For his latest novel to appear in English (the original is a recent 2008) Ismail Kadare has returned to the city of his birth, Gjirokaster. He has written about Gjirokaster before, most notably in Chronicle in Stone which was first published in 1971. In that novel Kadare describes its history of occupation:
“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 part of the German empire.”
The end of Chronicle in Stone and the opening of The Fall of the Stone City almost exactly coincide: Gjirokaster comes under German occupation after the withdrawal of the Italians during the Second World War. Similar events occur (presumably based on what actually happened) – the German convoy is attacked by partisans, they in turn attack the city, and an unknown person waves a white flag to end that attack. In Chronicle in Stone it is described as follows:
“No-one ever found who it was that rose up like a ghost over the city only to sink back down into the abyss after waving that white something at the Germans.”
The Fall of the Stone City tells us, “One of the inhabitants had apparently waved a white sheet from a roof top, nobody could tell exactly where.” The novel goes on to take us through the rest of the war culminating in a further occupation by Soviet troops and ending with the death of Stalin in 1953.
The novel is largely concerned with a mysterious dinner party which takes place shortly after the German invasion. The German commander is invited to the house of an old university friend, Big Doctor Gurameto who convinces him to release the hostages taken after the partisan attack. He is ‘Big’ Dr Gurameto because there is also a Little Dr Gurameto:
“Although they bore the same surname they had no family connection and had it not been for medicine their destinies would surely never have been entwined; still less would they have acquired the labels ’big’ and ‘little’, which created a relationship between them that doubtless neither desired.”
This tells us something about the tone of the novel which is written from a communal viewpoint, almost as if by the city itself. Despite its often dark subject matter there is a lightness to it; not the lightness of humour but an off-handedness that suggests a nodding acquaintance with a malicious fate. The two doctors (the other doctor has no real impact in the novel’s plot; although arrested at the same time as ‘Big’ Dr Gurameto, the other “seemed to have evaporated like a ghost in front of their eyes”) become part of a wider concern with identity. The city itself has no clear identity: a large Greek population sits alongside its Albanians; some support the German occupiers, others await Communist liberation. Later it transpires that the German commander was not in fact an old friend of Dr Gurameto, but someone impersonating him for reasons which are never established.
This is revealed in the third and final part when the Soviet-backed state police arrest and torture Gurameto: how did he convince the Germans to release the hostages? That the torture takes place in a dungeon created one hundred and fifty years before by an Ottoman prince suggests the inevitability of it all. (Kadare also has retired Ottoman judges offering their services to every new regime). This is the novel’s strongest section as Kadare reveals the workings of the interrogators with great skill and one of them, Shaqo Menzini, is probably the most realised character in the novel.
By its very nature the novel can seem slightly sketchy. It delivers history in broad sweeps and its characters (including the central character of Dr Gurameto) seem only to matter as they intersect with the plot. The narrative voice itself is deliberately distancing, and no explanation is ever delivered for the events at the dinner party on the 16th September 1943. However, what Kadare offers us is a fascinating insight into war mentality, a mentality that continued into the cold war across Eastern Europe. As with all Kadare’s recent novels, there are no easy answers to these questions of the past.