Translated from the French of Jusuf Vrioni by David Bellos (originally in Albanian)
Two naïve Irish-American scholars travel to Albania in the early 1930s in search of the origins of epic poetry—in particular, of Homer’s epics. And the only place where oral epic poetry still exists is in Albania. As far as they are concerned, it is simple: travel to the town of N__ in northern Albania with a new invention, the tape recorder, and record various rhapsodes there over a period of time. This would prove that the Illiad and the Odyssey were changing, oral poems from the region that had been given a definitive shape by Homer. This study would bring them fame in the academic world.
Except that in 1930s Albania, it is never quite that simple. News of their visit sends ripples of alarm among government officials. The interior minister orders the governor of the region to assign a spy to follow them all the time. The spy speaks no English, which does not deter him from doing his job. The minister is concerned that the two visitors are up to no good. Why else would they choose to go to an unheard-of small town with a tape recorder? In the town, meanwhile, the governor wife dreams of romance and plans parties for them. The scholars, who have not bargained on being the centre of a social scene, flee the town for the countryside as soon as they can, and begin their research at a roadside inn. But the Serbians across the border take umbrage at the fact that the scholars are looking only at Albanian epic poetry and ignoring the superior poetic traditions of Serbia.
The book moves between third-person narrative and excerpts from the scholars’ diaries. The language is old-fashioned, which works, considering that the book is set in the 1930s. And there is a lot of satirical humour in it: the scholars’ archaic Albanian, the governer’s admiration for the spy’s literary flourishes (his reports come by letter), and the goings-on at the inn.
The author, Ismail Kadare, gives the reader a glimpse into the rhapsodes and their way of life. I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion about how epics are created and how they change with each retelling until they settle into the shape that someone gives them by transcribing them.