Doctor's dinner is master's manoeuvre
FICTION: The Fall of the Stone City, by Ismael Kadare, translated by John Hodgson, Canongate, 168pp, 14.99
A chance dinner invitation extended in wartime Albania to an old university friend, now a German officer, has lasting repercussions, particularly for the host. Most pressing of all is the question of the guest’s actual identity. This wonderful little novel, by the intriguing Albanian master Ismail Kadare, opens in September 1943 in the historic southern Albanian town of Gjirokastër, high in the mountains near the border with Greece.
Dominated by the tall stone houses, relics of its Ottoman past, the merchant town, which its inhabitants consider a city, has two central presences, Big Dr Gurameto and Little Dr Gurameto, no relation. Nor are they rivals. Yet there is a distinctive difference; the bigger, older man studied in Germany, “definitely a larger and more formidable country than Italy”, where the younger man had trained.
Few writers use deceptive simplicity as well as Kadare. The Fall of the Stone City is as witty and as dark as is everything he has written in a magnificent career. He begins the narrative at the point when four years of Italian occupation is about to end with capitulation to Germany. The arrival of the German forces is sudden and concealed beneath false promises of liberation. It makes a fuss in a place in which most of the local gossip surrounds the activities of the two doctors. Just as the people have settled down to life with Italy, it all ends.
Such confusion: “Events moved so fast that the city of Gjirokaster, accustomed to viewing the world in both broad and detailed perspective, seemed to lose its bearings.” This communal bewilderment proves intense: “for the first time ever the city failed to interpret the situation in so far as it affected the two Dr Gurametos.” Kadare has great fun with the 300 retired Ottoman judges who come forward, armed with written evidence of the various crimes and brutalities they had perpetrated during their former careers, proof of their suitability to serve a new regime. But the arrival of the Germans had been marred by a sniper attack. Revenge is exacted by the taking of 80 hostages.
An old friendship may be of help. The Nazi colonel introduces himself as Fritz von Schwabe, greatly altered by time and wounds. Music drifts from the open windows of the bigger doctor’s house as the dinner, with obvious echoes of the Last Supper, takes place. Odd things are said. The colonel reminisces and even recalls imagining during surgery that the military doctor operating on him was in fact Gurameto. “Do you remember telling me about the terrifying dream you had” asks the colonel of the doctor, “in which you were operating on yourself?” Von Schwabe announces: “You brought me back from the grave.” The good doctor makes use of this debt and secures the release of the hostages, including a Jewish chemist.
The dinner is long and dream-like. It ends with an extraordinary tableau image. Kadare, whose subject has always been the violent past of his country at the respective hands of the Ottomans, Italian fascists, German Nazis and communists, discovered early that an imaginative handling of mythology, fable and folklore would help the filtering of historical fact through satiric intent.
For many years, the dinner at the doctor’s house guarantees an aura of heroism about Gurameto yet also some suspicion. When the communists come to power the doctor is arrested and Kadare balances the realities of the doctor’s sufferings with other punishments once dealt to the rapists of a sultan’s sister.
In Kadare’s fiction, the living and the dead are always closely connected and dead men, according to myth, are invited to dine. It all sounds very bleak, yet The Fall of the Stone City is written with a persuasive lightness of touch. Kadare’s authorial tone is invariably ironic and his fiction is playful, as if he has never lost sight of exactly how ridiculous humankind tends to be.
The inaugural winner of the Man Booker International Prize, Kadare has long been expected to be awarded the Nobel Prize. He was born in Gjirokastër in 1936 to a nonreligious family. His first novel, The General of the Dead Army, was published in Albania in 1965. A historical novel, The Siege, set in the 15th century, followed in 1970. It was later revised and eventually published in English in 2008.
Kadare is both prolific and inventive yet his masterpiece, the autobiographical Chronicle in Stone, appeared as early in his career as 1971, the year it was published in Albania. It tells the story of Kadare’s wartime boyhood as witness to a succession of invaders. It is interesting to compare Kadare’s fictionalised memoir with JG Ballard’s later work, Empire of the Sun (1984), as both are written with laconic urgency from the viewpoint of a boy. As Kadare’s young narrator recalls: “Then the bombs. Very near. Then a sudden thunderbolt, an invisible hand turns the world upside down . . . Black darkness . . . No one moves. We must be dead. Silence. Then something moves. A noise. Like a match being struck. We are not dead.”
The Palace of Dreams was published in Albania in 1981 and was immediately banned. Kadare was by then treading on uneasy ground with Enver Hoxha’s paranoid communist dictatorship. The File on H, a virtuosic comedy in which two hapless American scholars arrive in Albania attempting to study Homeric poetry, appeared the same year. It is hilarious. Prior to his seeking political asylum in France in 1990, Kadare had begun smuggling work in there, including Agamemnon’s Daughter, so several of his novels and stories have been translated into English from French translations of the original Albanian. A political parable, The Pyramid, begun in Albania and completed in France, was published there in 1992.
More recently, Spring Flowers, Spring Frost was published in Paris in 2000. Again Kadare calls upon myth and fairy tale. A young girl is forced to marry a snake. On the morning after her wedding night, she is smiling. Each evening the snake is transformed into a young man, only to resume his snake skin in the morning. Eventually the happy bride burns the skin, only to lose him.
Some writers continue to seduce and impress. Ismail Kadare is one. This new book has the menacing ease of a fairy tale, as do most of his books. He knows that stories are the only way of making sense of history.