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Book Review: The Fall of the Stone City

The Fall of the Stone Citythe-fall-of-the-stone-city

by Ismail Kadare (translated by John Hodgson)

Grove Press, 2013

The latest Ismail Kadare novel to be translated into English, 2008’s The Fall of the Stone City (a rare instance in which the English title is a significant improvement on the Albanian original), is not the author’s strongest work, and it’s a testament to Kadare’s amazing talent that even his B-game is more accomplished and more memorable than most other authors’ A-games.

The setting is Kadare’s birthplace, the ancient Albanian city of Gjirokaster, the “first city in Albania,” which throughout this book Kadare invests with a bewildered, mournful life of its own. When Greek refugees are at one point being marched past the city’s stone walls, Gjirokaster feels the injustice of it every bit as keenly as the refugees:

The city loomed above them, as inscrutable as a sphinx, inaccessible and failing to understand why it could not take them in. Who suffered most from this prohibition, the convoy of refugees or the city? To be sure it pained both, as if they had been showered with the debris of some terrible catastrophe. That afternoon the very rafters of Gjirokaster’s houses began to groan. The city suffered an agony of conscience.

The novel’s action progresses through three times: 1943, when in the wake of the withdrawal of Italian occupying troops from Albania, the Nazis prepare to move in, riding tanks but seeking to be seen as liberators; 1944, when the Nazis pull out (“with no sign of pride or shame and no reaction to the city’s indifference”) and the Communists arrive, intent on rooting out dissidents and sympathizers; and 1953, with the totalitarian state firmly, morbidly in control. As in so much of Kadare’s fiction, we follow one man through these years, one living register to the different tones of tyranny.

In The Fall of the Stone City, that man is Doctor Gurameto, but even here, the doubling and ghostwork Kadare has always done so well comes into play: Gjirokaster has two doctors named Gurameto, one ‘big’ and one ‘little,’ unrelated and yet inseparably locked in competition. When the Nazis invade, ‘big’ Dr. Gurameto is surprised to find an old friend at the head of the tank column: Colonel Fritz von Schwabe, once an idealistic school mate of Gurameto’s at university (and the focus of yet more doubling and ghosting, as readers learn in the book’s final segments). When von Schwabe’s men are fired upon by partisans in the town and he threatens the execution of hostages in retaliation, it’s Dr. Gurameto who attempts to intervene, inviting von Schwabe to a lavish dinner at his house. In the book’s signature theatrical detail, the townspeople see the lights glowing in the house and hear the strains of classical music pouring from Dr. Gurameto’s gramophone. Whether it’s a brave gesture or a canny act of collaboration, that evening instantly slips into the Kadarian world of pseudo-myth, filling Gjirokaster’s citizens with confused wonder:

Their waking would become a whole story in itself, to be told in the course of many days and over many cups of coffee. “Where are we?” they asked, as they awoke to find themselves on verandas, in linen cupboards, stretched on the rafters of attics, or, as in most cases, on the staircases and in the cellars where sleep had overtaken them. They struggled to work out, if not what time it was, at least the day or the month.

The evening becomes the crux of a brutal investigation in the book’s third part, when both Gurametos are arrested and interrogated about their dealings with the Nazis (“Just as the world was swept with wind and rain, so it was burdened with guilt,” we’re told; “A share could be allotted to the doctors with plenty left over for others”). Kadare is a master of depicting the oily paranoia of totalitarian regimes and the naked helplessness of good people caught in their grip; this third section of his book should by rights be the strongest, full of the kinds of sharp, subtle work that made so many of his earlier novels triumphs. That it is instead the weakest part of the book (repetitive enough in parts almost to be tedious) is as surprising as it is disappointing, gaining an only partial redemption through some well-presented scenes involving chief interrogator Shaqo Mezini, an interestingly conflicted character in the old Kadare mold.

Lackluster third act notwithstanding, The Fall of the Stone City is full of Kadare’s quiet, understated poetry, ably rendered here by translator John Hodgson, who has self-control enough not to prettify Kadare’s occasional lapse into cliche, and who catches the author’s crisp world-weariness perfectly:

Dawn rose on the asphalted highway and on this bleak day spirits sank even lower. The cold tightened its grip on Gjirokaster. The coal ran out and martyrs were in short supply.

For such an important contemporary author, Kadare has had a woeful print history in the United States, so Grove’s decision to put this volume in a thousand bookstores (with a typically eye-catching cover by the great Gretchen Mergenthaler) is to be applauded even if the book itself isn’t a masterpiece. The more people who read Kadare, the better.

 

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