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Ismail Kadare: Ura me tri harqe (The Three-Arched Bridge)

Though a small book, Kadare’s novel is still fascinating and carries on with his exploration of Albanian history and legend, the two frequently intertwining in Kadare’s world. The story is set in the 14th century and is narrated by a monk. It concerns, of course, a small town, through which passes the Ujana e Keqe (Wicked Waters) river. From time immemorial, people have used a ferry to cross the river and the local bank makes its money out of financing and running the ferry and other river traffic. But times are changing. Indeed, the theme of changing times runs through the book. The main change is the arrival of the Turks, who are gradually drawing closer. We see itinerant Turks, then hear about the local count’s refusal to marry his daughter to a Turk and finally hear about the incursion of the Turks into Albania and the various Albanian dukes and princes offering fealty to the Turks. Right at the end, there is a small onslaught of Turks on the town, which is repulsed but our wise narrator knows that this is the beginning of the end.

But most of the story is about the bridge. An epileptic has a fit crossing the river and a stranger interprets the fit as a sign that a bridge should be built. He is taken at face value but the narrator later realizes that it is a set-up. A group from Durres is building a road that goes through the town and want to build the bridge. Eventually they get permission from the count and start work. The locals work on the bridge but feel it is cursed. They tell the story of the castle that had to have a human sacrifice walled in it, otherwise it would have fallen. When bits start falling off the bridge, the villagers naturally assume that the bridge is cursed and that the water sprites are the cause of the problem. The narrator suspects the bank, which is likely to lose a lot of business, but even he cannot determine how they managed to cause underwater damage.

The bridge continues to be cursed, even when the builders offer a reward for someone to be a sacrifice. Finally, a sacrifice is found. One day, a man apparently offered himself and is killed and walled in the bridge, though, at his request, his face remains visible so that he can see his children growing up. The narrator is suspicious, as the family had no financial problems, the victim himself is a very ordinary man and told no-one in advance. He suspects that he may have been caught in an act of sabotage and became an involuntary sacrifice. Of course, this makes the bridge seem more cursed and, even after it is finished, no-one will use it. Indeed, apart from a few stray animals – the first is a wolf – and a few itinerants, everyone else continues to use the ferry. But then the ferryman dies and he is not replaced and, gradually, people start using the bridge. The Turks arrive and the narrator ends his narration.

Publishing history

First published 1978 by Naim Frasheri, Tirana
First published in English 1997 by Harvill Press, London, Arcade Publishing, New York
Translated by John Hodgson