(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.