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Sunday, 16 September 2012

The Fall of the Stone City

The Fall of the Stone City

The name of the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare regularly comes up at Nobel Prize time, and he is still a good bet to win it one of these days. . . . He is seemingly incapable of writing a book that fails to be interesting. — The New York Times

I have now read three books by Ismail Kadare. The first was The Ghost Rider; the second, Chronicle in Stone. The Fall of the Stone City is the third and in many ways feels like an amalgam of these two earlier works. The first is, in essence, a detective novel. What makes it different is that the detective is investigating the appearance and actions of a dead man. A mother loses nine of her sons because of a war. She sends three messengers to her daughter who has married and is living in another country but none can get through and then one day someone who says he is Kostandin, one of the dead brothers, arrives on horseback and whisks his sister off to see their mother. On arriving back in their hometown the man drops her off but says he has business at the local church. He is never seen again and, of course, as soon as the girl enters her mother’s house she becomes aware that it couldn’t have been Kostandin since he died three years earlier. Or could it be? Chronicle in Stone focuses on a young boy growing up in Gjirokastër, a city in Albania, the city where Kadare himself grew up. So a kind of bildungsroman set during World War II.

The Fall of the Stone City is also partly set during World War II and really begins where Chronicle in Stone leaves off although the boy does not even have a cameo in this new book which is in three parts: ‘1943’, ‘1944’ and ‘1953’ although in the last few pages we jump ahead as far as 2007. A little bit of history then c/o Wikipedia:

In April 1939, Gjirokastër was occupied by Italy following the Italian invasion of Albania. In December 1940, during the Greco-Italian War, the Greek Army entered the city and stayed for a four month period before capitulating to the Germans in April 1941 and returning the city to Italian command. After the Italy's capitulation in September 1943, the city was taken by German forces, and eventually returned to Albanian control in 1944.

The post-war Communist regime developed the city as an industrial and commercial centre. It was elevated to the status of a museum town, as it was the birthplace of the Communist leader of Albania, Enver Hoxha, who had been born there in 1908.

I mention this because it’s important to realise that Gjirokastër was used to being occupied by foreign forces and had been for centuries. Its residents are therefore quite philosophical about the whole thing. They’re an odd bunch, I have to say, who delight in gossip and rumour mongering. They are also superstitious, old-fashioned and loyal to the traditions of their ancestors to a fault. When Hoxha was in power one of the things he tried to do was squash Albania’s heritage and cultural identity. A hard task indeed. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s jump back to 1943:

In the autumn of 1943 … Italy suddenly capitulated and lost her friend [Germany]. Alliances have been broken throughout history but in this case the prospects for Italy were especially grim. […] Germany’s rage was uncontrollable and German soldiers were ordered to shoot their former allies on the spot as deserters.


[B]ut what was the status of Albania? Either she had capitulated with Italy or some other interpretation was called for, and the more one tried to explain the situation, the more confused it became.

Sometimes the question was put more simply. Albania had been one of the three component parts of the now fallen empire [along with Ethiopia]. Did this mean that one third of Germany’s fury would fall on her?

The city looks to the Doctors Gurameto for answers. The frustrating thing is that “Big Dr Gurameto and Little Dr Gurameto [are] going about the city as always.” So who were these doctors? University professors? Politicians? Historians? No, just a couple of surgeons. They weren’t even related. Big Dr Gurameto had studied in Germany; Little Dr Gurameto in Italy but there exists no real enmity between the two. They get on with their jobs leaving them with precious little time to take an interest in anything else and yet the locals treat the pair like some kind of socio-political barometer which had really picked its time to malfunction; the Germans are not at the gates to the city but they’re not far off. And then something odd happens:

One morning two unknown aircraft dropped thousands of leaflets over Gjirokastër. They were in two languages, German and Albanian, and provided a full explanation. Germany was not invading, she merely wanted to pass through Albania. She was coming as a friend. Not only did Germany have no quarrel with Albania, in fact she was liberating the country from the hated Italian occupation and restoring Albania’s violated independence.

The city springs into action and starts throwing around opinions about what this all might mean and then someone really tosses a fox into the henhouse when he asks, “All right, so Germany has stated her intentions, but what stand will Albania take?”

They are still squabbling as the German army looms on the horizon each faction offering different predictions and they are still debating matters when “[o]f all these predictions, the worst came true. On the highway at the entrance to the city the German advance party was fired on. It was neither war nor appeasement, just an ambush.”

TanksThe Germans weigh up their options carefully and decide that the appropriate response would be to blow up the city. It is seen as an ignominious end. Tanks appear, move in a black, orderly file along the highway until they reach their firing positions where they commence their bombardment. And then, suddenly and inexplicably, they stop. “One of the inhabitants had apparently waved a white sheet from a rooftop, nobody could tell exactly where.” Whoever it was is never identified but the residents finally agree upon a simple explanation which reassured them that an act of neither cowardice nor treason had taken place:

The September wind had pulled a white curtain out of a window left open when the occupants of the house sought shelter in the cellar and blown it back and forth in front of the eyes of the Germans. […] Destiny itself in the form of the wind had done the necessary job.

Now this is where the book starts to get interesting and should be read with care.

The colonel in charge of the German troops is one Fritz von Schwabe, a man who happened to study with Big Dr Gurameto. He is from all accounts delighted to meet up with his former colleague and, although it takes the good doctor a few moments to recognise the man he used to know behind the scars and the Nazi uniform, the two embrace like old friends. The townsfolk hear the sound of music blaring from Gurameto’s house along with the clicking of champagne glasses and, as is in their nature, they begin to speculate as to what is going on behind those closed doors. Some of the townsfolk presume that Dr. Gurameto has betrayed them—the Nazis have taken eighty of the townsfolk prisoner and are intent on executing them in punishment for the earlier ambush—and yet, much to everyone’s surprise (especially Jakoel the Jew, one of the eighty) the Germans begin to release their prisoners. So is Big Dr Gurameto really a hero?

The day after everyone is grateful even if they are not quite sure to whom they ought to express their gratitude be it friend, foe or Destiny, but after that initial relief passes they find themselves curious about the specifics of that unforgettable mid-September night. What exactly happened?

The music of a gramophone was the first thing that seeped through. Then, slowly, and with great effort, people recalled the nightmare of the hostages. The fact that eighty people had lived through the horror of this experience, minute by minute, should have left no room for speculation or error but the hostages did not all tell the same story. Some did not want to admit that they had been hostages, perhaps fearing that in a second wave of arrests they would be told, “You, sir. This is the second time we’ve arrested you.” Other people who had not been hostages were thirsty for fame. They claimed that they had been present facing the machine guns on the city square and were so persuasive that they were believed more readily than genuine hostages.

This confusion added to the general mystery surrounding the events of the day. Out of force of habit these were called “unforgettable”, although so many deserved to be forgotten. They were recalled to mind one by one but more and more tentatively. What about the partisan ambush at the entrance to the city? God knows what really happened there. There were no eyewitness accounts and there was no physical evidence apart from two black skid marks on the asphalt, where it was thought the German motorcycles had turned back.


Obviously Gurameto’s famous dinner was the biggest mystery of all. It had started as Big Dr Gurameto’s fairy-tale reunion with his German college friend. But the rest went beyond any fairy tale.


[P]eople inevitably suggested the influence of some force majeure like the Double Night. It was as if, after lying in wait for a thousand years, this monster had finally descended to enfold forty or more hours in his arms, seizing a whole day like a wolf snatching a sheep, and had vanished again into the infinite depths of time.

Answers are not forthcoming and little by little people get on with life. Stories though are often most reluctant to die. This is where myths arise. There is such a storyteller in the city, a blind man known to all as Blind Vehip, a rhymester who, for a few coins, will produce rhymes to order “to mark occasions of every kind such as birthdays or the awards of decorations, to advertise barbers shops, or announce changes of address and opening hours. […] Occasionally, but very rarely, he would take it into his head to compose a rhyme without a commission, ‘from the heart’, as he put it.”

At the end of April he produced a verse about Big Dr Gurameto, perhaps his grimmest yet.

Gurameto, the mortal sinner
Met the devil one day on the street,
Who told him to host a great dinner
With champagne and good things to eat.


Two weeks later, Blind Vehip … produced a new version of his rhyme. Now the words made your flesh creep.

What was the doctor’s design,
Asking the corse to dine?

The archaic word “corse” [was one] that old people still used to refer to the dead.

Kadare_Ghost_Rider[4]This, of course, reminded me of the old Albanian story that Kadare based The Ghost Rider on. The blind man has no real explanation. The words came to him; that was all. He had nothing against the doctor. But simply because a man cannot see doesn’t mean he cannot possess insight.

There is a legend or a children’s bedtime story that Kadare includes early in the book.

The tale concerned the master of a house who was bound by a promise to invite a stranger to dinner. [Hospitality is as big a thing with Albanians as it was with the ancient Jews]. He handed the dinner invitation to his son with instructions. The son set out in search of an unknown passer-by but became frightened on the lonely road. Passing the cemetery, he threw the invitation over the wall and ran through the darkness, not knowing that the invitation had fallen on a grave. He returned home and said to his father, “I’ve done what you told me.” At that moment there appeared at the door the dead man with the invitation in his hand. The father and the family shrank back in horror. “You invited me and I’ve come,” said the dead man. “Don’t stare at me like that!”

What could this story have to do with anything, let alone the dream the doctor has where he is operating on himself with his own surgical instruments? All is made clear in the third part of the book. The communists are now in power and both doctors are arrested and interrogated. There is concern about the survival rate of their patients, that they are using their position to assassinate key individuals. It’s a little paranoid but typical of the kind of thing that went on during Hoxha’s time in power. (During Hoxha's time it is believed at least 100,000 were imprisoned for political reasons or for a word uttered; 5,000 were executed.) The thing is, the investigator, Shaqo Mezini, takes a particular interest in the night in 1943 ten years earlier when Big Dr Gurameto reportedly entertained a German colonel who may (or may not) have been a dead man. He even rounds up Blind Vehip and demands an explanation but, of course, he has none. Mezini becomes obsessed with getting the doctor to divulge the truth even though he maintains (and certainly seems) to be already aware of everything that transpired that night right down to minor details of private conversations that only Gurameto and the colonel could possibly have been privy to. The doctor is told that not knowing is making Stalin himself sick and answers are needed urgently to make him well again. Gradually, painfully the blanks are filled in. But have we finally got to the truth? And, if so, is there a deeper truth behind the one in the book itself? That there are allegorical elements is obvious.

While he was writing and still living in Albania there was no way Kadare felt he could be overtly dissident and so he turned to covert means. Writing in The Guardian, Julian Evans quotes Kadare:

“You risked being shot. Not condemned, but shot for a word against the regime. A single word.” […] Instead he revived old forms—parable, myth, fable, folk-tale, legend—packed them with allusion and metaphor, plundered the past. He is not a "contemporary" novelist. To read him is not to follow, as in English fiction, lives spotlit by lifestyle and current affairs, but lives snagged on the greater pendulum of history, of Balkan past and future.

Even though that time is behind him Kadare clearly still relishes the melding of myth and historical fact leaving us with a kind of truth, the kind that some readers will be uncomfortable with because not all the i’s are dotted or the t’s crossed. Most are. But not all.

Writing over at The Modern Novel – a blog, the author (who only appears to be identified by the initials ‘TMN’) talks at length about Kadare’s writing. He has read over twenty of Kadare’s novels including those only available in French at the moment (Kadare writes in Albanian and then the works are translated into French and then from the French into English). In the article TMN has this to say about Kadare’s book:

[D]espite Canongate’s The much anticipated new novel, I doubt if The Fall of the Stone City is much anticipated by all that many people.

I can understand why he might say that. Sadly he’s probably right. I’ve been dropping hints for months since I first heard it was coming out but then I suspect that both he (assuming he’s a he) and I are in the minority. And that is a shame because after an intriguing opening and an admittedly slow middle (which I was helped to appreciate by having first read Chronicle in Stone but which feels slow because we have so much hanging in midair) comes an absolute page-turner of an ending. I kid you not. Interrogations are never fun to read about but they can nevertheless make fascinating reading. The two that jump to my mind are in Nineteen Eighty-Four and David Karp’s One (a cruelly neglected classic from 1953) but how can we forget the subtle interrogation methods employed by le Carré’s Smiley in the likes of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?

This is a book that you will most likely want to reread as soon as you’ve finished it. At only 176 pages that’s not going to take you very long. I accept it’s not a book for everyone but it is, nevertheless, as The New York Times may very well say when it gets round to reviewing it, an “interesting” read.


KadareIsmail 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.

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