sickness. However, it isvirtually one and the same. These very names show clearly thateverywhere they consider it a superior disorder, or divine, asone might say.

Our count did not think matters over for long. He said thathe accepted the agreement, and gave the order to his scribe toput it down in writing, in Albanian and Latin. He then invited usall for luncheon. It was the most bitter luncheon I have evereaten in my life, and this was because of the houseguests,whose speech became more and more tangled, while I had tounravel it for hours on end.




Copyright © 1995 Philip Marsden.All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Ismail Kadare is the winner of the inaugural Man Booker International Prize, and is acclaimed worldwide as one of the most important writers of our time. Translations of his novels have been published in more than forty countries. He divides his time between Paris, France, and Tirana, Albania.

John Hodgson was born in England in 1951 and studied English at Cambridge and Newcastle. He has taught at the universities of Prishtina and Tirana. He now works as an Albanian-English translator and interpreter.

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The Three-Arched Bridge 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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The book "The Three-arched Bridge" (Ura me Tri Harqe in its original title), brings you back to the times just before the Ottaman Invasion takes place in Albania and Balkan Pennisula. The bridge is being build by a team of foreign experts who spend months in the works. The town people believe that the river, called the Ujana e Keqe, or Wicked Waters, does not like the bridge and would use it's wickedness to prevent the builders from building it. And so it is believed. The builders, after spending time building what was destroyed at night, wall up a human being in the bridge. Read the book yourself to get the rest. At the same time, the author gives a bit of history about how the Ottoman empire was getting closer and closer to invading Albania, called Arberia at the time and the rest of the Balkans. The book is very easy to read and very interesting.