Gjirokaster is an ancient stone city in southern Albania – not far from the Greek border. It was the birthplace and hometown of the wonderful novelist, Ismail Kadare. It was also where the terrifying Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha came from. Hoxha is a ghostly figure who lurks on the peripheries of many of Kadare’s books (some of which I’ve posted about before). And his great (semi-autobiographical) masterpiece, Chronicle in Stone is no exception. As I’m due to return to Albania in a few weeks, I eagerly picked this book up on holiday and my expectations were surpassed.
The narrator is a young boy trying to come to terms with the turmoil of war. His ancient city is swarming with occupiers, collaborators, revolutionaries, survivors, ordinary folk just trying to exist. And in the early 1940s, all is confusion – only a few decades after Albania’s independence from the Ottoman Empire, the city changed hands several times back and forth between Italians, Greeks (with the aid of the British RAF bombers), Nazis – not to mention the various Albanian factions each with their own agendas (monarchists, nationalists, communists). Trying to understand the world of adults is hard enough for children – but when this is going on, it’s impossible.
Kadare recaptures the innocent confusion of children with pitch perfect poignancy. Here is a little moment where the young narrator has a go.
I wondered how it was that it had occurred to people to pile up so many stones and so much wood to make all those walls and roofs and then call that great heap of streets, roofs chimneys and yards a city. But even less comprehensible were the words “occupied city”, which came up more and more in the grown-ups’ conversations. Our city was occupied. Which meant that there were foreign soldiers in it. That much I new, but there was something else that bothered me. I couldn’t see how a city could be unoccupied. And anyway, even if our city wasn’t occupied, wouldn’t there be these same streets, the same fountains, roofs and people? Wouldn’t I still have the same mother and father and wouldn’t Xhexho, Kako Pino, Aunt Xhemo and all the same people still come to visit? (p25)
Without giving much away, these words would prove to be strangely prescient.
One aspect of childhood that Kadare vividly evokes throughout the book is the inability of young children to understand metaphor and allusion (let alone the simple issue of gravity). Everything gets taken too literally. [Incidentally, this insight definitely provoked all kinds of thoughts about how people handle the bible – and whether it is itself an indication of maturity or the lack of it – but that’s another story!].
Here our narrator is chatting with his best friend Ilir. His wonderful imagination gets carried away as he processes what they have overheard. The cause of some of the confusion is that he and Ilir a few months before had secretly gone to check out the local abattoir.
Ilir raced down Fools’ Alley.
“Guess what?” he said, as he came through the door. “The world is round like a melon. I saw it at home. Isa brought it. It’s round, perfectly round, and it spins without stopping.” He took a long time to tell me what he had seen.
“But how come they don’t fall off?” I asked when he told me there were other cities under us, full of people and houses.
“I don’t know,” Ilir said. “I forgot to ask Isa. He and Javer were home looking at the globe. Then Javer tapped it with his finger and
said, ‘Soon it’ll be a slaughterhouse.’”
“Yes. That’s what he said. The world will drown in blood. That’s what he said.”
“Where will all the blood come from?” I asked. “Fields and mountains don’t have blood.”
“Maybe they do,’ said Ilir. “They must know something, they way they talk. When Javer said the world would be a slaughterhouse, I told him we’d been there and had seen how they slaughter sheep. He started laughing and said, ‘Now you’ll see what happens when they slaughter nations.’”
“Nations? Like on the postage stamps, you mean?”
“Right. Like that. Nations.”
“Who’s going to slaughter them?”
Ilir shrugged. “I didn’t ask.”
I thought about the slaughterhouse again. One day when she was talking about the aerodrome Xhexho said that the fields and grasses would be covered with cement. With wet slipper cement. A rubber hose sluicing cities and nations. To wash away the blood… Maybe we were only at the beginning of the slaughter. But I found it hard to imagine nations being led to the slaughter, bleating as they went. Peasants in their black woollen cloaks. Butchers in white coats. Rams, ewes, lambs. People standing around to watch. Other people just waiting. Then it was time. France. Norway. The square awash with blood. Holland bleating. Luxembourg like a newborn lamb. Russia with a big bell around its neck. Italy a goat (I don’t know why). Something mooing all on itsown. Who could that be? (p91-92)
The book opens with a massive rainstorm (which causes all kinds of overnight chaos with flooding cisterns and streets) – but within a few pages the storm abates, and all is calm.
I went back up the two flights to the living room, looked out and saw with joy that far off, at a distance too great to measure, a rainbow had appeared, like a brand-new peace treaty between mountain, river bridge, torrents, road, wind and city. But it was easy to see that the truce would not last long. (p10)
And in many ways that longed for, far off peace treaty is what everyone in the city craves, as the storms of war descend. Yet the book doesn’t end with a rainbow. Interestingly, as the excellent introduction by David Bellos observes, it doesn’t end with Enver Hoxha’s triumphant conquest of his own country in the name of the people – we just know that it is coming (though not as triumphant as he’d have liked). This is in itself a sly form of Kadare’s rebellion against the official propaganda about the inevitability of the regime’s victory. But that is part of the book’s brilliance. He sustains his artistic and human integrity without compromising too much with the regime he submits too.
This boy (clearly based on Kadare himself) is a impressionable, curious and above all resilient observer of the world he’s in – and he sees the glimmers of hope even in the darkest corners. He is obsessed with Shakespeare’s Macbeth which he discovers in the course of the book – and sees all kinds of resonances within the stone walls of his own medieval home town. And the walls have seen it all. The people who inhabit them pass – but the walls survive (despite the aerial and artillery bombardments) – and tell their story. They are a chronicle in stone of the many rulers that have claimed Gjirokaster as their own.
But this book, a chronicle in its own right (interspersing the narrative with only apparently irrelevant snippets of news items, observations and reflections), is a true act of bravery. First published in Albanian in 1971 when the Hoxha regime seemed so unassailable, to even hint that it might pass was potentially reckless. But it is more than a brave book. It is also a beautiful book and a humane book. And I suspect it is a book I will return to again and again.