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Albanian Blood Feud: Kadare's "Broken April" and Albania Today

Updated on December 27, 2013
Rural Albanian farm workers.  Photo by Hannah Mishin, 2011
Rural Albanian farm workers. Photo by Hannah Mishin, 2011

The Albanian Plateau

The Albanian Plateau is a rural area that is largely outside of the reach of the central Albanian government. Because the country has been subject to domination by external factions for hundreds of years, the people of the Plateau developed their own laws and customs as a means of maintaining a semblance of stability. Their tribal codes are recorded in a Medieval text known as the Kanun.

The Kanun dictates many facets of life, one of which is the custom known as “blood feud.” Broken April, by Ismail Kadare, follows an unlikely murderer named Gjorg Berisha as he avenges the death of his brother according to Kanun law. Through Gjorg's experience, Kadare examines the Kanun's influence on rural Albanian life, especially as it pertains to the blood feud.

Kadare never explicitly states when his story takes place. There are no references to major world events or historical political figures to place the events in a recognizable time line. The only mention of technology is of guns, automobiles, and a single airplane flying overhead. These items are referred to generically, so there is no way to date the story by car or gun model. The closest we can assume is that the story takes place sometime in the 20th century, probably after the 1930s and prior to 1978 when the book was published.

This ambiguity may have been intentional to demonstrate the stagnant, slow moving nature of time in the rural plateau of Albania. It may also serve to highlight that the events depicted in the story could just as likely have occurred in 2011 or in 1941. In other words, this ambiguity demonstrates that while time moves on for the rest of the world, it stands still on the Albanian Plateau.

The Kanun and Blood Feud

Recent articles from international online news sources highlight the continued presence of the Kanun and blood feud in rural Albanian life. Contemporary stories of blood feud participants and interviews with modern Albanian families entangled in blood feud demonstrate that the experiences depicted in Broken April are not only accurate, but still occurring today.

In Kadare's novel, protagonist Gjorg Berisha's family is ensnared into the trap of the blood feud cycle quite by chance. Rather than starting a feud by murdering someone in a fit of impassioned anger, as many feuds begin, the Berisha family became involved after giving shelter to a stranger who was then shot dead upon leaving their home (Kadare, 31).

“According to the Kanun, when the guest whom you were accompanying is killed before your eyes, you are bound to avenge him” (Kadare, 32). Thus the Berisha family was sucked into a blood feud that would transpire over generations.

Because the blood feud involves avenging blood with blood, families engaged in it can potentially continue the feud indefinitely, or until one side runs out of male family members. To back down from revenge brings dishonor upon the family (Kundera, 46). Although Gjorg would like nothing to do with the feud he is pressured into it by his own parents who are still grieving for his murdered brother.

Two Albanian men, 1904 (public domain image)
Two Albanian men, 1904 (public domain image)

Rebirth of Blood Feud After the Fall of the Soviet Union

It seems that the iron fist of Soviet rule may have quelled the flow of blood on the Albanian Plateau for some time. Although Kadare makes no mention of this, several news articles point to a revival of the blood feud after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In his article for the New York Times, Dan Bilefsky states that “20,000 people have been ensnared by the blood feuds since they resurfaced after the collapse of Communism in 1991.” He interviews Christian, a teenager who has the “misfortune... to have been born the son of a father who killed a man” (Bilefsky).

Like Gjorg, Christian has been sucked into the blood feud through no fault of his own. He spends his days trapped in his own home to avoid being the feud's next victim. Although, in reality, whether he lives or dies, he already is a victim of the feud. “Christian's reading level is that of a 12-year-old's” because he has not been able to attend school (Bilefsky).

Castle ruins in Berat, Albania. Photo by Jason Rogers (Creative Commons)
Castle ruins in Berat, Albania. Photo by Jason Rogers (Creative Commons)

News reporters venturing deep into the Plateau to talk to rural Albanians are reminiscent of the pair of intellectuals from the city, Bessian and Diana, who cross Gjorg's path in Broken April. At one point they come across a seemingly abandoned town. Upon speaking to an old woman, they discover that the “village is quite big, but most of the men are cloistered in the towers” (Kadare, 172). They question her on this and the old woman replies “yes, my son, for blood-vengeance. Nobody has ever seen anything to match it. Well of course people have killed one another with the village, but never anything like this” (Kadare, 173).

The woman explains how the blood feud has gotten out of control to the point where there were more people engaged in it than those not involved. During this time period, men were still using medieval towers as places of refuge and safety when they were targeted, whereas now those involved seem to stay holed up in their own houses.

Albanians Still Lamenting Blood Feud Today

The attitude of Kadare's old woman seems to be echoed by voices of rural Albanians today. Although these feuds have been occurring for ages, people seem deeply troubled by current trends and believe things are worse now than in the past.

Bojan Pancevski and Nita Hoxha report on the blood feud in their article for The Telegraph. They interview the Bardoku family, “stuck in their cottage outside the northern Albanian village of Mnela”. They explain that “recently, the problem has [become] much worse – after clan chiefs... ruled that families could 'outsource' blood feuds to professional contract killers”

The article explains that the Kanun had been repressed during communism and then revived to fill the vacuum left by communism's fall. However, practices like hiring professional killers “have little in common with the spirit of the Kanun”. The article claims that in the past contract killers had only been hired by women in families who had no living adult males left. Since the tribal authority declared that anyone could hire professional assassins “the number of feud-related killings has doubled” (Pancevski and Hoxha).

The Kanun in Albanian Life

This change in custom is not the only difference in contemporary manifestations of the Kanun in the lives of Albanians compared to life in Kadare's Plateau. Kadare emphasizes that Gjorg knows the Kanun very well. Because Gjorg is just an average young peasant man, there is no reason he would have any further training or education in the Kanun than any of his peers. So, when Gjorg is depicted “remembering portions of the Code that dealt with mills, flocks, churches, and graves” and when he is shown “citing one of the best known clauses of the Code” aloud, we can assume that it was common for other Plateau residents to have a fairly extensive grasp on the dictates of the Kanun (Kadare, 29).

Reporting for the BBC, Majinda Mortimer and Anca Toader's article reveals that “today few people under 35 know what the Kanun actually says” (Mortimer and Toader).

Colin Freeman echos this in his article for The Telegraph. Freeman interviews a blood feud mediator, Gjin Marku, and states “the real problem today, Marku insists, is not the Kanun itself, but the fact that people no longer follow it properly” (Freeman). He likens the contemporary blood feud epidemic to the jihaads committed by Islamic terrorists who “justify violence through the Koran... focusing only on the passages that serve their interests” (Freeman).

Because of these selective interpretations, where for centuries blood feud only involved adult males, now “even women, girls, and little boys” are targeted (Mortimer and Toader).

A young man in traditional Albanian war costume, circa 1913 (public domain image)
A young man in traditional Albanian war costume, circa 1913 (public domain image)

The Kanun was created because of the need for a central code of law when the region was constantly being bounced between different ruling governments, so in that sense Communist rule was just another repetition of history.

However, it seems that Communism succeeded in repressing the Kanun more effectively than previous governments. So its latest resurgence has been handicapped by a generation who never studied the Kanun in the first place.

It is interesting that many modern scholars interviewed who seem to have an understanding on the Kanun's history and content glorify what they think is its true intent while lamenting contemporary misinterpretations.

Yet, in Broken April, Kadare clearly demonstrates that even in a period when the Kanun permeates every aspect of Plateau life, people question its relevance. Gjorg was reluctant to avenge his brother's death and procrastinated committing the deed until he was under immense pressure from his family. After the murder, custom says he must attend the dead man's funeral. Realizing how asinine these customs are, Gjorg calls the it an “absurd situation” (Kadare, 16). Further, Gjorg describes feeling “shackled” by the “chains” of the Kanun and his thoughts dwell on priests who are the only people not vulnerable to blood feud (Kadare, 30).

To emphasize how incredible life under the Kanun is, Kadare's urban intellectual characters compare life on the Plateau to “legend,” “fairies,” and “mountain nymphs” (Kadare, 63). This comparison highlights that it is unbelievable that people of a modern age still live under this code.

Respect for the Code

Yet, with criticism, Gjorg also shows great respect for the Code. Considering what life must be like for families not involved in blood feud, Gjorg ponders that “sheltered from that danger, they hardly knew the value of life, and were only the more unhappy for that” (Kadare, 34).

Even the character Bessian, an outsider on the Plateau, venerates blood feud participants. He explains to Diana that “the aspect of death conferred on the lives of these men something of the eternal, because its very grandeur raised them above paltry things and the petty meanness of life” (Kadare, 71-72).

The Code seems to have almost religious connotations for these people. Perhaps in a region subject to constant domination by external factions, it is their one cultural unifier. This may explain why many rural people give “greater credence to the Kanun than to the criminal justice system” in contemporary Albania despite the central government's attempts to stifle it (Bilefsky).

The Golden Eagle - The national symbol of Albania.  Photo by Richard Bartz (Creative Commons)
The Golden Eagle - The national symbol of Albania. Photo by Richard Bartz (Creative Commons)

Corruption on the Albanian Plateau

However, even in a culture that venerates tradition, corruption still seeps in. Kadare describes a shadowy and remote ruling body that seems to have been unofficially (as in not recognized by the Albanian government) governing the Plateau for centuries.

This is not mentioned in contemporary news articles, so perhaps Communism finally ousted this Medieval Prince. Or, if this ancient dynasty still exists, it does so under a veil of secrecy.

Kadare describes a Prince whose family governed the Plateau for generations. In Broken April, the Prince's first cousin holds a position called “the steward of the blood” (Kadare, 130). The steward's role is to collect the taxes levied on the blood feud. Just as government agencies record taxes collected on crops and livestock, the steward of the blood keeps records on revenue in something known as “The Blood Book” (Kadare, 136).

Because there is profit to be made from blood feud, the steward of the blood feels pressured to encourage its proliferation. At one point, the steward contemplates a harsh look he received from the Prince at dinner. “That look seemed to say, you are the steward of the blood, and therefore you ought to be the chief instigator of feuds and acts of vengeance, you ought to be encouraging them” (Kadare, 136).

The blood tax may now be extinct, however there are still individuals profiting from blood feud in modern Albania. Colin Freeman discusses the Albanian government's attempts to use mediators to solve disputes and end feuds.

The problem is that “some mediators... also take a fat cut of any compensation they negotiate given them a vested interest in feuds continuing.” So even if there is no modern equivalent of the Prince of the Plateau and his Steward of the Blood, it would seem there still remain persons who earn their living off of the blood feud.

A proud Albanian woman in traditional dress. Photo from an early Albanian postcard.
A proud Albanian woman in traditional dress. Photo from an early Albanian postcard. | Source

Mediating Albanian Blood Feud

Mediation of the feuds is nothing new. And, it seems that mediation and resolution to avoid the spillage of blood has always been elusive.

Mortimer and Toader interview “one man who has successfully negotiated an end to blood feuds,” Aleksander Kola, who has “managed to end 10 feuds in the last two years.”

However, there are many feuds that are not easily resolved. “One involved the death of a 17-year-old, Zef” who was killed “in revenge for the earlier death of two members of [the other] family at the hands of Zef's uncle. However, Mr. Kola explained this did not end the feud 'because Zef's uncle killed two people from the other family and Zef's death avenged only one'” (Mortimer and Toader).

It seems that in order to feel honorably avenged, families want the deaths to be even. If two people were killed, then only the blood of two more people will suffice unless some other form of compensation can be mediated.

Colin Freeman's article discusses Joshua Marston's experience directing a film about blood feud. His story centers on a man who becomes engaged in blood feud by an argument over a property dispute which results in murder. Marston describes the scenario by saying “the exact rights and wrongs of the matter are never made clear” which “mirrors many of the feuds he researched, which always proved far more complex than at first glance” (Freeman). It is because of the murky and complex nature of these disputes that they are often difficult mediate.

Stubborn Adherence to Tradition Impedes Resolution

The stubborn will of the people to cling to old ways also inhibits non-violent resolution of feuds. Kadare reveals that the Kanun spells out a means for “blood settlement” to avoid further bloodshed and resolve feuds.

The Berisha family had successfully negotiated with the family with whom they were feuding. Both sides had agreed to blood settlement and had met to conduct the ritual spelled out by the Kanun. But then, just before it was finalized, “Gjorg's old uncle shouted, 'No! …more blood must flow'” (Kadare, 48). And so one old man's stubborn unwillingness to forgive caused the feud between the two families to continue.

This iron will to cling to tradition lives on in people like Sherif Kurtaj. Even though he suffers with health issues that cannot be treated as long as he is a prisoner in his own home, Kurtaj insists “the Kanun must be obeyed, the blood needs to be avenged” (Bilefsky).

The finality of his statement is echoed by yet another modern blood feud participant, Martin Bardoku. Although Martin was in state prison at the time of the publication of his interview, his imprisonment did not stop his teenage son from being targeted for revenge. “Yet, despite languishing in prison with his children fearing for their lives, Bardoku accepts the blood debt as part of traditional Albanian life... he remarked 'life reserves such grave fates for us. Now things have happened, they cannot be undone'” (Pancevski and Hoxha).

When Kadare stated that “the Kanun was stronger than it seemed” and “its power reached everywhere” (27), it seems he was not exaggerating.

A young Albanian boy works at traditional crafts.
A young Albanian boy works at traditional crafts. | Source

The many contemporary accounts of life on Albanian Plateau demonstrate that although certain things changed, the influence of the Kanun still runs deep.

The younger generation may insist that “the Kanun is full of idiot rules for another age... it is totally unfair and useless” (Bilefsky). But, modern teenagers who “play computer games and watch Big Brother on TV” still find themselves “stuck indoors because of this code of honor that is hundreds of years old” (Freeman).

Though Gjorg Berisha considered many of the Kanun's customs to be absurd, he still found himself a hunted man with blood on his hands. Likewise do contemporary Albanian teenagers who want nothing to do with murder or the Kanun find themselves entangled in blood feud against their will.

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Works Cited:

Bilefsky, Dan. In Albanian Feuds, Isolation Engulfs Families. The New York Times. 10 Jul, 2008. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/10/world/europe/10feuds.html?pagewanted=all>

Freeman, Colin. Albania's Modern-day Blood Feuds. The Telehraph. 01 Jul, 2010. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/albania/7843351/albanias-modern-day-blood-feuds.html>

Kadare, Ismail. Broken April. New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1990.

Mortimer, Majlinda and Toader, Anca. Blood Feuds Blight Alabanian Lives. BBC News. 23 Sept, 2005. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/europe/4273020.stm>

Pancevski, Bojan and Hoxha, Nita. Thousands Fear as Blood Feuds Sweep Albania. The Telegraph. 03 Jun, 2007. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1553480/Thousands-fear-as-blood-feuds-sweep-Albania.html >

© 2013 Carolyn Emerick

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    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 4 years ago from USA

      Amazing hub. I have never heard of this practice that you describe in such a detailed way. Such a well written, well-researched and beautifully illustrated hub. Voted up, awesome and sharing!

    • CarolynEmerick profile image
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      Carolyn Emerick 4 years ago

      Thank you! I had to read this book for a class a couple years ago and was shocked to see it's still in practice today.

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      MariEllaZoeWeiss 3 years ago

      when i read this book in my IB english class, i thought it was totally fictitious and made up. i was shocked to discover the kanun does indeed exist and is very much in practice even today! we really know very little about the world around us and this book showed me some of it

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