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the daily review, mon., may 30

Among Eastern European writers, Ismail Kadare has a reputation for writing books of an especially dark nature. As an Albanian, the veteran novelist has been witness to both his own nation's agony under the wonky totalitarianism of Enver Hoxha, and the crisis that enveloped the Balkans in the 1990s. Out of such life experiences are dark preoccupations naturally made.

The Accident, Kadare's 17th book to be translated into English, is a formidable puzzle. An Albanian couple living in Vienna are killed when their taxi overturns. The driver survives, but can explain only that the crash occurred after he glanced in his rear-view mirror. What he saw upset him so much he lost control of the wheel.

The victims, identified as Besfort Y and Rovena, have been furtive lovers for more than a decade, meeting mostly in hotel rooms across the continent. He works as an analyst for the Council of Europe, and may have had a hand in the 1999 NATO bombings of Serbia. She is largely defined through her beauty and her volatile nature. The unhealthy power politics of their relationship seems some kind of mirror of the age, and even of the Balkans.

None of these details emerges quickly or easily. Kadare unfolds his tragic lovers' tale via a series of reports by others, done in the wake of the car crash. Narrative points of view shift from an "unidentified researcher" to, flittingly, the couple themselves, and time lines for events are collapsed. What is real, what is conjecture, what is dream or nightmare, is soon blurry.

The indeterminacy and irrationality of human affairs obliges such storytelling. "There is a mystery involving the old devices of the world," the researcher declares, "which from one millennium to the next, in semi-darkness, had shaped the savagery of tigers and the soul's lusts, pity, shame or hours of peace."

In the same rather portentous passage - Kadare is inclined to aphoristic utterances, many of them eloquent but few credible to any character - he comments on "two sorts of love." One is between a man and a woman, all tempest and fire; the other, presumably, the relations between tribes, say, or competing national narratives.

To this end, The Accident includes self-conscious references to Orpheus and Eurydice and a minor love triangle from Don Quixote. There is a political parable here, but it is as murky and unresolved as the characters themselves, who are about as vividly drawn as players in Greek myth.

In lieu of much plot or lively dialogue, Kadare substitutes the considerable authority of his writerly voice. He has seen much, the voice makes clear, and learned how little we understand the actions of our hearts, whether in the bedroom or the council chamber.

But even with that voice, there is a concern. The male authorial gaze of a certain sort burdens the novel. Men in The Accident are strong and resolute, striding through the bloody business of the world; women are stormy and submissive, largely cloistered. There are far too many references to the shapeliness of Rovena's breasts and far too much time spent describing her preparations to please her man between the sheets.

As for her turning to a female lover out of frustration at Besfort having reduced her to a virtual sex slave, that is a soft-porn male fantasy. "The enigma of beautiful women had fascinated him for years," begins just one uninteresting paragraph on this tinny note.

Still, Ismail Kadare, inaugural winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2005 for his body of work, is a skilled craftsman. How The Accident is told, a kind of slow reveal mixed with a purposeful ambiguity, does the most justice to his concerns. The structure of the book, in effect, is its meaning, a nifty literary dissolve between content and form.

Contributing reviewer Charles Foran's biography of Maurice Richard has just been published. His previous book, Mordecai: The Life and Times, won this year's Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.

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