Albanian by birth but long-time Paris resident, Ismail Kadare, born 1936, is a highly- revered novelist, both within and without the Anglophone world. Translations of his novels have appeared in more than forty countries. In 2005, Kadare was awarded the first Man Booker International Prize for `a body of work written by an author who has had a truly global impact.’
In this part of the world, he is feted by the likes of John Carey (`a master storyteller’) and by Simon Sebag Montefiore, who declares him to be ‘one of the world’s greatest living writers.’ He has at least seventeen literary works, mostly novels to his name, notably The Siege and Broken April. The latter is a compelling, highly accessible read, as good a place to start as any. In the saga-like tale, Kadare conjures an ever-present sense of menace in nineteenth century Albania, as blood-feuds multiply like a lethal virus in the close-knit mountain villages.
The novel under review (translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson) was first published in Albanian in 2008. Chronologoically, it takes the reader from Second World War-era Albania up to 2007, tracking the fateful repercussions from events occuring in the ancient city of Gjirokastër in Southern Albania. The narrative begins in 1943, as the Germans advance on the city, promising they are merely passing through and intending to respect the citizenry. The German party is fired on as they enter, which doesn’t make for a great start in terms of the fortunes of the city's inhabitants, and hostages are taken by the Nazis.
Who did the shooting, Albanian nationalist partisans or Communist agitators? And who among the locals raised the white flag? These questions remain unanswered, two early conundrums in this 171-page tale, which leaves much to the reader’s judgement and imagination. The German commander Colonel von Schwabe realises that an old college friend, known locally as Big Dr Gurameto, lives in Gjirokastër. (There is also a Little Dr Gurameto, whose symbolic function in the tale eluded this reader.)
The old college buddies greet each other warmly (it seems anyway) in the town square and the surgeon-doctor invites von Schwabe and his officers to a dinner, where champagne flows. But did they dinner ever take place at all? And what was negotiated on that night which led to the Germans promptly leaving the next day with the hostages freed? Was the so-called colonel the real von Schwabe at all? Or was he impersonated by an officer he befriended some months beforehand in a field hospital in the Ukraine, prior to his own death from war wounds?
Albania embraces state communism after the Nazi defeat, and both Gurameto doctors are arrested and tortured in 1953. Big Gurameto is suspected of being a member of the so-called “Joint”, a clandestine international organisation allegedly dedicated to the assassination of Stalin.
Gjirokastër is a real city, currently populated by 43,000 souls, but Kadare makes great play of what is essentially small-town rumour and exaggeration to add drama and intrigue. Like all of Kadare’s work, the novel looks backward to Ottoman-era Albania. The rape of a pasha’s sister and the subsequent revenge and indeed shooting of the woman by the brother is keenly remembered by the locals. (The pasha's sister presumably had brought dishonour on the family by being raped in the first place, so she was shot.)
In previous fictional works, the author has utilised similar folk tales to build his political allegories. Thus he avoided official censure during the reign of Enver Hoxha (1908-1985) leader of socialist Albania. Interestingly, Gjirokastër happens to be the birth-place of both Kadare and indeed Hoxha himself, the man who could be regarded as his long-time nemesis.
With its relentless satirical thread, phantasmagoric elements, and sardonic, teasing mood, Kadare's novel in its general tone is not unlike Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum. It reminds me also of Manuel Rivas’ more recent Books Burn Badly, a satirical novel set in the Galicia region of Spain under Franco.
In the novel, Gjirokastër is hated by the villages in its hinterland; there are Greek minorities, references to Kosovo, old enemy neighbours (the Turks) and recent enemy neighbours (the Italians.)
The story may test the reader’s ability to read Kadare properly, and he/she may finish the book with an uneasy feeling. Okay, The Fall of The Stone City has phantasmagoric elements and is not a naturalistic novel - but were you meant to understand perhaps more of Kadare’s loaded satire about 20th century Alabanian history than you managed to assimilate? Is the story of the doctor and the colonel meeting again meant to be a kind of fantasy/allegory of the relationship between Hoxha and Kadare, (given they both come from the same city?) Challenging, in a word, but probably best understood by readers who have lived under totalitarian regimes.