SPRING FLOWERS, SPRING FROST is without doubt Ismail Kadare's most ambitiously experimental novel. On one level, it is the chronological tale of a modestly successful painter named Mark Gurabardhi who lives in the Albanian town of B__ at the close of the Twentieth Century. The former Communist regime has fallen, and the springtime of a new way of life has arrived. New ways and old traditions are competing for primacy in the peoples' lives. As these changes unfold around him, Mark maintains an off again, on again relationship with a young woman who also models for him, but his life is otherwise rather empty of meaning. He works in the kind of cultural institute typical of socialist/communist states, but he has no meaningful relationships with anyone there. His lone friend, the mysterious Zef, never appears in the book, represented instead by his apartment's constantly unlit window as seen from the street.
On another level, however, Kadare presents a series of antic digressions that he labels Counter-Chapters. In one, a virginal young woman is married off by her family to a snake, although it turns out after the ceremony that the snake converts in the evenings into a handsome young husband who sheds his snakeskin for the marital bed. In another Counter-Chapter, the mythological Tantalus has stolen immortality from the gods, who hurriedly marshal their forces (including those of Death) to rein Tantalus in and ultimately punish him for the contrived and different offense of "voracity" based on an insatiable appetite. In yet another instance, Mark the painter becomes Mark the police investigator conducting an interrogation over a secret set of government files.
Kadare alternates these realities and infuses all of them with Kafkaesque characteristics and a sardonic humor about life in a dictatorial, socialist state. On one level, the end of the latest regime (presumably that of Albania's Enver Hoxha) signals limited new freedoms and even an awakening to Western Europe. Yet, at a deeper and more threatening level (as can be seen in present-day China), the removal of a heavy-handed dictatorship and police state opens the door to incipient anarchy. New values and old ways rush in to fill the void. For Kadare's Albania, the void is filled by a form of blood lust in the form of an ancient tradition called the Kanun, based on something called the Book of the Blood. Under these ancient rules, there are blood debts to be paid or exacted by one family against another by murder, but each such paid debt automatically creates a new one in its place, in the opposite direction. Kadare's protagonist inadvertently gets caught in the middle of one such debt and struggles to find a way out.
From its opening page image of two children uncovering a hibernating snake in wintertime, SPRING FLOWERS, SPRING FROST conveys an atmosphere of threat, of terrors and troubles lurking just beneath the surface of life. Kadare presents numerous references to caves, icebergs, tunnels, old chests hidden in closets, and coffins, suggesting that the most violent and anarchic of Albania's traditions lie forever dormant like hibernating snakes, waiting for the removal of authoritarian government in order to re-emerge. Yet even the most ancient and brutal of these practices must find a way to merge and meld with everything else forbidden under the former Communist Party rule, from unrestrained art to open political discussion.
In much the same vein, the author conveys a strong sense of smoldering sexuality lying dormant: the story of the virgin married to the snake/man, references to Oedipus Rex, overtly Freudian references to bush-shrouded cave entrances, and even allusions to Beatrice, Dante's guide to Paradise in the Divine Comedy. In Kadare's world, all are intertwined and all are relative, subject as much to the power of tradition as to the inscrutable power of the State. Mark Gurabardhi is as powerless to control his fate as is Kafka's Joseph K. The atmosphere is one of helplessness and abandonment. Surveying a birdless sky of motionless clouds, Mark thinks, "Things must have looked more or less like that when...the gods deserted earth. A sky bereft of its masters, a sky in mourning, stretching to infinity. Who knows why the gods left? Where in the universe did they go? Mark didn't know why, but he felt like crying."
As always with Kadare, an original and unforgettable tale of life we can hardly imagine in a place we can hardly understand.