cover image The File on H.

The File on H.

Ismail Kadare. Arcade Publishing, $23.95 (192pp) ISBN 978-1-55970-401-4

Controversial Albanian dissident Kadare (The Concert) takes on the big H, Homer, in this comic tale of small-town suspicions and a doomed academic venture. The time is the 1930s, and Albania is already in a state of paranoia under King Zog, with informers everywhere. Enter two Irishmen from Harvard, Bill Ross and Max Norton, who journey to Albania with a tape recorder in order to record the last genuinely oral epic singers. Their purpose, they say, is to show how Homer's epics might have been culled from a verbal tradition. But can Governor N., head of the department where Bill and Max set up shop, believe such a preposterous pretext? He puts his best spy, Dull Baxhaja, on the case. In the meantime, his wife, an Albanian Emma Bovary, dreams of an affair with one or another of these crazy scholars. The relationship between the governor and Dull Baxhaja, a veritable artist of eavesdropping, is a masterpiece of Gogolian comedy. But Kadare's chief interest (though not necessarily his readers') is in the scholars' quest. ""We're trying,"" Bill writes in his journal, ""to put ourselves inside Homer's skin to understand what kind of tyrannical power he must have had to contain such a bubbling caldron of artistic activity."" Kadare transparently questions the status and condition of his own art in this amusing parable. It is a pity that no one could be found to translate the novel from Albanian, especially given the many infelicities of Bellos's secondhand dialogue. (Feb.)