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Adem Demaçi: Gjarpinjtë e gjakut [The Snakes of the Blood]

If you have read Ismail Kadare, you will be aware that blood feuds are a key part of Albanian culture. This short novel is about just such a feud. Though set in Kosovo and written by a Kosovan author, given that it is set just before World War I, Kosovo and Albania are both part of the Ottoman empire and are not considered as separate. Indeed, part of the background of the novel is that one of the key characters in this book goes off to help the Albanians fight the Turks. (Interestingly enough, he is shown fighting the Turks but, historically at that time, the Albanians were actually fighting the Serbs. Given this book was published in 1958, when Kosovo was very much part of Yugoslavia, Demaçi had to pretend that the Kosovans’ enemies were the Turks and not the Serbs.)

The book starts with a group of boys fighting. Initially it is just words, as they insult one another. However, two of the boys – Ajet and Elez – then start to wrestle. Elez, the stranger, wins. However, while his back is turned, Ajet comes up behind him and hits him hard with a stick. Elez collapses, bleeding from the head. Gjyla, Ajet’s sister, looks after Elez, while the other boys run away. Soon after this, two men arrives – Sejdi (who is Ajet’s father) and Abaz (who is Elez’s father). Instead of being furious and vowing revenge, Abaz, once he learns that his son is not too badly hurt, puts it down to boys playing around and asks Sejdi not to punish Ajet. The two men chat, including discussions of blood feuds, and become friends.

Sejdi has other children, including Mustafa, who has gone off to fight for the Albanians, even though Sejdi has paid a fee to another man to take his place and even though he has a young, pregnant wife. We jump four years, with Mustafa returning home. In the meantime his mother has died and he has a three year old son. More importantly, Emin Malok has sent a matchmaker to Sejdi to ask for the hand of Gjyla for one of his sons. Discussions took place but no agreement was reached and, as far as Sejdi was concerned, the matter was closed. Meanwhile, Abaz has asked for Gjyla’s hand for Elez, a match the young couple both agree to. The match is accepted. However, Emin Malok, who has other grievances with remote family members of both Sejdi and Abaz, is not happy and vows his revenge.

A fair amount of the book is taken up with discussion by both families about the issues and implications. Emin Malok is determined that the honour of the family has been insulted and that Sejdi’s family must pay with blood. Some of his family are reluctant, not least because they know and have been friends with Sejdi and his family. Meanwhile, Sejdi and his family are also talking. Mustafa, in particular, is very keen for there to be peace between the two families and is prepared to go and talk to Emin Malok, with or without Sejdi. Sejdi feels that it will all blow over.

There is no doubt that Demaçi is opposed to this part of Albanian culture and tradition but he also accepts that there are or, at least at that time, were Albanians very much in favour in getting revenge for any insult to their honour and there is no doubt that Emin Malok feels that Sejdi’s rejection of his son as a husband for Sejdi’s daughter is a grievous insult. Demaçi tells the story almost as a fable, often using a formal language and while it is a fairly simple and straightforward story, it is nevertheless a fascinating insight into a culture which is alien to Westerners.

Publishing history

First published in 1958 by Jeta e Re
No English translation
Published in German as Die Schlangen des Blutes by Weimarer Schiller-Press in 1995
Translated by Isa Bulan