Published in 1978, Ismail Kadare’s Broken April is a disturbing book, not just for the story it tells but also for the world it describes – the high plateau region of Albania where life, or more accurately death, is dictated by the medieval rule of Kanum.
The law of Kanum manages, indeed, profits, from the blood feuds between families or clans. It dictates how a man’s honour is offended and how it may be redeemed, it defines territorial boundaries, it decrees the periods of truces, the location of safe havens and the worth of an individual – a wound amounts to half blood and attracts a fine, two wounds are worth a life, a woman’s life has the same value as that of a dog and is equivalent to a half life.
The story opens with Gjorg, a twenty-six year old, fulfilling his blood duty in revenge for the death of his brother in a feud that has continued unbroken for seventy years and already cost twenty-two lives. The feud was initiated the fateful day a stranger sought the hospitality of Gjorg’s family. Under Kanum, the guest is a demi-god who must be honoured as such, so, when the man is shot just within the boundaries of the family’s village, his death becomes their responsibility and must be avenged.
The narrative follows Gjorg during the thirty day bessa, or truce, he is granted in order to make the journey to pay the blood money to the prince and his subsequent encounter with a couple of strangers touring the area on their honeymoon.
Kadare writes in a tight, sparse style but he is also necessarily didactic in order to explain the law of Kanum to make the tale comprehensible. And, the story he has to tell, haunted as it is by this barren landscape and ancient rule of fate, superstition and Homeric gloom, seems so foreign, so otherworldly, it is hard to accept it is set in relatively recent times.
( Though Broken Spring was written thirty years ago and much has changed in the world since, Kanum is still a malevolent force in Albania, I quote from a recent Home Office document, entitled, Operational Guidance Note: Albania :
‘Under the kanum, only males are acceptable targets in blood feuds; however, women and children were often killed or injured in attacks in 2006. According to the National Reconciliation Committee, approximately 860 families were effectively self-imprisoned during 2006 due to blood feuds. Property disputes accounted for four-fifths of formally declared blood feuds during 2006, with the remainder pertaining to issues of honour or violations of the home (e.g., theft, trespassing, etc.). The NRC estimated that there were several hundred additional blood feuds stemming from trafficking, which are typically not formally declared out of shame. Of the 738 families reported effectively self-imprisoned in 2005, 166 left the country, including 93 families that sought formal political asylum in other countries. The NRC claimed that fear of revenge prevented approximately 182 children from attending school in 2006, 86 of whom were permanently confined to their houses.’)
(Albania OGN v7.0 3 April 2007)