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The H stands for Homer,
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This review is from: The File On H.: A Novel (Hardcover)
H for Homer
First published in Albanian as Dosjha H in 1981, this book has worked its way towards a wider reading public. The French version Le dossier en H came in 1989. The English version The File on H was published in 1997. This reader first read this novel in the Norwegian translation of 1992 as H for Homer. One might wonder if the Norwegian title might not arouse the curiosity of a wider public, as of this reviewer, for its direct reference to the most celebrated name in epic poetry in the West.
Two Irish folklorists decide to go to Albania, from their university in New York, to find answers to general issues of Homeric research. The are urged by a new invention, the tape recorder, to promote a theory on oral transmission and Homeric poetry through interviewing rhapsodes - reciters of epic poems - who still perform in the remote areas of this closed country. The diplomatic covering note that goes with their visa applications reads `folkorists', then `alleged folklorists', followed by `one cannot rule out the possibility that the two visitors are spies'. By the time the bag reaches its destination the minister of the interior has written `apparently these visitors are spies', with the instruction that they shall be observed `with the greatest discretion'. Such is the preparation for two tired young scholars, equipped with an outdated knowledge of the language, latest fashion in folkloristic research in their luggage, `heavier than lead', on their arrival to study among rhapsodes who carry on their ancient art, maybe in unbroken lines since Homeric times.
The governor is prepared. He invites the scholars to an evening party while their notebooks are copied and the governor's selected spy, Dull Baxhaja, makes himself comfortable among the attic beams above their hotel-room. So the stage is set for this spy novel from a Balkan core area of control, surveillance and fear. Uncomfortably conversing, the scholars politely surprise the locals with old-fashioned phrases like `verily, verily', and by introducing themselves to the novel's single important female character, the governor's wife with: `Fair lady, to thee I bow, thy servant'.
In their quarters, the scholars innocently discuss Homer and oral transmission theory, while every step they take is monitored and hilariously misinterpreted. With walls plastered with `epic zone' maps, they denote, record and listen with their monstrous tape recorder in the centre; enough to arouse suspicions, and wonder among officials, locals and surviving rhapsodes alike.
This novel is funny. It caters to many special interests as a spy novel, as an introduction to enclosed and secretive Albania, as an opening to folkloristic methodology and Homeric issues, but above all as entertainment, just for fun.
The matter of transmission might rightly be raised to a level beyond that of rhapsodes. Dealing with a book written in Albanian, translated into French then from French into English, the reader may feel that he or she is at the end of a game of Chinese whisper, wondering what Ismail Kadare really wrote in the first place.