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Monday 5 July 2010

The Ghost Rider


Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 'A Scandal in Bohemia', spoken by the character Sherlock Holmes.

On the surface the most obvious comparisons to The Ghost Rider would be The Name of the Rose and The Brother Cadfael Mysteries since both features a character that might be considered the precursor of today’s police detective. Unlike the Franciscan friar, William of Baskerville, or the Benedictine monk, Brother Cadfael, Ismail Kadare’s Captain Stres is, “a servant of the state [who] strived to remain neutral on the issue of religion, which was not really close to his heart in any case.” This is a problem because the case he has to solve is one that escalates out of his control to the stage where there is talk of war between the Catholic Church of Rome and the Eastern Church. Partway through his investigation he finds himself summoned before the archbishop of the principality who tells him in no uncertain terms:

Today more than ever ... when relations between our Church and the Catholic Church have worsened . . . Nowadays your life is at stake in matters like these. Do I make myself clear, Captain?

Let’s start at the beginning. Captain Stres has a case to solve, most likely a crime, although what crime that might be continues to shift throughout the 164 pages of this novella. The facts: Three years earlier Doruntine Vranaj had married a Bohemian who lived “[a]lmost at the heart of Europe” some twelve or thirteen days ride away from Albania. She had had no contact with her family since, however, her brother, Kostandin, had made a solemn promise, a besa, that he would come for her in a time of great calamity or rejoicing. Five weeks after her departure the “principality had been attacked without warning by a Norman army and, unlike in previous campaigns, where each household had had to give up one of their sons, this time all eligible men were conscripted. So all nine brothers had gone off to war.” None returned. Some died in battle, others after being infected by the plague their enemies were carrying. “No one could recall a more impressive  funeral,” after all the family was quite well to do. Three messengers are sent by her mother; two cannot get through, the third does not return. At thiKonstandini_dhe_Doruntinas point the mother curses Kostandin for having broken his besa.

So Doruntine never learns of her family’s tragic loss until one night, three years later, a man “covered with dust and almost unrecognisable” claiming to be Kostandin arrives and presses her to return at once to her family. He refuses to dismount or to meet her family and she has to leave with him right away. This she does, taking only enough time to leave her husband the following brief note:

I am going away with my brother Kostandin. If

What was the ‘if’ for, and why did she cross it out? This is just one of the many pieces of evidence Stres has to establish whether or not is a clue.

After travelling, but only at night, the 23-year-old woman is dropped off outside her mother’s house. The man does not join her but, according to Doruntine’s statement, tells her: “Go on ahead, I have something to do at the church,” at which point he rides off. In his initial report Captain Stres records what he is told happened next after Doruntine knocks at the door:

The old woman asked who was there, and then the few words exchanged between mother and daughter – the latter having said that it was she and that she had come with Kostandin, the former replying that Kostandin was three years dead – gave to both the shock that felled them.

It was shortly after this that his deputy called on him and informed him that both mother and daughter lay dying. Stres concludes:

This affair, which one is bound to admit is most puzzling, may be explained in one of two ways: either someone, for some reason, deceived Doruntine, passing as her brother with the express purpose of bringing her back, or Doruntine herself, for some unknown reason, has not told the truth and has concealed the manner of her return or the identity of the person who brought her back.

Or, of course, Kostandin might have risen from the grave to make good his besa. But that would be impossible. No? I will get back to the besa in a bit.

There follows some good old-fashioned (that would be mediaeval old) policing: beats are plodded, likely suspects pulled in and grilled; the most up-to-date investigative techniques are brought into play (so we’re talking torture) but the mystery remains unresolved. Matters are complicated by the sudden death of the two women but at least when two of Doruntine’s husband’s cousins arrive Stres is able to verify the timeline: she left Bohemia on 29th September and arrived at her mother’s house on 11th October. They also provide another clue, the “incident” at the wedding. This, coupled with some interesting doruntina-12-990 correspondence unearthed by his deputy, provides Stres with a new and unexpected line of enquiry: just exactly what was the relationship between brother and sister?

And then finally a break in the case! A man is arrested by a border patrol and when questioned provides a detailed – perhaps too detailed? – account of Doruntine’s journey. He confesses to being her accomplice. Case closed. But how many times have you seen the wrong man arrested, even confess? Was his confession coerced? It looks very much like it. Why then does Stres order the man to be tortured after his confession? Does he know something we don’t? Anyway, no sooner has Stres ordered this than he returns to his office, takes up his pencil and begins his final report to the prince’s chancellery; a more or less identical letter is sent to the archbishop. So ends Chapter Five.

Chapter Seven, the last chapter in the book, is where Stres has to address the grand assembly with his findings. But why a grand assembly and not a simple court case? Because the events on 11th October have captured the public’s imagination. They interpret the facts according to their own choosing, and many choose to believe that Kostandin rose from the grave. After all his grave had been disturbed. Yes, but that could be explained by simple subsidence, couldn’t it? Or that could have been done to perpetuate the hoax.

I’m not going to tell you what Stres has to say for himself, but I would recommend that you read Chapter Six with care to appreciate the author’s allusions to his contemporary political climate. While waiting on a date being settled on for the grand assembly, Stres begins to keep company with Kostandin’s former companions:

There were four of them: Shpend, Milosao and the two Radhen boys. Stres met them nearly every afternoon at the New Inn, where they used to pass the time when Kostandin was alive. People shook their heads in wonder when they saw Stres with them. Some said that he had befriended them as a matter of official duty. Others maintained that he was just killing time. He had finished his report, they said, and now he’s taking time off. Others simply shrugged.


They had not accepted the captain’s company with good grace. Even when Kostandin was alive they had been cool towards him, but in the past few months, as Stres laboured to unravel the mystery of Doruntine’s return, the chill had turned icy, bordering on hostility. Stres’s first efforts to win them over had run up against this wall. But then, surprisingly, their attitude had changed completely so that they accepted the captain’s presence.

What is his interest in these four, who some were calling “half-seriously, half-jokingly ... ‘Kostandin’s disciples’”? The besa. This brief definition from Wikipedia is as good as any I’ve read:

Besa is an Albanian cultural precept, usually translated as "faith", that means "to keep the promise" and "word of honour". The word's origin can be traced to the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, a collection of Albanian traditional customs and cultural practices. Besa is an important part of personal and familial standing and is often used as an example of "Albanianism".

So what are we saying here? If Kostandin didn’t rise from the grave has Albania somehow stepped in to affiche_doruntinefulfil his promise? Now, that would be far-fetched. As far-fetched as a ghost rider fulfilling a promise made when he was still alive? Surely death cancels all debts.

The book The Ghost Rider is based on ‘The Ballad of Constantine and Dhoqina’, originally a moral tale against the practice of exogamy, or marrying members of a different tribe or clan. You can read an English translation here.

The popular legend of little Constantine who rises from the grave to bring his sister Dhoqina back to their dying mother, in fulfilment of his pledge, is one of the best-known of Albanian folklore, involving the so-called Lenore motif. In Albania, the sister is known either as Dhoqina or Doruntina and in the Italo-Albanian version of the legend, she appears as Garantina or Fjoruntina. Her dead brother, Constantine, is also known in northern Albania under the name Halil Garria, and by the Muslims of central Albania on occasion as Ali or Hysen i vogël. ... The ballad is known wherever Albanian is spoken, not only in Albania itself and southern Italy, but also in Kosova, Montenegro and Macedonia. – Robert Elsie, The Ballad of Constantine and Dhoqina, Albanian Literature in Translation

In the ballad, and in the prose version, there are thirteen brothers, and the mother and daughter both drop dead at the door as soon as each hears the news the other has to tell. So Kadare has obviously taken liberties with the text. I didn’t know any of this when I first read the book and it does feel like it could be told in a lot less space than he takes. He could have milked it by adding in a subplot but wisely doesn’t. He simply fleshes out the characters and, even there, there is a lot we never find out about Stres. But we learn enough.

Kadare wrote this novella back in 1980. It was subsequently translated into French and then English and was afterwards published as Doruntine. In 1993 Kadare returned to the text. The translator of this current edition has this to say about that in his introduction to the book:

The revisions made by Kadare are essentially of an artistic nature – replacing brief generalities with additional narrative, including a few new named characters, or else expanding dialogues to give a fuller sense of the issues at stake – but they also include the restoration of historical and political references it would have been unwise to include during the Hoxha regime, notably to religious practices and, in this novel, to discussions that imply the possibility of disagreement with state authority. Even so, it requires a leap of our imaginations to read in the character of Kostandin, as he is recalled by his comrades in chapters six and seven, a figure of resistance and dissidence. Yet that is what he is, and also what makes him unique in Kadare’s universe, which usually suggests the human values that it promotes by antiphrasis, understatement and what another critic has called the device of “distant echo”. – David Belios, The Ghost Rider: an introduction

Enver Hoxha was the most powerful leader in modern Albania, occupying at times the posts of prime minister, minister of defence, and commander in chief of the armed forces, while continuing to serve as first secretary of the OL2-04 ACP. He was head of state from 1944 until 1985. Hoxha's efforts to impose a rigid, repressive political and government structure on Albania met with little active resistance until the country's declining standard of living and poor economic performance led to such dissatisfaction that unrest began to spread in 1965-66. In response, the Hoxha government initiated the Cultural and Ideological Revolution in February 1966, which was an attempt to reassert communist party influence on all aspects of life and rekindle revolutionary fervour. Some of Kadare's work was tolerated, some not:

Four of my books – The Concert (Fayard, 1989), The Palace of Dreams (Fayard, 1990), The Monster (Fayard, 1991), and Clair de Lune (Fayard, 1993) – were banned by decree. That means you couldn’t find them anywhere, not in the shops, nor on the library shelves. Some others were hit by a half-ban, in other words, they weren’t mentioned in newspapers or magazines, it was as if they had never been written. – ‘A conversation with the writer Ismail Kadare’, Label France, No.33

Writing in The Guardian, Julian Evans quotes Kadare’s response to his lack of out-and-out dissidence:

“That was not possible. You risked being shot. Not condemned, but shot for a word against the regime. A single word.” Instead, Kadare “revived old forms – parable, myth, fable, folk-tale, legend – packed them with allusion and metaphor, plundered the past.” – Julian Evans, ‘Living with Ghosts, The Guardian, 17th September 2005

The bottom line is that Hoxha was trying to squash Albania’s heritage and cultural identity which is where Kostandin has provided Kadare with a perfect example of the archetypical Albanian, a man who apparently will not even let death diminish his “Alabanianness.” This is what the people need to believe. This is why an Albanian’s besa is not simply a promise. This is why a grand council ends up being called. Because what is at issue here is not whether or not a fraudster has carried out a hoax, no, it is what it means to be Albanian.

Konstandini___Doruntina There is one question I have and that’s concerning the position of the mother’s curse which sounds like the catalyst that finally gets things going, that it is her curse and not the son’s promise that sets things in motion. You’ll have to read the book and see what you think. It’s a quick read; the language straightforward. At times you feel like you’ve read the same thing two or three times but that’s not really the case, Stres is simply going over events as he knows them incorporating what new scraps of evidence he has found. I’m not sure this is the finest example of Kadare’s writing either. From what I’ve read he does better with his own original material but as an introduction to the author I think this is as good a place as any to start. I enjoyed the book more than I expected. The Canongate edition also includes the first two chapters from his book, The Siege which was originally published in 1970, so you have the chance to make a comparison.

The book has also been adapted for the stage in an unusual bilingual production. You can read more about that here.


Ismail_Kadare-poet 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. He is known for his novels, although he was first noticed for his poetry collections. He stopped writing poems in the 1960s and focused on short stories until the publication of his first novel, The General of the Dead Army. From 1963 he has been a novelist. In 1996 he became a lifetime member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences of France. In 1992, he was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca; in 2005, he won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize and in 2009 the Prince of Asturias Award of Arts. He has divided his time between Albania and France since 1990. Kadare has been a Nobel Prize in Literature candidate several times. He began writing very young, in the mid 1950s but published only a few poems. His works have been published in about thirty languages.



Kamila Vránková, ‘Variations and Transformations of the “Lenore” Motif in European Ballads’, Theory and Practice in English Studies 4, pp.171-176

Lucinda Byatt, 'Judging a Book in Translation', Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, v.9 no.2, p.32

David Bellos, ‘The Englishing of Ismail Kadare’, The Complete Review, v.6, issue 2


chiccoreal said...

Dear Jim: The politico-social aspect of this book would definitely appeal to me. It has anthropological/cultural aspects as well plus it is a mystery. By a reknown and multi-awarded talent. What's not to like? His style may sound slow, but it is intelligent and I am sure he has a great crescendo (like Dvorsak) near the end. Does he? Well I'll just have to read it! Albania. Huh. I do not know that much about Albania and it is probably pivotal knowledge on the world affairs stage no doubt. Probably not light summer reading however. Good thing we have google! How many pages again?

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m not sure I would’ve picked Dvořák as an example of climatic endings, chickcoreal, although he’s not a composer I know very well in fact I just listened to his violin and piano concertos and his Sixth Symphony and it struck me as pretty average Romantic stuff, but I know what you mean. Actually The Ghost Rider does not end with a big bang – which doesn’t mean it ends in a whimper either. What I will say is that if you’re the kind of person who needs every t crossed and i dotted then the end of this book might not be for you. We never find out what actually happened, only what might have happened and the real issue is how you deal with something like that. Well, I guess that’s where legends come from, people trying to assemble what facts they have into something believable, that might be true, that they hope was true. It’s 208 pages long by the way and actually is quite light reading.

Max Cairnduff said...

Kadare's one of my favourite writers, and yet I've never heard of this one.

I do fear with him missing allusions that to his intended audience would be obvious. But then, if I do, I do. I can still appreciate those bits I do get.

Anyway, thanks for bringing this to my attention. A wonderful writer, and an intriguing book.

Jim Murdoch said...

The question I suppose, Max, is whether one would read a book knowing beforehand that x% of it was going to go over one's head. The first time I saw Waiting for Godot I got very little out of it. I knew it was great stuff but I also knew there was so much more going on than I was seeing. Should I never have watched it in the first place? Of course I should. And there are books too, plenty of books, that need more than one reading to get into them. I'm not sure this is one though except the chapters at the end perhaps. In the end only an Albanian will truly understand what 'Albanian-ness' is.

Once upon a Reading said...

One of the most pertinent reviews I've read on the subject till now. Thank you

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that comment, Stela. If you’re interested in reading more of Kadare’s work I have written another three reviews: Twilight of the Eastern Gods, The Fall of the Stone City and Chronicle in Stone.

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