It’s clear to me now that with his Abril Despedaçado Walter Salles revealed himself as yet another director guilty of adapting a source in such a way that dispenses with the central kernel of meaning, leaving us with a disappointingly hollow bit of cinema.
On screen we see a rather pointless feud between two families of farmers in the ‘badlands’ of Brazil. Yet what Ismail Kadare had given us in his first-rate novel was something far more thought-provoking.
He takes us up to the Rrafsh, his native Albania’s mountain plain. There we find Gjorg lying in wait for Zef of the Kryeqyqe, the young man that had taken his own brother’s life, thereby becoming one of a long line of black armband-wearing justicers that occupy the choice burial plots of their feuding clans.
The murder that Gjorg is about to commit is sanctioned by the Kanun, the mountain folks’ uncompromising law covering everyday matters of honour, hospitality and bloody vengeance. He is driven by orders from a distant place “the place of generations long gone” and by the desire to avoid the shame of his kin having their coffee cups passed to them under the leg.
After each murder in the chain it is possible for the family of the deceased to grant the killer a thirty day truce or bessa. Gjorg obtains this from the Kryeqyqes and immediately sets off to get a taste for life beyond his village in his few remaining days of what the yanks call normalcy. There are roads within the mountain province that are themselves protected by a bessa, exempt from the blood payment in much the same way that Park Lane is now exempt from Mayor Ken's Congestion Charge.
In this land newborns are welcomed with the prayer “May he have a long life and die by the rifle” and the strength of the Kanun can be assessed at any one time by noting the ratio of cultivated fields to fallow ones, for families that owe a debt of blood tend to abandon their farms and seek refuge in one of the dark, windowless towers of refuge that stand like sentinels in the midst of each village in the Rrafsh.
This is thus “the shadow land…the place where the laws of death prevail over the laws of life,” as wastefully murderous as contemporary Guatemala, yet perhaps somehow more heroic and virtuous for the way that death has been codified.
Indeed Kadare wants us to consider whether this blood-spattered civility is in some way beyond good and evil, beyond moral censure. To help answer this question for us he sends a pair of city-dwelling honeymooners up into this epicly violent land. They are the writer Bessian and his wife Diana, the kind of disconcerting female that one mountain man ruefully observes, is capable of "stirring up a lust for life – even without honour.”
Bessian wants his bride to experience the grandeur of this strange land beyond the aegis of the state, but what she in fact experiences forms a nice little parable about the dangers of serendipitous travel for all relationships, however strongly-rooted they may be in their home environment. Diana’s very brief intersection with Gjorg is enough to re-shape both their destinies, though Kadare is careful to keep the various strands of his narrative as separate as coherence will allow.
The author doesn’t neglect to show us the absurd, the petty and the downright base sides to Albania's Kanun. He introduces us to the Steward of the Blood Mark Ukacierra, bailiff for the Prince of Orosh, the sole beneficiary of the blood tax paid by each of the justicers. Unlike his more conventionally agricultural colleagues, Ukacierra must manage invisible fields irrigated by blood, and has of late been beset by premonitions of a drought. Only Gjorg’s murder of Zef had prevented March 17 from being the first blood-free date in the whole history of the Kanun.
Ukacierra’s husbandry of the blood-feud is one aspect of its distortion by brute economics that Kadare presents us with. He also has a character describe a man that makes a living from the fees paid for his wounds. We also see how incapable of making their own judgments the mountain people have become, deferring all important decisions to celebrity interpreters of the Kanun, such as the near-comical itinerant Solomon known as Ali Binak, who admits that much of his great wisdom is founded on quite simple adjudications.
The feud between Gjorg’s family and the unpronounceable Kryeqyqes had begun generations before when an unknown outsider had been gunned down in their village after spending the night as a guest of the Berishas. According to the Kanun the guest is akin to a semi-divine being, guaranteed the protection (and vengeance) of his hosts just as long as he doesn’t lift the lid of the cooking pot during his stay. (This part I strongly agree with. Dinner guests that make a nuisance of themselves in our kitchen are unlikely to be invited back!)
Whilst it has been especially hard this week to appreciate the compensating virtue and grandeur of life out in Guatemala, blood steward Ukacierra’s disdain for flatlanders is surely a more extreme version of the reaction I have against my fellow Londoners whenever I return from Central America. And when considering the complicated mess that he has quite literally grown up with, Gjorg asks himself if he has become more messed up because of it. “He tried to recall families that were not involved in the blood feud and found no special signs of happiness in them. It even seemed to him that sheltered from that danger, they hardly knew the value of life, and were only the more unhappy for that.”