The File on H, Paperback
4 out of 5 (1 rating)


Two Irish-American scholars from Harvard journey to Albania in the 1930s with a tape recorder (a 'new fangled' invention) 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 the local Governor believes its an elaborate spying mission and arranges for his own spy to follow them.

The two dedicated scholars realise only too late that they have stumbled over an ants' nest.

This simple tale by Albania's most eminent and gifted novelist serves to lift the veil on one of the most secret and mysterious countries of modern Europe.




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I’ve enjoyed all the Kadares that I’ve read so far. Sometimes the story isn’t what I expected from reading the synopsis, but it’s still interesting. In Broken April, I thought the book would be mainly about Gjorg, a man who had finally fulfilled tradition by murdering his brother’s killer and had a month before the family of his victim was allowed to seek his death. Instead, Kadare describes the thoughts of others who are affected by the killing. In The File on H, I though the focus would be on the attempt to prove that the two scholars are spies, but much of the book was devoted to describing the research of the two men. However, the sections analyzing the epics and their changes were very involving. Bill and Max are two Irish-American scholars who travel to Albania to record the epic poems of wandering rhapsodes in the 1930’s. The authorities believe they could possibly be spies and task the governor of N_ to watch them. While the pair becomes deeply involved in their research, they are unaware of the stir that they have caused. The governor communicates with his diligent spy and his wife fantasizes about having an affair with the men. Some of the men are disturbed by the newfangled tape recorder that the foreigners have brought with them. The stories of all of these characters are told through their own accounts and diaries as well as third person limited. Kadare based the story on a historical event, but the atmosphere of paranoia, spying and violence would be applicable to Albania under Enver Hoxha.The parts describing the epics that Bill and Max record are fascinating though their research goals are overreaching. At first, Kadare subjects them to the same satirical lens that is aimed at the provincial townspeople. Their idea initially comes from listening to a program on the radio and they rather blithely think they’ll go and quickly learn the origin of Homer’s epics. However, once there they escape the curiosity of the inhabitants of N_ and get sucked into their work recording and analyzing the epics of rhapsodes – the same story from different people and the same rhapsode’s epic over time. Kadare’s prose is generally clean and efficient but he will occasionally go off on lyrical flights and often these flights describe hypotheses about the epics. Bill (it is mainly Bill who narrates or speculates in his diary) wonders about all the changes to epic poems over time; the additions and deletions; how a poem comes to resemble a fluid living thing; how this relates to Homer’s role as the codifier of the stories in the Iliad and the Odyssey (or who he really was – a group etc); and why the epics are currently dying. This is interesting but the disappearance of the scholars into their work represents an ignorance that soon turns dangerous.The people of N_ are satirized for their provincial views - they regard the scholars, who want nothing more than to get away from them, as the biggest event in a long time and expect entertainment. The governor of N_ is shown to be in constant awe of his spy’s prose and thinks everything the scholars do is proof of their treachery. His wife is very shallow, the sort of woman depicted in the 19th century as corrupted by books. But Kadare also raises some interesting issues – the Serbian-Albanian conflict over whose epics are the originals, the whole subculture of spies, the culture of the rhapsodes.There’s a lot of head-jumping, the governor’s wife is seriously annoying and some of the symbolism (Bill’s encroaching blindness and his end) are rather obvious, but I liked this book and would recommend it.

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