In the remote mountains of Albania, communities live by the ancient rule of the Kanun, a code of conduct that governs every aspect of their lives. The most important part of the Kanun is the rules for blood feuding, which is an integral part of mountain life. Such feuds can endure for centuries and affect every aspect of the community. At the beginning of this novel, Gyorg is lying in wait to kill the man who killed his brother, in accordance with the dictates of the blood feud. But once he kills the man, his own life will be forfeit after a 30-day truce. Now living under a sentence of death, Gyorg travels throughout the countryside musing on the Kanun, fate, and his own impending death. Meanwhile, newlyweds Bessian and Diana have (unconventionally) decided to honeymoon in the wild Albanian mountains, to learn more about this harsh, rule-governed way of life. But while they start out as tourists, their exposure to the rules of the Kanun eventually changes them both in unexpected ways.
This is a very slow-paced, meditative novel that focuses entirely on the Kanun and the different characters’ responses to it. The visitors, especially Bessian, simultaneously romanticize the practice of blood feuding and regard it as a quaint, outdated custom. Gyorg, whose life is more directly affected, wishes he could somehow survive but views the Kanun as inevitable and unchangeable. I liked how Kadare shows the custom from these varying perspectives, so that the reader gets a fuller picture of what it actually means for the people involved. Something else I found particularly fascinating is that the novel is set between the two World Wars, when Albania was a monarchy, but Kadare wrote it in the 1970s, when the country was under Soviet control. So perhaps his exploration of the Kanun is indirectly a critical examination of a different set of harsh, all-encompassing laws. All in all, I found this book a very interesting window into a foreign (to me) culture, and I’d recommend it to people who find the premise interesting.