Ismail Kadare is Albania’s best know poet and novelist – indeed, the only Albanian novelist whose work I have read so far as I am aware, and the only Albanian novelist who I could name if called on to do so in an imaginary crisis where only the name of an Albanian novelist could save the day (the final question on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”, perhaps). He is also generally held to be one of the great living writers, and was awarded the inaugral Man Booker International Prize in 2005. I remember enjoying the last novel of his which I read (The Siege) so I was initially attracted to The Fall of the Stone City by its title and the possibility that it might turn out to address similar territory. It turns out, however, to be a very different sort of book.
The Fall of the Stone City is close to a novella rather than a full novel, 168 pages of fairly generously spaced and sized type, and is by no means a strenuous read. The language is relatively simple (once you get to grip with the names), the characters few and the storyline linear. The overall impression which I take away is of a slightly ponderous and heavy handed story, some of which may be allegory and a significant part of which may sadly have passed me by due to my rather cursory knowledge of Albanian history.
The key event of the novel is the advance of the German army on the Albanian city of Gjirokaster, the Stone City of the title. The initial part of the book describes the city and the surrounding area, the characteristics of its people and its history. It also introduces the key central character, Doctor Gurameto, also known as Big Dr.Gurameto (trained in Germany) to distinguish him from his unrelated namesake, Little Dr.Gurameto (trained in Italy). When the Germans arrive at the city, having been promised peaceful entry, they are fired on by communist partisans. Unsurprisingly they are rather upset by this treachery, and prepare for reprisals. However, the Big Doctor entertains their commanding officer to dinner and somehow persuades him to let the hostages which the Germans have taken go free. The remainder of the novel deals with the aftermath of this critical event, which eventually reaches its climax when Stalin dies during the communist era.
To understand this book properly I think I would have required a commentary from someone with a good knowledge of Albanian history. Gjirokaster is the birthplace of Ismail Kadare and a World Heritage Site, and one of his ancestors (real or imaginary) has a minor place in the novel. It is also the birth place of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s foremost communist leader, and therefore I would think a place of considerable symbolic significance for Albanians and Kadare. The Germans did indeed enter Gjirokaster in September 1943, as described in the book. However, how much of this book is true and how much imagination is something which remains opaque to me. I’m glad I read it, but leave it feeling largely unmoved and not particularly inclined to read more of Kadare’s work.
The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare
Published by Canongate, September 2012
Thanks to Canongate for providing a review copy.
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