The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare (translated by John Hodgson - from Canongate)
What's it all about?
We begin in Albania, in 1943, where the colonising Italians have abandoned the country and the Germans are about to fill the Imperial void. A bilingual leaflet drop promises that the Wehrmacht will merely be passing through, and that Germany respects Albanian independence. Of course, that all changes when shots are fired outside the stone city of Gjirokastër...
After the unprovoked attack on his troops, Colonel Fritz von Schwabe plans to raze the town to the ground in revenge - until, that is, he realises that an old university friend, Dr. Gurameto lives here. In a bizarre twist, the good doctor holds a dinner party for his old friend, all to uphold the tradition of Albanian hospitality, and not only is the town saved from destruction, but all the hostages taken (including a Jew) are released. It's an amazing story, and one which comes back to haunt the doctor ten years later. You see, the Communist authorities are very keen to find out exactly what happened on that night...
The Fall of the Stone City is a superb book, short but packed with intrigue and interest. It's divided into three sections: the first looks at the events of the fateful dinner in 1943; the second takes us quickly through the happenings, political and otherwise, of the following decade; the third part takes place in 1953, when the past catches up with Big Doctor Gurameto (so-called to distinguish him from his colleague, the shadowy Little Doctor Gurameto). Despite its brevity, the novel provides the reader with an excellent overview of the situation in Albania at the time.
The story takes a look at how people had trouble walking the political tightrope in areas with successive rulers, and the discussions before the arrival of the Germans show the decisions the locals had to make:
"Nonsense," said others. "This visiting card business is precisely the worst possible insult to any country, especially a brave country like ours. 'Albania, I'm coming tomorrow morning. Come out to welcome me at ten o'clock. Never mind what people say about me. Take no notice of my artillery and tanks, because Germany is good, and brings culture and bouquets of flowers.' Are you witless enough to believe this twaddle?"The problem with appeasing an invading force is that if they eventually leave (as the Germans will), the people who take over next may not look kindly upon your behaviour. When the communists take over, it is inevitable that those who were pro-German will have a few questions to answer.
"At least visiting cards are preferable to bombs," said the others in self-defence."
p.7 (Text Publishing, 2012)
As the quotation above shows, while the subject matter may be a little heavy, the language used to discuss it can be as light as a feather. I loved Kadare's witty, sarcastic, flowing style (it's not often you have demonstrators in the streets crying 'Down with soil erosion'!), and parts of The Fall of the Stone City reminded of something Kundera or García Márquez might have written. There is a superb cast of fascinating characters in addition to the two doctors: a blind poet, several foreign investigators and a mad, drunk gambler, Remzi Kadare (a cheeky cameo, perhaps...) - and that's not including all the characters who show up for just one scene:
"Meanwhile, taking advantage of the turbulent times, the Romany guard at the Hygiene Institute known as 'Dan the TB Man' produced a song in memory of his girlfriend, who had been run over that April by the night-soil cart.Ah, poetry...
I'm the gypsy of the institute
In an awful plight
Since the girl I loved
Fell under a load of shite." (pp.83/4)
While there's a broad streak of humour running through the book though, when we get to the third section (where the doctor has to account for the events of the dinner party), matters turn a little darker. It is here that Kadare's mastery of the plot becomes evident, as details which may have been overlooked at first glance are unearthed and re-examined, forcing characters and readers alike to rethink their version of what actually happened. There's even a hint of a ghost story, an old wives' tale which becomes eerily relevant.
Yep, there's a lot more to this book than meets the eye ;)
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Absolutely. I loved this, even if I got the feeling that this might not be his best work. Kadare is definitely a writer I need to read more by.
Why did it make the shortlist?
Well-known, successful writer - tick.
Excellent translation - tick.
Fascinating story - tick.
Familiar, popular topic - tick.
That is all :)
For the next leg of our journey, we'll be heading north, to Finland via Russia. I've learnt a fair few languages in my time, but I'm not sure any of them are going to help me this time around...