1943. With Italy signing the Act of Capitulation to Germany, and pulling out of occupied Albania, the tanks of the Third Reich roll into the stone city of Gjirokaster. On the way, the Nazi commander is shot at in an ambush. Hostages are taken, and retribution is expected to be swift and ruthless. But by the time the next morning dawns, the commander has met Doctor Gurameto, his dearest college friend, dined at his house, ordered all the hostages to be released, and left the city with his troops. And the reverberations from that fateful day and night will haunt the city for years to come.
This is the eighth Kadare novel that I’ve read, and certainly the most curious one. By now, there is something I’ve come to expect from him: the setting is either part-historical, part-mythical (The Palace of Dreams, The Three-Arched Bridge, The Pyramid, The Siege), or a very thinly fictionalised Albania (The File on H, Broken April); the story is, in some way, a meditation on the interconnections between poetry, myth, and the construction of national memory; and the writing is vividly imagistic, almost dream-like at times.
The Fall of the Stone City confounded all these expectations, not least because as I progressed through the book, I felt as if I was reading two or three different writers. In the opening scene, just as the German tanks are preparing to destroy Gjirokaster, someone waves the white flag of surrender from a window. The man (or woman) is never found, but the very idea of surrender is such an anathema to the city, that it invents a convenient myth to shield itself from its own, unsparing gaze:
“The explanation was very simple: no search would ever discover the person or ghost who had raised the flag of surrender. The September wind had pulled a white curtain out of a window left open when the occupants of the house sought shelter in the cellar, and blown it back and forth in front of the eyes of the Germans. The inhabitants of the city could finally be reassured that neither cowardice nor, worse, attempted treason had set this flag fluttering. Destiny itself in the form of the wind had done the necessary job.”
This reminded me strongly of the opening scene in Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, where Kundera recounts the anecdote of the photograph. In 1948, there is a photograph taken of the Czech Prime Minister, Klement Gottwald, standing on a balcony alongside foreign minister Vladimir Clementis, who has just taken off his hat and placed it on the Prime Minister’s head, to protect him from the cold wind. When Clementis is purged and executed in 1952, the State propaganda also “erases” from the photograph – all that remains of him is his hat on Gottwald’s head. Kundera uses this story as an illustration of forgetting, the central theme of his book.
The story of the white flag is also a story of forgetting, or – what comes to the same thing – the story of overwriting and erasure, and the creation of a new, perfect narrative that helps us forget the old, flawed one. And in both cases, the overwriting can never be complete. Just as the hat remains on Gottwald’s head, the white flag remains in Gijorkaster’s narrative of its surrender. Whatever stories we tell ourselves, something will always escape through the cracks.
Thinking of Kundera in a novel that was set in World War II seemed a little dissonant at first – until, reading on, I realised that the second half of the book is a savage, satirical critique of post-WW II Eastern European communism, placing it firmly in the Kundera tradition. Before that, however, is the description of the fateful dinner at Doctor Guremato’s house. Here, there were strong echoes of Sandor Marai’s Embers: two old friends dine together unexpectedly after many years, in an atmosphere tinged with nostalgia, melancholy and bitterness, with unanswered questions and no possibility of closure; with a dim grasping towards something already lost, whether it is personal loss, or national loss. In Kadare, of course, the stakes are much higher – one man is trying to convince the other not to kill a hundred human beings:
“Your country fired on me.”
“I answer for my own house, not the state.”
“It comes to the same.”
“It doesn’t come to the same. I’m not Albania, just as you’re not Germany, Fritz. We’re something else.”
In another curious reminder of Kundera, this time of The Joke, these lines come back to haunt Doctor Guremato many years later, under the communists. I’m not Albania. We’re something else. This denial of community and nation is used to put Doctor Guremato on trial for crimes against the regime, as evidence of his participation in a vast Jewish conspiracy designed to topple communism. Under communism, of course, the merging of individual and community reaches its apotheosis; again, in lines strikingly reminiscent of Kundera, in particular, the eviscerating humour of Life is Elsewhere, Kadare’s narrator remarks at one point:
“… a senior cultural official complained that people were still singing songs of what might be called a private nature…”
Before this comes to pass, however, we’re treated to a rather astonishing digression that might be right out of Swift or Rabelais: a few chapters on the “persecution of the city’s ladies.” There is a sudden transition from what, until now, has been a believable historical story, to that of a Quixotic allegorical world. The narrative breaks down, the tone changes, there is sudden disorientation. I must confess, this part of the novel passed me by entirely.
Just as abruptly as it begins, the playful surreality ends, and we’re back to reality – the new reality of postwar communist-ruled Albania. But this is no longer the world through Kundera’s eyes. It has become the much darker, grimmer world of Arthur Koestler and Danilo Kis: the world of interrogators and torture chambers, show trials and the savage twisting of narratives upon the torturer’s wheel. Doctor Guremato finds himself under the scanner because of his role on the day the Germans came to Gijorkaster; and as in Koestler and Kis, the goal of the interrogation is not to discover the “truth” (every last vestige of fact has already been extracted through torture and surveillance of others), but to force a confession and a repentance that strengthens the regime.
There is an inevitability about the ending. But what sets apart The Fall of the Stone City from the uncompromising bleakness of Darkness at Noon and A Tomb for Boris Davidovich is that even here, Kadare is unable (or unwilling) to entirely drop his lyrical style, a style most unsuited to the events that he is describing:
“But then another morning would dawn, ashen and exhausted, to confirm the view that time is the last thing in this world that is capable of renewal.”
“At first it was hard to find anything to accuse them of but soon it became easy enough. Just as the world was swept with wind and rain, so it was burdened with guilt. A share could be allotted to the doctors with plenty left over for others.”
When I first came upon these sentences, I paused, halted, and then read them over, twice, thrice, even four times. And perversely, it is the beauty of the prose that grips you in a way that forces your mind off the darkness of its subject matter.
As I said in the beginning, this is a curious book. I put it down with a sense of incompleteness; there seemed to be a smorgasbord of styles, themes and ideas jostling for space, not always harmoniously. Perhaps this makes this a modernist novel par excellence. But for me, apart from the patches of vintage Kadare, passages that exude a rare, elusive beauty, the novel qua novel disappointed. For the first time.