Ismail Kadare: Qorrfermani (Le Firman aveugle) [The Blind Firman]
The novel is set in an unnamed country which is clearly Albania, while under Ottoman rule. There have been a few issues in the country recently – a young hajji who had just chanted his first call to prayer fell down the stairs of the minaret, the Crown Prince became suddenly ill and the carriage of the English ambassador, who was on his way to the palace with news of an urgent loan for the country, suddenly turned over. All these were clearly caused by someone giving the evil eye. Someone was suspected but he escaped. But clearly something had to be done. A commission was set up, with the two rival clans having differing views. One wanted a very strict approach, i.e. death, the other a more humane approach, such as deportation or isolation on a remote island. In the end, a compromise was reached. All those who voluntarily confessed to having the evil eye would have their eyes put out (there was a choice of five methods from the more brutal approach, such as acid or steel pins, to the less brutal, being blindfolded for three months). They would be given a state pension to live on. Those who were found out but had not confessed would still lose their eyes but would have no choice about the method and no pension. A new authority would be set up to manage this.
Once this system has been put in place, we meet a well-to-do family, related to the famous Köprülü. Alex Aru is the father but we meet the family through his daughter-in-law (whose name we do not learn). She is somewhat mystified by her new family, not least because they are a mixture of Christian and Muslim. Her sister-in-law, Marie, is engaged to a man called Djeladin. The sister-in-law spies on Marie and is surprised to find her trying on some sexy underwear and she realises (correctly) that Marie has been having sex with her fiancée. We follow the development of the new law through the family, in part because Djeladin, a civil servant, has been appointed to the commission dealing with the matter. His commission deals both with individual cases as well as overall policy. The family are glad because one of the main concerns has been that anyone could be accused of having the evil eye and, with a family member on the commission, they are relatively safe. Indeed, the issue of how someone is identified as having the evil eye is discussed at the family dinner table (to Alex’s annoyance, who does not like such discussion).
Much of the book describes, in Kadare’s matter of fact way, how the law is applied and the reactions to it. Some people actually volunteer to have their eyes put out, to help the state. Others worry about whether they could be affected. Anonymous letters are accepted and it is felt that people will send letters about people they dislike. And what about the high and mighty, not least certain officials who are suspected of having an evil eye? Kadare tells it very well, following the absurd logic of the whole procedure and describing the bureaucratic procedures as well as the consequences. Special courses are set up at medical schools in what is called disoculation. A poet states that, with the reduction in the number of sighted people, the world will lose it sight. (He is warned about making such comments.)
Inevitably, there is both something of a backlash and a problem for our family. However, Kadare does it all tongue-in-cheek, particularly with the concluding remark by the French ambassador who says there has been a benefit – an increase in the amount of oral poetry produced! Given how short this story is, I wonder why it has not been published in English, though it is available in Spanish.
First published 1999 by Onufri, Tirana
No English translation
Published in French as Le firman aveugle by Fayard in 1993
Published in Spanish as El firmán de la ceguera by Anaya & Mario Muchnik in 1994