I could not understand how people could not like something as beautiful as the aerodrome. But I had lately become convinced that in general people were pretty boring. ― Ismail Kadare, Chronicle in Stone
Childhood is a wonderful place, part battleground, part playground. It is like a parallel universe that occupies the same time and space as the adult world and yet exists independently to it. Childhood is a popular subject for writers particularly their own childhoods. Of course it helps to have lived through interesting times. When I look back to me growing up in the sixties or, to be more accurate, when I look back at what the history books tell me was happening during the sixties, it’s clear I lived through some most interesting times, but most of what was going on in the world passed me by. If it didn’t happen in my street then it might as well have not been happening at all; I was the centre of the universe after all.
Thousands upon thousands of children grew up during the Second World War and many have written about their experiences. Two that jump to mind are John Boorman’s script for Hope and Glory and Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard which, of course, was also turned into a film. They present very different accounts of the war, the first set in England, the second in Shanghai. Ismail Kadare’s early semi-autobiographical novel, Chronicle in Stone, presents a different snapshot again, set this time in Albania but childhood is still childhood the world over.
The child in question here is a young boy from the museum-city of Gjirokastër which is where Kadare was born; in his case, in January 1936. It is an old city. The city's walls date from the 3rd century AD; the Citadel, which features in the novel, was built from the 6th to the 12th century which means that the house Kadare was brought up in, which was built in 1677, is positively modern by comparison:
Typical houses consist of a tall stone block structure which can be up to five stories high. There are external and internal staircases that surround the house. It is thought that such design stems from fortified country houses typical in southern Albania. The lower storey of the building contains a cistern and the stable. The upper storey is composed of a guest room and a family room containing a fireplace. Further upper stories are to accommodate extended families and are connected by internal stairs.
Many houses in Gjirokastër have a distinctive local style that has earned the city the nickname "City of Stone", because most of the old houses have roofs covered with stones. – Wikipedia
Albania is not, however, a new country. It was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in 1418, as part of the Rumelia province, and it remained peacefully under Ottoman control until 1870 when the Albanian National Awakening, as it came to be known, took place followed by several years of bloodshed until, in 1912, the first independent Albanian state was declared. The only other book I’ve read by Kadare is his retelling of The Ghost Rider and one of the things that struck me when I researched my article on it was how passionately nationalistic the Albanians were. I didn’t get the same feeling from this book, presumably because we have a child as a narrator; at one point he doesn’t even seem aware that his country is called Albania which is odd because the boy clearly knows his countries and there is a lovely scene early in the book where the way Kadare sets it up you’re not sure if this isn’t the gods haggling over control of the world:
“OK, you can have France and Canada, but give me Luxembourg.”
“You’re kidding! You really want Luxembourg?”
“If it’s all right with you.”
“Well, give me Abyssinia for two Polands, and we could do a deal.”
“No, not Abyssinia. Take France and Canada for two Polands.”
“All right, then, give me back the India I gave you yesterday for Venezuela.”
“India? Here, it’s yours. What do you want with India anyway? To tell you the truth, I changed my mind about it last night.”
“Did you change your mind about Turkey, too, by any chance?”
“I sold Turkey already. Otherwise, I’d give it back to you.”
“In that case you don’t get the Germany I promised you yesterday. I’d rather tear it up.”
“Big deal. You think I care?”
We had been haggling for an hour, sitting in the middle of the street trading stamps. We were still arguing when Javer came by. He said, “Still carving up the world, I see.”
You would think nothing of this scene but the irony comes when you realise that this is taking place in 1940 in a city under the control of the Italian military, not that they stay in charge for terribly long. Over the course of the book – which covers about four years – the city changes hands numerous times: first the Greeks, then the Italians again, then the Greeks, then the Italians and this swapping back and forth lasts until Italy capitulates to the Allies in September 1943, whereupon the Germans troops march into the country. Gjirokastër with its castle was an important strategic target which is why over the past few years it had been regularly bombed by the aircraft belonging to whoever wasn’t currently occupying the city.
For the young narrator his city is alive; it has a personality and moods. At one point, late in the book, he writes:
At dusk the city, which through the centuries had appeared on maps as a possession of the Romans, the Normans, the Byzantines, the Turks, the Greeks and the Italians, now watched darkness fall as a part of the German empire. Utterly exhausted, dazed by the battle, it showed no sign of life.
It does not die though. In the single-page chapter which completes the novel we hear from the boy who has returned as an adult:
A very long time later I came back to the grey immemorial city. My feet timidly trod the spine of its stone-paved streets. They bore me up. You recognised me, you stones.
My streets, my cistern. My old house. Its beams, floorboards and staircase creaked slightly, almost imperceptibly, with a dry, uniform, almost constant cracking sound. What’s wrong? Where does it hurt? It seemed to be complaining of aches in its bones, in its centuries-old joints.
[A]t street corners, where walls join, I thought I could see some familiar features, like outlines of human faces, the shadows of cheekbones and eyebrows. They are really there, caught in stone for all time, along with the marks left by earthquakes, winters and scourges wrought by men.
Who is it he thinks he sees? Grandmother Selfixhe, Xhexho, Aunt Xhemo, Mane Voco, Nazo, frail Kako Pino with her persistent war cry, “It’s the end of the world,” Llukan, the Jailbird – never long out of prison and, more often than not, glad to be back there and others like Ҫeҫo Kailil’s daughter who grew a beard, now, all now gone; the humans have gone, but their humanity remains. These are his family – family is important to him, central to his life – his neighbours, who are also a constant feature in this tight knit community, and his friends with whom he trades stamps and plans the kind of mischief that boys of all nationalities get up to.
Children view the world differently from adults, partly due to lack of experience, often due to lack of information: if only adults would speak up. There is a wonderful scene at the end of the film Hope and Glory where, Bill, the nine-year-old protagonist arrives at his school to discover that all classes have been cancelled because the school has been damaged in the Blitz, whereupon the boy joyously cries to the sky, “Thank you, Hitler.” To him and his peers, the Blitz is exciting, even fun, as they collect shrapnel, play with live ammo, and muck about on bombsites. And although he’s living under almost constant enemy occupation, the young narrator – we never find out his exact age – acts in much the same way: where his knowledge and experience fail him, his imagination does not:
A neighbour is seen as Lady Macbeth, whereas a cabbage in the market takes the form of a severed head. Passing troops become Crusaders until the lad and his friends grow up to join a band of partisans, and the world of childhood fantasy gives way to that of our often savage maturity. – Robert Elsie, Albanian Literature: A Short History, p.171
In a recent article in The Daily Beast Kadare recalls his most recent visit to his hometown:
My most recent visit was a year ago. I went to see my old house, on a narrow street known as “Lunatics’ Lane.” Surely only a city with a sense of itself as superior could give such a name to one of its own streets. A house on the other side once belonged to the former dictator of Albania. As I walked along the lane, I saw an aged sculptor. He called out to me from a distance: “This street has produced three famous lunatics. Two of them, the dictator [Enver Hoxha]and you, left long ago. I’m the third, and I really am mad. I stayed here. And I’m proud of it.”
The old sculptor would have fit well in the pages of Chronicle in Stone; few of the characters contained therein are mad but some are exceedingly eccentric like the inventor, Dino Ҫiҫo, who is trying to design an aeroplane which will be powered by some kind of perpetual motion device and who, when the people are fleeing the city as the German army approaches, insists on carrying his model prototype on his back in case it falls into enemy hands; white, wooden, about the size of a man, the image of Jesus trudging up the hill to Golgotha is a hard one to avoid thinking about.
This is a simple and intimate novel more about childhood than the history that was unfolding around the boy in question.
Early on in the book the Italians build an aerodrome and as the planes arrive, these fire the boy’s imagination in much the same way that Jim in Empire of the Sun becomes obsessed with them:
Jim felt feverish, but he watched the Japanese planes overhead. The sound of their engines cleared his mind. Whenever his spirits flagged or he felt sorry for himself he thought of the silver aircraft he had seen at the detention centre. – Empire of the Sun
This is what our young Albanian has to say on the subject of the new aerodrome:
I was bewitched. … I knew everything that went on there. I could tell the difference between the heavy bombers and the light, and between the bombers and the fighters. Every morning I counted the planes, and watched the take-offs, flights and landings. I soon figured out that the bombers never went up by themselves, but were always escorted by fighters. I had given names to some planes that stood out from the rest, and I had some favourites. Whenever I saw some bomber take off with its fighter escort and disappear into the depths of the valley to the south, where they said the war was going on, I kept careful track and waited for it to come back. I worried when one of my favourites was late, and was filled with joy when I heard the humming of engines in the valley announcing its return. Some never came back. I would be sorry for a while, but eventually forgot about it.
But he is spellbound by one plane in particular:
I forgot all about its colleagues, which looked dwarfed beside it, and welcomed it warmly. Earth and sky together could not have sent me a more beautiful gift than this gigantic plane. It became my best friend. It was my very own flying and roaring machine that put death at my command.
I thought about it all the time. I felt proud to see it take off with a rumble that shook the world and that it alone could make, and to watch it turn slowly south. […] It always seemed to me that it stayed too long down there in the south. I thought I could hear it breathe heavily on its return. It seemed exhausted. At times like that I would wish it would never fly south again where they were fighting. The others are younger, let them go, I thought. The big one needed some rest.
The giant plane may well have become his best friend, but it wasn’t his first love. This task fell to a woman by the name of Margarita, a lodger in his grandfather’s house who gives him a little attention and thats all a boy his age needs. He tells his friend Ilir about her:
“At Grandfather’s, there’s now a beautiful married woman,” I told him.
He wasn’t impressed and didn’t answer. A little later I mentioned Margarita to him again. Again he showed no interest, and only asked me, “Does she have pink cheeks?”
“Yes,” I answered, somewhat perplexed. “Pink.”
The third time he broaches the subject Ilir tells him that the night previous he’d stolen his mother’s garters to make into a slingshot and wonders if our narrator will keep hold of them for a few days in case she finds them. Clearly Ilir hasn’t reached a point where the sight of a woman’s garter sparks off anything deeper than considering its functionality as part of homemade weaponry. He has only just discovered that “the world is round like a melon” – any kind of appreciation for womankind is still a while off. The matter of Margarita does not crop up as a subject for conversation again.
On his next trip to visit his grandparents the boy cannot hide his real interest:
“Where’s Margarita?” I asked Grandma, who was kneading dough for bread rolls.
“What do you want with Margarita?” she asked. “You’d do better to start by asking how Grandfather is, or your aunts and uncles, instead of starting right out with ‘Where’s Margarita?’”
The old woman is perceptive though. She can see he has a crush but holds back from teasing him about it. Later that day when Margarita hasn’t appeared he goes into the attic to try and spy on her – only to see if she’s there – and is rewarded with the sight of his first naked woman fresh from her bath. His infatuation with her doesn’t last too long though. He’s not caught, rather she is; stealing, and shortly after this bit of innocent voyeurism he arrives to discover she has been asked to leave.
This leaves a gaping hole in his life but not for long. Suzana, the daughter of his grandfather’s only neighbour, who he has known for years, steps in to fill the gap, but before their pubescent romance can find its feet, her mother discovers them and that puts an end to that. No more women for the boy; just relatives, nuns, prostitutes and crones, especially old crones like Granny Neslihan who, following one terrible night of bombing that left sixty-two dead, is found in the rubble, buried up to her waist:
She didn’t understand what had happened to her. Waving her long arms in the air she cried, “Who killed me?” She was 142 years old. And blind.
Others are also as old and many have never left their homes in decades, Not so the katenxhikas [“the mothers-in-law”] flooding down the streets and alleys running up and down the streets, their black scarves fluttering behind them, as they spread their own unique mixtures of news: “out of breath and full of gossip.” You know that times are bad when they appear en masse like this. It is with their arrival that we see the first appearance of another far more important character in the boy’s life, the writer within:
A cold, dry wind blew steadily down from the mountain passes to the north. I listened to its uniform howl, and for some reason the expression “words are gone with the wind” went round and round in my head. Something strange was happening to me lately. Everyday words or expressions, things I had heard dozen of times, were suddenly taking on new meanings in my mind. The words were casting off their usual idiomatic sense. Expressions made up of two or three words would painfully fall apart. If I heard someone say, “My head is boiling,” despite myself I couldn’t help imagining a head boiling like a pot of beans. Words have a certain force in their normal state. But now, as they began to shear and crack up, they acquired amazing energy. I was afraid they would explode.
I had entered the kingdom of words, where a merciless tyranny reigned. […] The world was falling apart before my very eyes. Surely that was what Kako Pino meant when she said, as she never stopped saying, “It’s the end of the world.”
There is much more I could talk about: his visit to the slaughterhouse; the defeated troops filing though the city begging for bread; the young lover who searches the cities cellars looking for his Eurydice; the anti-aircraft gun that seemed incapable of even winging a single enemy plane; the statue that got shot and the return of the giant plane, only as aggressor this time. I wonder a little about where Kadare chose to end this narrative, because it doesn’t really end; he simply decides on a point to stop and that’s where he stops, tagging on the single short chapter, almost as an afterthought, showing him as an adult.
I have to say I enjoyed this book. I’m not someone who gets especially nostalgic about his own childhood but I do find the subject of loss of innocence a captivating one. Innocence is like this odd little creature that scrabbles around trying to make sense of its environment before it becomes aware and disillusioned. Kadare never takes it that far here. Even when the narrator as an adult is introduced you still feel that they boy who scampered around that magical city and called, “A-oo,” into the cistern waiting on it calling back, however reluctantly, is still there inside him. There are things that happen to the people around the boy that upset him – he sees dead bodies but I don’t think he actually witnesses anyone being killed – and these affect him but he still clings onto who he sees himself to be, even though he cannot not change. I think had he been even three years older when the occupation started, the book might have had a very different tone.
As I’ve said already this is the second book by Kadare I’ve read but I’m not sure I’ve read the best of him yet; the man has been nominated for the Nobel Prize fifteen times for Christ’s sake. The Ghost Rider was a retelling of another’s tale and this is essentially a memoir, albeit a fictionalised, entertaining and well-written one. I must look out for something else by him, perhaps Agamemnon’s Daughter; in his article in The New Yorker James Wood, who, incidentally, wrote the introduction to the Canongate edition of Chronicle of Stone I’ve just read, suggests that as his greatest achievement. Plus, it’s a novella – always a selling point as far as I’m concerned.
You can sample the book here. This is not the Canongate edition but the translation is the same.
Ismail Kadare was born in 1936 in Gjirokastër, in the south of Albania. He studied in Tirana and Moscow, returning to Albania in 1960 after the country broke ties with the Soviet Union. He is known for his novels, although he was first noticed for his poetry collections. He stopped writing poems in the 1960s and focused on short stories until the publication of his first novel, The General of the Dead Army. From 1963 he has been a novelist. In 1996 he became a lifetime member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences of France. In 1992, he was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca; in 2005, he won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize and in 2009 the Prince of Asturias Award of Arts. He has divided his time between Albania and France since 1990. He began writing very young, in the mid 1950s but published only a few poems. His works have been published in about thirty languages.