I wonder if Ismail Kadare is capable of writing a bad book. Mixing myth, allegory, history,and a kind of wry humor, he has produced an amazing genre over the years as yet unrewarded by the Nobel Prize committee, who often choose writers half as talented. If his work seems dark and somehow menacing, like a sudden view of an approaching storm, Albania's fate might have something to do with it. Emerging from centuries of Ottoman rule in 1912, this small country went through monarchy, a few years of a chaotic republic, more monarchy by a self-proclaimed king, Italian occupation, German occupation, a devastating civil war at the same time as war against the occupiers, and 47 years of Communist dictatorship, before finally being cast up unprepared on the beach of modern Europe in 1991.
Enver Hoxha, the ultimate victor in the WW II years in Albania, wrote the history of those times and you had to swallow it on pain of your life. But what really went on in that time of destruction and chaos ? Nobody inside really knows what goes on in totalitarian societies or in the time of a war involving Italians, Germans, Communists, royalists, nationalists, and even the Western allies. Everything is either confused or secret, so truth (or even a semblance of truth) disappears. Magical realist explanations of the times are as good as any---maybe they are explanations for things that have no explanation. Garcia-Marquez wrote a magnificent portrayal of dictatorship and tyranny in "The Autumn of the Patriarch"; Kadare has written a different, but equally strong book here. The Germans are about to occupy Gjirokaster (the stone city) and Albania. Two doctors in town have different takes on the event. One is closer to Germany, the other to Italy. The former gives a dinner---or does he? His old school friend from Germany turns out to be the invading commander---or does he ? Maybe he's even dead. Later, in 1953, when the Communists are in power, and Stalin is in his last days, a high powered investigation of events ten years before takes place due to the infamous "Doctors' Plot" in the USSR.. Why did the doctors act as they did ? Can we get to the bottom of this ? Can you get to the bottom of anything in history ? Does it all have to do with ghosts of the past that in Albania, as in Faulkner's Mississippi, never disappear ? Murky, full of lies, contradictions and irony, fables and propaganda, even the psychology of torturers and the tortured, this is another tour de force by one of the world's greatest living writers. Read it.
(3.5 stars) Writing of Albanian life in Gjirokaster, the city of his birth, during World War II and its aftermath, Ismail Kadare creates a novel which appears, initially, to be a simple morality tale, clear and to the point, then becomes increasingly complex and enigmatic. Kadare, constantly observed by Albania's communist officials as a beginning novelist, always had to disguise what he really wanted to say without being censored, and he created a unique style - a literary performance mixing fact and fiction, past and present, reality and dream, truth and myth, and life and death. By juggling time periods, bringing ghosts to life, repeating symbols and images, and leaving open questions about the action of a novel, he disguised the harsh truths of everyday life and the horrors of past history, a style which continues in this new book.
This novel begins in 1943, with the retreat of the Italians, who have ruled Albania since 1939, and the arrival of the Germans. As the Germans enter the city, however, someone fires on the advance team. No one is hurt, but the Germans plan reprisals: a hundred citizens are taken hostage, and the city will be blown up. Soon, however, the townspeople hear music from the home of Big Dr. Gurameto. Colonel Fritz von Schwabe, commander of the German division, is having dinner with his "great friend, from university," Big Dr. Gurameto. Shortly afterward, the city learns that the citizens held as hostages, including Jakoel the Jew, are being released, and the city will not be bombed. No one knows how this came about.
In Part II, from 1944, the German Army retreats, and the communists arrive to take their place. People, including hospital patients still under anesthesia and "stuck somewhere out of time" are arrested. Nine years later, when word arrives that Stalin is going to visit the city: Time "was not just suspended; it was going backwards at great speed." For mysterious reasons, the communists have started investigating the dinner between Big Dr. Gurameto and Col. von Schwabe from nine years before.
The novel is rife with symbols regarding the fate of the country - anesthetized patients, Big Dr. Gurameto's dreams of being operated on by himself, and Col. von Schwabe's memory of the doctor operating on him. Scars also appear in the imagery. Old stories, like folk tales, repeat, and ghosts and the dead participate in "real" life. Trying to figure out what is to be taken at face value, what may be symbolic or mythical, and what events are "real" in one place but mythical in another becomes a real challenge, and the many chronological shifts leave the author's narrative direction and purpose open to question.
Additionally, the tone of the novel is inconsistent, with Part I resembling a morality tale and Part II, a year later, beginning as a history lecture. This then shifts to an almost farcical style about the communists, before it evolves into the gruesome interrogations and tortures which dominate Part III. The author, too, may have recognized a problem of coherence since he himself enters the narrative in the concluding pages, stating "Here is what happened," then explaining some events going back to 1953. His explanation contains some surprises, but it still contains Kadare's trademark combination of fact and fiction, reality and dream, truth and myth, leaving questions about what "really" happened here. Perhaps that was the author's point.
The Stone City is Gjirokaster in Southern Albania. Albania was once under Ottoman rule; then was briefly independent; then became a part of Mussolini’s empire. Part One of the novel begins in 1943 when Italy surrendered to the Allies, and the Germans rush in to occupy the country. Part Two starts in 1944, when the Germans have withdrawn and the Stalinist Communists have taken over. Part Three starts in 1953, just before Stalin’s death.
At every stage all sorts of rumours about the situation and about the fate of the city circulate in it; and indeed under each regime life is so unpredictable that anything could happen. In Parts One and Two there are arbitrary arrests and then equally arbitrary releases. Events are related in a symbolical but bizarre and surrealistic manner, humorous on the surface but of course reflecting an atmosphere that is far from amusing.
Two of the citizens are doctors, unrelated but with the same name: Big Dr Guarameto, who had been trained in Germany, and Little Dr Guarameto, whose training had been in Italy. Big Dr Guarameto’s standing varied with the standing of Germany. When the Germans are in occupation, his position is relatively strong, especially as the German commandant was an old university friend of his, and Dr Guarameto gave a great dinner to him and his staff. When the Germans leave, his position is weakened; but then, when Germany was divided into a capitalist and a communist country, it becomes rather arbitrary with which Germany he is identified.
In Part Three, at the time of the “Doctors’ Plot” in the Soviet Union, both doctors are put under arrest while investigators, trained in Moscow, collect “evidence” that they had killed many of their patients. And that dinner Big Dr Guarameto had given to the German officer in 1943 was used in evidence against him. The interrogation of the doctor is a prolonged part of this section of the book - no longer bizarre now, but grimly representative of the knowledge that the investigators in such cases had accumulated before the questioning. As in the case of the Russian doctors, there was an attempt to link this case with a Zionist conspiracy, and Dr Guarmeto is tortured to make him sign statements which he knew were not true.
In the Soviet Union the death of Stalin led to the release and rehabilitation of the seven surviving Jewish doctors who had been arrested in connection with the “Plot”. Kadare’s novel does not end in a similar way.
I did not find this one of Kadare’s better novels. These often have surrealistic elements, but in this book I found the admixture less successful than in some others, inconsistent and somewhat off-putting.
Albania is overpowered and tossed around between predators ; first Italy, then Nazi Germany, then the Soviet Union. Its ancient city Gjirokastër represents historic cultural traditions of honour and virtue, but its population squirms and vacillates under the successive invaders' threats. Enver Hoxha and Ismail Kadare both come from Gjirokastër, but represent diametrically opposite persona, the first to become Albania's ruthless Stalinist dictator, and Kadare his literary critic. Reminiscent of Mikhail Bulgakov's taunting of Stalin, and of Franz Kafka's depiction of the totalitarian state, Kadare mocks the control and inquisitions of the communist state. Like K in Kafka, and the artist in Bulgakov, Kadare's story's victim, the elderly doctor Gurameto, though cruelly manipulated and tortured, remains noble and fearless under the thuggish regimes, a model of moral resistance which they cannot eradicate.
Geoff Crocker Editor 'Atheist Spirituality' web site
Robert Taylor Brewer
Gjirokaster is a strange and beguiling city in southern Albania. The walk up the hill into the main section of town is a test of endurance, as though the city demands to know if you are up to the task of meeting on terms that it sets. A small boy waved at me, beckoning. I was too suspicious to follow, and realized later he would have taken me to a house where, for a few dollars, a local couple would have given me lodging. I slept instead at a hostel, greeted that night by an uproarious crowd of students on an all night bender. The next day, I looked for the boy, but he'd long since vanished into the stone buildings.
Gjirokaster, Ismail Kadare's hometown, is the main character in his latest book, The Fall Of The Stone City. His ability to probe and elicit interest from the smallest detail of city life makes this book another gem in Kadare's literary body of work. John Hodgson is once again the translator, and as with The Accident, the prose is crystal clear, if more stylized than in The Accident's freewheeling international environment that featured the demise of the book's two main characters. Here, the pace is more methodical but no less intriguing because Kadare's sentences are as winding as the city's streets. Its residents offer up their views and form a collective conscience in advance of the German army that is beginning to enter the ancient town. Will it be spared or destroyed?
A central theme in Kadare's work - one we've seen in his non-fiction memoir From One December To Another and in his fiction - is to live a normal life. He believes Albanians defeated dictatorship this way - women went on being well dressed and beautiful, men read newspapers in cafes, teenagers craved Beatles music when it came out, and all of these things eventually conspired to take down the regime. This theme surfaces in his present work, and on page 21 we get: "Dr.Gurameto's intention was to cock a snook at the Germans: 'You think you've frightened us and brought us to our knees? Nothing of the sort! Look, in front of your very nose, my daughter's getting engaged."
Dark intrigue, conspiracies, plots and sub-plots are a staple of Ismail Kadare fiction, whether it be Cello Nallbani declaring his secret name in this book, or strangers gathering before the hearth at the Inn Of The Two Roberts in The Three Arched Bridge. The humor of Nalbani's circumstances (none of the book's WWII era anti-German conspirators have names, only nicknames) recalls the levity of Kadare's 1981 farce The File On H. It's all transmongrified here into the Doctrine of the Three No's: Imperialism, Zionism and Coca Cola. Out of one small episode of defiance toward the German army, Kadare spins this weirdly lurid and tragicomic tale of people who don't take themselves too seriously even during the horror of war. Chronicle In Stone was a serious book overall; written when the author was much closer to war's brutality. With time and distance, Kadare's memory is still sharp, capable of razor's edge satire as when hospital room patients are put under anesthesia during the German occupation then wake up during the communist takeover having to adjust to regime change. It all adds up to a catalog of fatalistic poetry descending into mayhem and madness that could only have been written by someone who himself has gone through interrogation - an interrogation which made Ismail Kadare, in 1975, nearly leap from a window.