Young Albanian poet probes family secrets and uncovers parallels to his own “affair,” in Spanish author Fortes’s prize-winning novel.
It begins with a gunshot, the possible suicide—or murder—of Zanum, a high-ranking functionary in Albania’s repressive communist regime. Zanum, who met his wife while fighting for Republican Spain, and married her after heroic exploits against the Nazis in WWII, is the senescent patriarch of the Radjik villa, a house resounding with memories. Youngest son Ismaíl hardly remembers his mother, who died of a wasting disease when he was five. At loose ends after his university is closed by the government following demonstrations in which he participated, Ismaíl falls in love with Helena, his brother Viktor’s wife. As they carry on their clandestine affair, Ismaíl is tormented by dreams and recollections of childhood. A mysterious gravedigger informs him that his mother’s body had been exhumed. He seeks out Hanna, the nanny who cared for him and Viktor as children. Gradually, he deduces that his mother, a Spaniard unused to Albanian codes of revenge and honor, was in love with Zanum’s best friend, the family doctor Gjorg. No one has ever explained to Ismaíl the exact nature of his mother’s illness, why Gjorg did nothing to treat her and why Gjorg deserted the family after her death. An informant shows Ismaíl an old archive indicating that an unnamed doctor tried to arrange passage out of the country for four people. The secret service arrested the man, but he was never tried. His medical bag was found with incriminating documents, and the dossier shows the location of his unmarked grave. Zanum reportedly convinced his wife that her only alternative to a political trial was to voluntarily accept slow poisoning with ricin. Finally, Ismaíl understands Zanum’s coldness toward him. When Helena warns that Viktor, also a government official, suspects their betrayal, Ismaíl must prepare for the consequences of 20 years of silent witness.
Powerful meditation on the destinies of love’s outlaws.