cover image The Three-Arched Bridge

The Three-Arched Bridge

Ismail Kadare. Arcade Publishing, $21.95 (160pp) ISBN 978-1-55970-368-0

Set in 14th-century Albania, this elliptical novel chronicles the events surrounding the construction of a bridge to illustrate the bitter history of cultural enmity in the Balkans. The book is presented as the account of a monk named Gjon, who serves the local count as a translator. Gjon is privy to much counsel and negotiations about the Ottomans (who, he feels, will turn the clock backward a thousand years on Europe) and the decision to construct the bridge. Like everything else in the novel, the bridge is shrouded in myth: one day, an epileptic has a fit by the banks of the Ujana River, and a passing fortune-teller declares his spasm ""a sign from the Almighty that a bridge should be built here, over these waters."" The construction, however, is plagued by repeated sabotage. Some blame water naiads, but the bridge-builders suspect more earthly saboteurs. One of the bridge-builders befriends Gjon and elicits from him a legend told in the region about three brothers building a wall that collapsed every night until an immurement--a human sacrifice placed within the construction--was offered to it. Creepily, this legend, disseminated through a popular ballad, provides cover for the bridge-builders when they find a suitable sacrifice for immurement. Albanian author Kadare (The Pyramid) is a terrific writer, and the fine translation does justice to his gift for ominous parable (the tale disturbingly echoes recent Balkan history, particularly the way legends can be appropriated by those willing to foment political violence). But there is something unsatisfying about the predictability of the final conflagration, which finally connects the bridge with the Ottoman threat. (Feb.)