The Three-Arched Bridge by Ismail Kadare

The Byzantine Empire, 1265-1355. The Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Turks in 1355.
The Byzantine Empire, 1265-1355. The Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Turks in 1355.

Sometimes the best stories are those that are told simply, without flash or Hollywood-style suspense.  The Three-Arched Bridge is that kind of story.  It’s told in the form of a chronicle, narrated by a medieval Christian monk named Gjon.

I, THE MONK GJON, the sonne of Gjorg Ukcama, knowynge that ther is no thynge wryttene in owre tonge about the Brigge of the Ujana e Keqe, have decided to write its story, especially when legends, false tales, and rumors of every kind continue to be woven around it, now that its construction is finished and it has even twice been sprinkled with blood, at pier and parapet.

On one level the novel is about the competition between, what are essentially, two companies.  Boats & Rafts transport the people across the river.  Roads & Bridges arrives to build a bridge to take the people over it.  The two opposing sides attempt to influence their potential customers with propaganda and espionage  – utilizing legend and local superstition.   It sounds dry and boring, yet is anything but.  After the bridge is repeatedly sabotaged, Roads & Bridges employs bards to re-work an old ballad and twist it to their purposes:  about an oath made by three brothers and of the bride of the youngest who is walled up alive within the foundations of a castle.  She is a sacrifice to prevent its walls from crumbling.

But like much of Kadare’s work, this is a story that functions on multiple levels.  The monk, Gjon, is a more complex character than he originally seems.  He comes across as deliberately naive, unwilling to grasp the implications of the information to which he is privy.  For example, it is he who discusses the old ballad with a representative of Roads & Bridges during a series of seemingly casual walks along the banks of river.  Not until it is too late does he understand the reason behind the man’s curiosity,  or discover the macabre purpose to which a folk story will be twisted.

Whenever he came to see me, he had some new explanation.  Once he told me that the youngest brother had perhaps not told his wife the secret, not out of a desire to keep the besa with his brothers but because he did not love his wife and had found a way to get rid of her.  Another time he suggested that perhaps the three brothers had colluded among themselves to kill the youngest wife, and the whole fiction that the walls demanded a sacrifice was just a way of justifying the murder.  All his interpretations of the legend were found on baseness, betrayal, and disloyalty, and whenever he left I would be annoyed with myself for having listened to him.  When he departed for the last time, he had sown the seed of doubt over not only the behavior of the three mason brothers and the two sisters-in-law but also that of the mother-in-law, who in his view certainly took part in the oath, and even that of the sacrificed bride herself.  After he had left, after slinging mud at everything, not sparing even the dead, I decided I would tell him that he was free to think what he liked, but I had no desire to hear any more of his perverted speculations.

Interspersed within the tale is news of the last gasps of the Byzantine Empire – the defensive line of Christian Europe against the Islamic Turks.  What is so brilliant is that Kadare makes this the secondary storyline, always in the background of Gjon’s narrative.  Gjon’s attention, and ours,  remain focused on  events which take place closer to home.  It’s an example of man’s tunnel vision; how history often happens without our truly understanding the significance of  events as they occur.  Because, in the end, what we know as history is only a series of incidents that have been put into perspective.

Ismail Kadare divided The Three-Arched Bridge into short chapters – most are 5 pages or less.  These bursts of information convey a sense of real time passing.  The breaks in the narrative are the storyteller editing out what he feels is irrelevant to his tale.  But, of course, everything is relevant.   The reader realizes this early on and, in my mind, that realization makes for a better book.  It’s fun to know more than the narrator; to understand that the bridge is a mere footnote in a bigger story.  One that cannot be escaped or avoided, regardless of whether we want to pay attention to it or not.

Albania

Translator:  John Hodgson
Publisher:  Arcade Publishing, New York (1997)
ISBN:  1 55970 792 5

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