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The Magic Mountain
Thomas Mann, John E. Woods
The Hooligan's Return: A Memoir
Norman Manea, Angela Jianu
The Ghost Rider - Ismail Kadaré, David Bellos The Ghost Rider was initially published in English under the title Doruntine and it is another case of translation from French, not from the original Albanian. This situation puzzles me and has turned many people off from reading Ismail Kadaré's [b:The Palace of Dreams|797635|The Palace of Dreams|Ismail Kadaré|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1178472255s/797635.jpg|783601], which I find a really good novel (but then, I've read the Romanian translation). Is there a serious deficit of translators from Albanian into English? It seems that Kadare’s works were regularly translated into French by his long-standing collaborator, Jusuf Vrioni, and the English editions have the latter's translations as a starting point. Weird.

Anyway, this edition of The Ghost Rider benefited from revisions made by Kadaré himself, so let's hope it is very close to the original work. I find Kadaré's voice to be quite appealing, bringing an interesting insight into a world that I know very little of. Let's be frank, how many of us know where Albania is located and what it looks like?

At first, the novel seems to be a sort of Gothic detective novel, but as the action unfolds, we understand that the implications run deeper, weaving myth and reality in a gripping tale that also speaks of the Albanian people and their heritage. Kadaré took as a starting point a well-known Albanian ballad, Kostandin and Doruntine, and recreated the story from the beginning, endowed it with a religious and historical background, enlarging its dimension.

At some unspecified time and place in Medieval Albania, Captain Stresi hears of the mysterious return of Doruntine, the only daughter of the noble Vranaj family; now she and her mother lay on their deathbeds, having experienced a terrible shock. Doruntine had married three years ago with a man from a distant land, but her brother Kostandin had promised to bring her home whenever their mother missed her. Only that soon after the wedding, Kostandin died along with his other eight brothers, and his sister presumably hadn't found out about the tragedy. Doruntine was back now in her mother's house, claiming that it was Kostandin who had brought her home on horseback.

Captain Stresi begins an investigation to find out the truth about the mysterious rider, while the rumor of Kostandin's resurrection spreads among people, reaching beyond the Albanian borders. They believe the brother has raised from the dead to keep his promise, his besa. We bare witness to the birth of the legend: beside the coffins, the mourners utter verses which recount the events. The ballad gradually takes shape from their mouths, each mourner adding a part of the story, elaborating the poem, which grows and spreads and can no longer be stopped.
Every day brought new chapters to the story of Doruntine, or else erased parts of it. Only the mourners remained steadfast in their ritual.
A curse be on thee, Kostandin!
Do you recall the solemn promise you made?
Or has your besa rotted with you in the grave?

The rumored resurrection of Kostandin brings a religious dimension to the story, as it shakes the foundations of the Orthodox Church. The supernatural happening upsets the Byzantine officials, as only Jesus Christ was capable of coming back from the grave, and any other tale of this kind is considered a heresy.
Religion had an important role in those times - Albania was torn between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, each trying to impose its influence. The Church of Rome was believed to exploit the heresy, helping it spread, using it against the Holy Byzantine Church, which at that time prevailed in Albania.
The struggle between Catholicism and Orthodoxy since time immemorial had greatly weakened religion in the Albanian principalities. The region lay just on the border between the two religions and, for various reasons, essentially political and economic, the principalities leaned now towards one, now towards the other. Half of them were now Catholic, but that state of affairs was by no means permanent, and each of the two churches hoped to win spheres of influence from the other.

As the story unfolds, we come to know some interesting aspects of the Albanian heritage: the Kanun, for example, was a set of traditional Albanian laws (mainly oral) that often transcended the institutionalized law. Kostandin was a fervent supporter of Kanun and of its subsidiary besa - a person's most sacred oath, a promise that can never be broken, even beyond death. Used from early times, the Kanun was first codified in the 15th century and was used until the 20th century, banned under the communist regime and then revived after its fall in the early 1990s.

There is an interesting discussion on Kanun, which consists of some immaterial and invisible rules that brig forth a new order, replacing the existing institutions. The new rules would be far from idyllic, but they would lie within man, not in the form of remorse or some similar sentiment, but as a well-defined ideal, a faith, an order understood and accepted by everyone. In this new world, the besa would have a central role.

I also found interesting the clash of opinions over local versus far-off marriage. Doruntine's wedding was the first of its kind, as no woman had married before with a man from so distant a country. The supporters of local marriages believed that this kept the clan free from turmoil and especially from suspect foreign blood, while the opponents feared the results of inbreeding and invoked the ancient kanun, the customary law that prohibited marriage within the four-hundredth degree of relatedness.

Captain Stresi has kept himself impartial to religion and tradition, but at the end of the investigation he will get to a new understanding of things, coming to terms with the Albanian traditions.
It matters little whether or not Kostandin returned from the grave to accomplish his mission. [...] Each of us has a part in that journey, for it is here among us that Kostandin’s besa germinated, and that is what brought Doruntine back.

The English translation of the Kostandin and Doruntine ballad (which is sung even today at Albanian weddings) can be read here, although I am positive that it sounds different in Albanian (which brings me to the question, how does Albanian sound like? Just to make an idea, here is the theatrical play based on Kadaré's novel).