Both Ismail Kadare’s ‘Broken April’ and Naguib Mahfouz’s ‘The Thief and the Dogs’ have two different protagonists whose similar quest for revenge leads to their deaths. Both stories revolve around revenge and the choices made by the protagonists to extract this revenge. For Gjorg, the law makes revenge a legal compulsion with the only other option being alienation and death, whereas for Said, revenge is his chosen path. Both, placed in similar situations, react very differently. The question is whether they had the freedom of choice to prevent the inevitable finality.
Gjorg Berisha, the central character in Broken April, is a captive. He is forced to follow an age-old Law, more like a tradition, which he constantly questions. The ‘Kanun1’, or governing law, states that if two families begin a feud, they must continue until one of them is completely wiped out, or until they come to a settlement. Gjorg kills Zef, not out of hatred for him, but due to the compulsion that society has imposed upon him.
‘What am I doing? ‘ ‘Why am I doing this? 2’ These questions are evidence of the fact that Gjorg questions his choice from the very beginning, one that has been thrust upon him by society.
Once he has taken the ‘revenge’, he knows that he is doomed and has only one month until his ‘Bessa3’ runs out and he must die. Gjorg relegates this thought to the back of his mind and clings to ‘his own unfinished April4’ He must pay off the ‘blood tax5’ and he journeys to the Kulla6 of Orosh to do so.
In the process of paying the tax, he encounters a choice of paths to be walked, although they might lead to the same destination. Said Mahran, the protagonist of The Thief and the Dogs, has made his own choices. He is not forced to take his chosen path, as in the case of Gjorg. He is an ex-thief who was betrayed by his own minions.
He has just been released and has two choices – first, to forget his past and start his life afresh, and the other, to avenge himself against people who had betrayed him. In a fit of anger, he decides that he ‘must pull together all the cunning he possesses to culminate in a blow as powerful as his endurance behind prison walls,7’ Said chooses the latter. An extremely hot-headed character, Said takes impromptu decisions, whereas Gjorg’s every move is calculated and planned. Said decides to make a life attempt at his first archenemy, Ilish Sidra, only a couple of days after he has been released.
A rash decision. Another step towards his downfall. Gjorg knows what he must do and precisely when. For instance, he decides to pay the ‘blood tax’ and then keep moving till the end of his ‘bessa’ when the Kryeqyqes will be onto him like wolves. This was a sensible plan since he knew that any other decision would not only have resulted in his death, but getting away might also have give him additional time. His decision to move on was confirmed from the moment he saw Diana and became obsessed with the thought of finding her.
This fascination was mutual; for both of them it exemplified a life so different from their own, so alien, that they needed to find out more about it. Unlike Said, although Gjorg was preoccupied with thoughts of finding and meeting Diana again, he was sure of his actions. Compared to him, Said takes his decisions in fits of anger. Said reads Rauf Ilwan’s column in the Al-Zahra, and expects that Rauf’s assistance, since he had been his old friend and mentor. He decides to pay Rauf a visit. While talking to Rauf, although Said is impressed by his wealth and power, he realises that Rauf has changed.
‘The feeling was unaccountable, like the whispered premonition of some still undiagnosed cancerous growth, but he trusted it, relying on instinct. This man after all, may have felt obliged to welcome him, having actually changed so much that only a shadow of his former self remained8. ‘ Said senses that he is knocking at he wrong door. Rauf is not the same anymore. He decides immediately that, ‘What if Rauf should have proved to have betrayed those ideas? He would then have to pay dearly for it. On that score there was not the slightest doubt.
9’ Said decides that Rauf is just another person who has betrayed him, and he must pay for it. It is easy to fathom Said’s thought process. All who was dear to him have already turned their backs on him, including, his daughter Sana. At this time, Said can think of nothing but vengeance on all those who have betrayed his trust. He decides to begin by ‘relieving’ Rauf of a few of his worldly possessions. He goes back that night to burgle Rauf’s house, only to find Rauf expecting him there. Rauf’s words ring true when he said, ‘Your envy and arrogance were aroused, so you rushed in headlong as always, like a madman.
10’ His words simply emphasise that Said has always been like that – foolishly spontaneous, although this time Said’s anger was grounded in a strong sense of betrayal and deceit. Gjorg, on reaching the Kulla of Orosh, meets other men who are there to pay the blood tax as well. He converses with them and little by little their stories begin unfolding; these stories bring questions. ‘What will you do with your thirty-day truce? What will I do? Gjorg wondered. Nothing. 11’ Gjorg is still undecided about his course of action. He decides to non-committally take each decision as it comes his way.
On this note, we can see that Said is the complete opposite of his counterpart. He does not judge situations and this only adds to his troubles. Persons in the same position as Said and Gjorg cannot afford to think about the future. Gjorg has thirty days to live free, while Said has just been set free, only to realise that everyone is against him, he stands alienated. Said only wants victory. No planning, only decisions. ‘To kill them both — Nabawiyya and Ilish — at the same time would be a triumph. Even better would be to settle with Rauf Ilwan, too12’ Said is hell-bent on fulfilling his revenge.
It slowly becomes the sole purpose of his life. Later on, when he is being hunted by the police, and Ilish Sidra has escaped without a trace, he wants to salvage his ego by turning all his forces on Rauf Ilwan. ‘Rauf, the only hope I have is in you, that you won’t make me lose my life in vain. 13’ This is proof of the fact that Said knows that he is going to eventually be hunted down and caught or killed, and he feels that only revenge will redeem his life’s worth. When Gjorg sees Diana for the first time, ‘Diana’s face, slightly tinged with blue by the glass, was framed in the window of the coach.
14’ There it remained, framed in Gjorg’s mind. From that moment on, every choice and decision that Gjorg had to make was towards finding Diana again. Diana too felt a strange connection with Gjorg. It was not the love that she had for her husband Bessian, but something inexplicable. ‘Gjorg. She said the name to herself and she felt that an emptiness was spreading inside her chest. Something was coming apart painfully there, but there was a certain sweetness in it. 15’ Love. That is what Nur felt for Said. Said did not return the sentiment. He held on to his past like a protective blanket.
Why did he spurn Nur’s love earlier? Because he had Nabawiyya. Why did he ignore Nur’s love now? A conceited man, Said could not forget what Nabawiyya had done to him and move on. ‘Why can’t you stop brooding over your wounded pride and enjoy her? 16’ This is probably one major mistake made by Said. It is possible that life with Nur would have helped him erase his painful past and live without hurt, but he yearned for the unattainable – Ilish, Nabawiyya, and Rauf. While Gjorg was certain of his fate at the end of his bessa, Said believed that he’d ‘get away all right17’.
This was the one major difference between these two men. The only occasion on which Gjorg made a fatal error was when his obsession with finding Diana finally drove him out of the ‘safe zone’ to his death. Said, on the other hand, made one miscalculation after the other right unto his final decision to attack Rauf and then leave Nur’s house, only to go to his death. Obviously, Gjorg could not have changed his fate because the law controlled it, unless he decided to stay in the safe zone or in a tower of refuge, but freedom was important to him.
Said could have easily avoided death if only he had used the opportunities before him to erase his past and start afresh. He chose not to, and suffered the consequences.