In the mid-1930s, two Irish Americans travel to the Albanian highlands with an early model of a marvelous invention, the tape recorder. Their mission? To discover how Homer could have composed works as brilliant and as long as The Iliad and The Odyssey without ever putting pen to paper. The answer, they believe, can be found only in Albania, the last remaining habitat of the oral epic.
But immediately upon their arrival, the scholars’ seemingly arcane research excites suspicion and puts them at the center of ethnic strife in the Balkans. Mistaken for foreign spies, they are placed under surveillance and are dogged by gossip and intrigue. It isn’t until a fierce-eyed monk from the Serbian side of the mountains makes his appearance that the scholars glimpse the full political import of their search for the key to the Homeric question.
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About the Author
David Bellos is the author of a number of award-winning literary biographies and the winner of the inaugural Man Booker International Prize for translation in 2005. He lives in New Jersey and teaches French, Italian, and Comparative literature at Princeton University.
Read an Excerpt
The diplomatic bag from the Royal Albanian Legation in Washington, D.C., arrived on a gloomy winter's day, of the kind that naturebestows with particular prodigality on the capital cities of small and backward states. It contained visa applications from two Irishmen settled in New York, together with a covering note, which described the applicants first as "folklorists," then as "alleged folklorists." Everything else about them was rather sketchy. It seemed they knew a little Albanian, that they were intending to travel the country in search of ancient Albanian heroic songs, and that they would bring a quantity of filing cards and maps relating mainly to the Northern Zone, the area where they proposed to base themselves. In addition, and this was the most amazing thing, they would be bringing with them instruments that recorded voice and sound--weird, previously unheard-of contraptions that were called tape recorders and that, as the legation officials explained, had only just been invented and made available. The covering note concluded: One cannot rule out the possibility that the two visitors are spies."
Two weeks after the arrival of the Washington bag, and just a week before the Irishmen were due to land, the Minister of the Interior wrote to the governor of the city of N---, repeating more or less exactly what the legation staff had written to him, except that where the legation staff had said: "One cannot rule out the possibility that...," he wrote: "Apparently these visitors are spies." All the same, the minister went on, the men should be observed with the greatest discretion so as not to alert them in the slightest, and generally speaking, the authorities of N----were to behave in such a manner as to make the foreigners feel quite at home.
The minister smiled to himself as he thought of the surprise the governor would have on reading his last sentence. "You nincompoop!" he said to himself. "In your godforsaken hole, how could you understand anything about affairs of state?" The window of the minister's office allowed him to survey the roof of the Foreign Ministry. He was well aware that envoys from the neighboring ministry were scouring the capitals of Europe in search of some hack writer or pseudohistorian who might be commissioned to write a biography of the king. "Sure, sure," he was fond of repeating, "those guys at the Foreign Office are all properly educated types. So they get to do the glamorous jobs, like tracking down a biographer, but when there's business to be done, like picking up high-class tarts in Paris bars for the monarch, or finding a catamite for the Speaker, or sorting through all manner of sleazy business, then who do they turn to? Why, to me, the Minister of the Interior!" In spite of everything, he would end up scoring a point over those Foreign Office pansies. If it was he and not they who managed to turn up the king's prospective biographer, then that would shut them up once and for all! He thought of it every time there were foreigners in Albania, but no really promising opportunity had turned up so far. These Irish scholars, though, seemed just about made for the job, especially as they were suspected of being spies. He would leave them alone for a while to get on with their business, and then, with a bit of luck, he would catch them in flagrante (the phrase summoned up a mental picture of a conjugal bed in which one of the foreigners would be discovered in the very most rudimentary attire, in the company of a woman). Then it would be his turn to deal with them. "Come this way, my lambs. Let's forget about heroic songs, tapregorders, and such for a while, all right? Sit down, let's talk things over. You're going to do something for your friend. You don't want to? Well, upon my soul, you're going to force me to show you how angry your friend can get. Ah, I see you've decided to be reasonable. That's just fine! Now we're talking. What your friend needs won't be hard for you to do at all. You're scholars, aren't you? Your file says that you studied at Har ... Har ... Harvard. Yes? Excellent! Take a seat, please. Your friend will bring you paper and pencils, he'll get you candy, girls, whatever. But take care! You mustn't make him angry! You're going to write the life--the biography, as people say these days--of the monarch. That's what your friend needs you to do."
With a sense of satisfaction, the minister sealed the envelope addressed to the governor of N----, and then he hit the wax so hard that the seal jumped and made two imprints. The governor received the envelope two days later about ten in the morning and glanced at the seal for a second before breaking it. Experience had taught him that marks of that kind were only ever made by a hand moved by fear, or by anger.
When he read the note inside he felt relieved. "Nothing of the sort," he said to himself, then he lifted the receiver to give his wife the news.
The cloud of melancholy under which she picked up the telephone was condensed from dozens of disappointments when, having heard it ring, she had rushed to answer in hopes of receiving some uplifting news that would relieve the monotony of her life, only to be greeted through the perforated Bakelite by her husband's trivial interrogations--"What are you doing at the moment?" "Is lunch ready?"--or even by the postmaster's wife, with whom all possible subjects of gossip had long since been exhausted, asking some silly question about making jam.
This time it turned out to be quite different. What her husband had to say was truly unbelievable, to such a degree that in her astonishment, and fearing she had misheard, she said twice over out loud, "Two Irishmen, here? Is that what you said?"
"Yes, yes. They're even going to stay quite some time."
"How wonderful!" she said, unable to contain her glee. "What good news! I was feeling so low..."
She had indeed spent an unutterably drab morning. The windows were streaked with rain, as they had been the day before. Seen through the dripping-wet panes, the chimneys on the other side of the street all looked crooked. My God, another whole day just like yesterday, she had thought, sighing as she lay on her bed. Not a single idea managed to take shape in her mind: for the likeness of this day to the last seemed to her the clearest proof that it would be another quite useless day, a day she would gladly have done without. For a moment she thought that a day like this would be pointless for anyone on earth, then abruptly she changed her mind as she realized that thousands of women, after a hard week's work, or a family quarrel, or even after catching a cold, would envy her just for having the leisure to rest in comfort.
Such were her thoughts. Not many people would easily have accepted that, with all her material blessings, the attractive wife of the governor of N----was miserable in that little town. But all of a sudden the telephone had rung, and the day, wound up like a string by that bell, had been transformed from a slack stretch of time into its opposite--a day full of surprise and mystery.
"Two Irishmen here for quite some time!" she muttered, repeating to herself her husband's words. "What a miracle! This winter will be different!" Her husband had given her to understand that he had received orders to make the foreigners feel completely at home. But of course, she thought as she pictured the cards laid out for bridge, the fire in the hearth, the glint of flames reflected in the crystal glasses. The governor had gone on to explain that the Irishmen were bringing strange contraptions, something like gramophones but much more modern, and she imagined herself in the arms of the one, then in the arms of the other, dancing the tango to the tune called "Jealousy." They must be pretty young to be lugging around all that gear.
She ran back to the phone, but as she picked up the receiver she froze. Before passing on such radiant news to the postmaster's wife, she felt the need to savor it all alone for a little while longer.
There are two of them, she thought, and most likely both of them are young men. Her husband had even told her their names: Max Ross and Bill Norton. He must also have been informed of their age. She would find a way of eliciting that information from him over lunch, without seeming to.
Moving automatically toward the bathroom, she stood for a moment in front of the cold and gleaming bathtub, then her hands reached out toward the hotwater tap. She began to undress with slow and sensual movements. She put two fingers into the water to test the temperature, then, when the tub was half full, decided to get in all at once. Quite often when her mind was occupied with thoughts of a particular kind she would soak in the bath and let her imagination wander.
As she lay stretched out with half-closed eyes, she watched the water rise and cover her body. That is how the dead are buried, she found herself thinking, but she cut off that thought, as she always did when a macabre or even just a painful idea came into her head. "No, no!" she said to herself. It was far too soon to indulge in such imaginings. She was still youthful; she was only thirty-two. Wasn't she awaiting a miraculous event, the arrival of those two foreigners? She said their names aloud to herself: "Max Ross. Bill Norton." They were proper European names. She had been quite right when, years before, she had changed her unattractively Oriental-sounding name, Mukadez, to Daisy. Most people had forgotten, and some were even unaware, that she had once had a different name; but when anyone who remembered used her old name, whether absent-mindedly or maliciously, she considered that person immediately as belonging to the enemy camp. Daisy was a name that sounded good. Who knows what those two would be feeling if they knew that a young woman called Daisy was thinking of them right now, in her bathtub? She often tried to imagine what people looked like from the sound of their names. And that is what she began to do with the foreigners.
Max Ross, she imagined, would have red hair and lots of it (perhaps because of the letters x and r, or even more because of the s's), whereas the other one, Bill, she saw with hair smoothed down, a less virile figure, but no less dangerous. She had wanted for years to meet someone with just such a name, a fluid, slightly ambiguous name, all the more attractive for being hard to pin down.
The hot water covered her completely now, and she realized that she had forgotten to bring her bar of soap into the bath. No matter! She would just lie there and soak. Perhaps it would be even pleasanter without soap. She had noticed that in similar circumstances, lather disturbed both the clarity of the water and the flight of her fancies.
Through slanted eyes, she looked at her white body beneath the water, with the black triangle of her pubic hair refracted into a double image. In this shifting focus she found a kind of creeping dreaminess, which made everything vague and ambiguous. Though she tried not to admit it to herself, she knew that her boring provincial existence made her ripe for a sentimental adventure. It was no coincidence that a few minutes earlier, when the water was just reaching her waist, she had stopped herself from thinking the morbid thoughts that had tried to seize her. An emotion she had caught from watching romantic movies at the cinema stimulated her imagination and, so to speak, laid down a path for it. Images of that kind ran before her eyes and she found it increasingly difficult to suppress them. Chaotically, without attempting any logical sequence of thought, she saw herself first entangled with the hairy redhead, Max Ross, not because she was really attracted to him but by force of circumstance, or rather by the desire to encounter the whole range of initial sophisticated emotions (rivalry, exacerbated jealousy, etc.), before plunging fully into an affair with the other, Bill. "Oh my God!" she exclaimed suddenly and to herself, without ceasing to look at her water-enveloped body, as if it was the sight of her own nudity that had brought this thought to her mind. Just because her lover bore such a wonderful name would not prevent his making her pregnant!
She shifted awkwardly in her bath, like a sleeper turning over in bed. The gurgling of the water and the sight of the refracted curves of her body set her imagination wandering again. She saw herself, ashen-faced and visibly terrified, climbing the front steps of an ivy-covered two-story house. On the door was a brass plate bearing the name of the only doctor in N---- and, beneath it, the word Gynecology.
Tests Daisy's husband had agreed to have after years of dithering had proved that it was he who was responsible for their childlessness. Since then, Daisy could not imagine having an affair without an aftermath at the doctor's clinic to remove the traces.
So she would have to appear before the man who, in the gloomy cast of the town's characters, played, or seemed to play, the role of disillusioned doctor (for that is how provincial doctors are portrayed in films and in the stories of a Russian writer named Chekhov). "An accident?" he would ask, as his eyes traveled lasciviously over those parts of her body where not long before the drama of love had been played out but which were now as cold as the marble tiles of the consulting room. And she would then think: You flabby provincial quack! How can you understand anything at all about this tragic miracle?
She shifted once more, the water rippled for a few minutes and then calmed, and once again she could see the shape of her body in all its whiteness, anguish gone. Why did she allow herself these thoughts? Real joy, with its combination of pleasure, curiosity, and mystery, was just around the corner; she didn't need to make herself ill ahead of time with such mental contortions. A hand of bridge, a glass of wine, the warm glow of the hearth--these thoughts brought her back from her tragic tableau. All these things were almost palpably before her eyes and would be truly present within a few days. With a sudden burst of energy, she got out of the bath, put on a robe, and returned to her bedroom to dress.
Outside, as if nothing special had happened, it was still a soaking wet winter's day beneath a lead-gray sky, with drizzling rain tapping out the slow rhythm of life all around. Through the dripping rain the telephone wires would soon carry the news, first to the postmaster's wife, then to the other ladies of N----: something sensational was in the air.
Half an hour later, after making all her calls, Daisy went once again to the front window, which looked out over much of the little town. Though it looked quite unchanged, she knew that beneath that apathetic roofscape, her sharp-tipped news had hit targets all over the little town of N----.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was a fun read, but a little uneven, and missed some of its potential.It tells the story of a small Albanian town. Two Irishmen, bearing newfangled tape recorders, come to study native epic traditions. The Albanian government suspects them of being spies, so the mayor of the anonymous town keeps the Irishmen under surveillance. Meanwhile, the mayor's wife fantasizes about having an affair with the foreigners. The Irishmen - fictional versions of the famous Lord and Parry- stay in a hotel outside the town, excitedly doing their research, but inadvertently ending up in the ages-old conflict between the Albanians and the Serbs.There are some delightful and hilarious characters - the mayor is a delight, and the spy who writes verbose reports on the Irishmen's activities is hilarious. The sexual frustration and innuendo throughout the book is tasteful and funny.However, the book gets bogged down in the details of the Irishmen's research. I'm familiar with the work of Lord and Parry, so maybe I found this part less interesting than I could have, but for a long time (especially in such a short book) the narrative grinds to a halt as we read the research diaries of the Irishmen - the detail is interesting, but doesn't drive the plot at all.The end of the book happens a little abruptly - it feels like Kadare got tired or writing at what should have been the halfway point and just suddenly stopped the book. Part of the point is that ancient cultural conflicts can be destructive, but he could have made the point in a more satisfying way.
I¿ve enjoyed all the Kadares that I¿ve read so far. Sometimes the story isn¿t what I expected from reading the synopsis, but it¿s still interesting. In Broken April, I thought the book would be mainly about Gjorg, a man who had finally fulfilled tradition by murdering his brother¿s killer and had a month before the family of his victim was allowed to seek his death. Instead, Kadare describes the thoughts of others who are affected by the killing. In The File on H, I though the focus would be on the attempt to prove that the two scholars are spies, but much of the book was devoted to describing the research of the two men. However, the sections analyzing the epics and their changes were very involving. Bill and Max are two Irish-American scholars who travel to Albania to record the epic poems of wandering rhapsodes in the 1930¿s. The authorities believe they could possibly be spies and task the governor of N_ to watch them. While the pair becomes deeply involved in their research, they are unaware of the stir that they have caused. The governor communicates with his diligent spy and his wife fantasizes about having an affair with the men. Some of the men are disturbed by the newfangled tape recorder that the foreigners have brought with them. The stories of all of these characters are told through their own accounts and diaries as well as third person limited. Kadare based the story on a historical event, but the atmosphere of paranoia, spying and violence would be applicable to Albania under Enver Hoxha.The parts describing the epics that Bill and Max record are fascinating though their research goals are overreaching. At first, Kadare subjects them to the same satirical lens that is aimed at the provincial townspeople. Their idea initially comes from listening to a program on the radio and they rather blithely think they¿ll go and quickly learn the origin of Homer¿s epics. However, once there they escape the curiosity of the inhabitants of N_ and get sucked into their work recording and analyzing the epics of rhapsodes ¿ the same story from different people and the same rhapsode¿s epic over time. Kadare¿s prose is generally clean and efficient but he will occasionally go off on lyrical flights and often these flights describe hypotheses about the epics. Bill (it is mainly Bill who narrates or speculates in his diary) wonders about all the changes to epic poems over time; the additions and deletions; how a poem comes to resemble a fluid living thing; how this relates to Homer¿s role as the codifier of the stories in the Iliad and the Odyssey (or who he really was ¿ a group etc); and why the epics are currently dying. This is interesting but the disappearance of the scholars into their work represents an ignorance that soon turns dangerous.The people of N_ are satirized for their provincial views - they regard the scholars, who want nothing more than to get away from them, as the biggest event in a long time and expect entertainment. The governor of N_ is shown to be in constant awe of his spy¿s prose and thinks everything the scholars do is proof of their treachery. His wife is very shallow, the sort of woman depicted in the 19th century as corrupted by books. But Kadare also raises some interesting issues ¿ the Serbian-Albanian conflict over whose epics are the originals, the whole subculture of spies, the culture of the rhapsodes.There¿s a lot of head-jumping, the governor¿s wife is seriously annoying and some of the symbolism (Bill¿s encroaching blindness and his end) are rather obvious, but I liked this book and would recommend it.