Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0
First Published: 10 May 1999

Book cover B O O K   R E V I E W:
The Three-Arched Bridge
Ismail Kadare
Vintage International, 1997
ISBN 1-559-70368-7

Micah Jayne

Ismail Kadare enjoys a reputation as Albania's greatest literary voice. He has been suggested for the Nobel Prize on several occasions, and his work has established him as one of the world's finest writers of fiction. His latest work - The Three-Arched Bridge - is no exception and although published two years ago has particular resonance today, against the background of the raging Kosova crisis.

Ever since Kadare's first novel, The General of the Dead Army (published in 1962), caught the attention of the French literary establishment, which immediately recognized his genius, his works have been widely honoured and translated in that country. In the early 1990s, the author himself finally fled Albania, where his books had long been banned - some by decree some through a forced ostracism - and sought political asylum in the country that had been faithfully publishing his books for several decades. In fact, most of Kadare's novels available in English have been translated from the French. The current Vintage International edition of his latest novel, however, is an exception and has been translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson.

It is sad to say, but Gabriel Garcia Marquez' name has probably sold as many books by other authors as Marquez has sold on his own. I can, however, understand the publisher's motivation in splashing terms like "magic realism" across the cover of The Three-Arched Bridge. Any effort to expose this great author to the English-speaking world should be well-received, and Vintage International has done a splendid job of bringing two of Kadare's most powerful works across the Atlantic in excellent translations.

Imagine the current state of the Balkans - a battleground, where the forces of native cultures violently struggle for a voice and are constantly in danger of being crushed under foot by raging giants. Anyone following today's news rapidly finds himself a traveler in history, and must eventually stumble upon the roadside inn Kadare constructs in The Three-Arched Bridge.

Through the journal of the fictitious monk, Gjon Ukcama, we enter the Balkans of the fourteenth century. It is a region perched on the brink of war; local lords bicker among themselves, while the first wave of Ottoman Turks prepare to march against the remnants of the crumbling Byzantine empire. It is an age of intrigue and an age of confusion. Gjon, an expert in foreign tongues and a collector of folk tales, serves as an interpreter between the various forces of occupation and his own prince. His journal, adroitly masked in political naivete, concerns itself with the building of a bridge; stone by stone, we see the Balkans of our time taking shape.

The sense of trepidation with which Gjon relates the myth-making process, malignantly employed by the shadowy forces constructing the bridge, mirrors current fears concerning the future of the region. The battle of Kosovo-polje in 1389, just twelve years after the story of the novel begins, spawned a legend which became a cornerstone of Serb nationalism and a rung on the ladder with which the current Yugoslav regime used to climb to power. Kadare dwells on the power of myth, examining, through the encounters Gjon relates, both its creative and destructive capabilities. The bridge itself becomes the greatest myth of all, however. The people of the town are consumed by the possibilities the bridge suggests, but by connecting East and West, it dooms all those living under its shadow.

Written while the author was living in France, The Three-Arched Bridge contains places, characters and events which are curiously referenced in the author's earlier works. The novel is obviously the result of a long process of fermentation, a process which outlasted both Albania's totalitarian regime and the Soviet Union which spawned it. The story becomes an important key to a more complete understanding of Kadare's works, especially The Palace of Dreams, and it possesses a more mature voice than his earlier novels.

The ingenious layering of history and modern commentary, so flawlessly executed in this book, is a testament to Kadare's perseverance and dedication to his art under the tremendous strain of Enver Hoxha's repressive 40-year regime. His uncanny ability to immerse the reader in a world without time seems to have emerged from an admixture of raw talent and desperate necessity. "Remember," says Kadare in an interview with Shusha Guppy published in the Paris Review, "to the great misfortune of the intellectuals, Hoxha regarded himself as an author and a poet, and therefore a "friend" of writers. As I was the country's best-known writer, he was interested in me..."

Kadare's masterful manipulation of narrative in The Three-Arched Bridge could be more readily compared to the works of Umberto Eco, notably The Name of the Rose, than to those of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Like Marquez, however, Kadare's resonant voice gently reveals the little tragedies that have become the birthright of many a modern nation.

Micah Jayne

All of the following works by Ismail Kadare can be ordered from Amazon.com:

The Three-Arched Bridge

The Pyramid

Broken April

The Palace of Dreams

The File on H

The Concert

The General of the Dead Army


Other Useful Links:

An interview with Ismail Kadare in Label France

Information about a documentary film about the author made by Arte

Albanian History

Information on Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha

Vintage International publishers

Editor's Note: This article was first published in ENP, 10 May 1999

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