This is truly an armchair traveller’s book: Robert Carver delivers a fascinating account of his time in a country that you’d never want to visit. Managing to make several journeys through Albania in the early 1990s directly after the collapse of communism and shortly before the onset of all-out anarchy, Carver reveals a country decimated by politics and in the grip of an age-old tribal law with its notion of blood feud.
This law escalates the merest slight into homicidal violence, to the extent that virtually every Albanian family has been touched by a blood feud-filled tragedy and the country itself is paralysed by a sort of auto-fear, where every individual is either in hiding or unable to do anything for fear of bringing a feud upon himself. It is a deadly absurdity that Carver brilliantly explains in far better fashion than my crude summary above. But the blood feud is at the centre of this book, because as Carver shows, it is the key tenet running through Albanian history, keeping them particularly insular as a nation and psychologically outside of Europe although geographically part of it.
Carver fully exploits his position of being one of the few to travel within modern Albania, exploring its Communist past (including the museum which has simply moved all its Communist artifacts into the back room in case they return to power one day) and the seemingly insoluble poverty left in its aftermath. It’s horrific and compelling in equal measure, the slow death of a country with problems so vast that all intervention seems doomed to be corrupted and siphoned off into ultimate impotence. Carver combines his own entertaining travelogue with deft explanations of Albanian history and attitude, illuminating his own frequent faux pas and the progressively more absurd (and indeed, dangerous) situations in which he becomes involved.
Carver’s prose rises above being a mere recitation of placenames and people – he evokes the lost beauty of Albania, the tragedy of its destruction and the ambivalence of its people with a sensibility wholly foreign to a fellow European’s. In that sense, The Accursed Mountains is like a European Heart Of Darkness – a terrifying but essential journey through the destruction, albeit self-inflicted, of a country.