Ismail Kadare is an Albanian author who came to the world’s attention when he won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005. Since then he has also won the highly prestigious 2009 Principe de Asturias de las Letras in Spain as well and his novels have been translated around the world. I’ve read three of his books, The Accident and The Siege (and The Palace of Dreams before I started this blog) and I have four more on the TBR so you can count me as an enthusiast. I was delighted when his latest novel, The Fall of the Stone City was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
What I like about Kadare’s novels is that delicious moment when ‘the penny drops’ and the allegory is revealed. For much of his writing life Kadare lived under the repressive regime of Enver Hoxha, and as the Chinese still do today, he wrote oblique parables, allegories, fables and folklore in order to critique aspects of the regime. In this novel, his own home town of Gjirokastër is used to show how Albania itself is always at risk of losing its identity to great ‘isms’: its strategic position in the south of the country is analogous to Albania’s strategic position in Europe because the town is surrounded by hostile villages. Wikipedia tells me that Albania
is bordered by Montenegro to the northwest, Kosovo (Disputed) to the northeast, Macedonia to the east and Greece to the south and southeast. It has a coast on the Adriatic Sea to the west, and on the Ionian Sea to the southwest. It is less than 72 km (45 mi) from Italy, across the Strait of Otranto which links the Adriatic Sea to the Ionian Sea.
So when we read Kadare’s whimsical explanation for the city’s sense of itself, hedged with his trademark uncertainty, we get a clear sense of what it’s like to live in a country where neighbours can’t be trusted.
The city had always had a reputation for arrogance. There were different explanations for this. Viewed in the most charitable light, its pride was an aspect of its isolation. The supporters of this theory, conscious of its obvious inadequacy, would hasten to add that ‘isolation’ in this context required some qualification. The city was surrounded by a far-reaching hinterland with which it was on poor terms and the inhabitants of this hinterland considered the city alien, if not their actual enemy. At its back to the north, among the endless mountains full of foxes and wolves, lay the rugged and apparently innumerable villages of Labëria. To the east beyond the river and its valley lay the villages of Lunxhëria, which were also irritating to the city but for the opposite reason: because of their gentleness. Then there were the Greek-minority villages stretched along both sides of the river valley to the south. The Greek peasants who worked the land as sharecroppers were treated with disdain but perhaps provoked the city even more. The subtle irritation they caused was felt more during the hours of sleep than by day, and there was no reason for it at all. The presence of these Greeks was like a temptation to sin, leading the residents of the city into prejudiced opinions against not only the Greeks, but Hellenism as a whole, the state of Greece, its politics, and even its language. (p. 10)
When the story begins, it’s 1943, World War II is raging and Italy has just capitulated. Two doctors, Big Dr Gurameto (trained in Germany) and Little Dr Gurameto (trained in Italy) are emblems of this state of flux. Because four years earlier, the event that some people called the Italian invasion, and other Albania’s unification with Italy (p. 4) has suddenly left Albania in a vacuum. Which doctor is on the winning side, and who the loser? What will happen in this vacuum? What will Albania’s ally Germany do?
Well, they arrive, with tanks etc, and all the paraphernalia of the Nazi Occupations everywhere else. Friends or foe? They drop pamphlets, promising the usual lies, and the city has the usual conflicted responses. Will they believe that the Germans come in peace? Or should they be resisted?
Astonishingly, the commander of the German forces turns out to be an old university friend of Big Dr Gurameto, and all would (probably) be well, except that some militants open fire on the advancing Germans. Fritz von Scwabe promptly takes some hostages in reprisal, and there is a tense dinner party between the two old friends to negotiate the release of the hostages. (One of them is a Jew too).
Time goes by, and the war ends, and the Communists fill the vacuum. Now totalitarianism is the foe, and the gossip that has always surrounded this strange dinner party comes to the attention of the authorities. Both the doctors are interrogated in a strange Kafkaesque scenario that also owes a debt to Gogol’s surreal fiction. Any Australian reading this novel from the safety of an island continent far away from everything, can’t help but feel intense compassion for the small countries of Europe and their travails in the 20th century when they were in no position to resist the awful isms of that period.
The Fall of the Stone City is another brilliant novel from an author whose voice is a constant reminder that we need to cherish and nurture the freedoms that we have.
I read this book as a member of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Jury. To view other reviews of this and other nominations please click here or on the IFFP graphic.
Author: Ismail Kadare
Title: The Fall of the Stone City
Translated by John Hodgson
Publisher: Canongate, 2011
Source: Personal copy, purchased from the Book Depository, $21.06