In a city made almost entirely of stone, with the prison rising on a high peak above the town’s neighbouring areas, live a people so self-contained and enmeshed in their collective mythology that the invaders that besiege the city one after the other are simply added to the list of characters in the great history of Gjirokastër. Ismail Kadare’s The Fall of the Stone City is a tale of how the city lost its sense of stability to the perceived rivalry between two doctors and a momentous dinner with a dead man. And that’s really what it is.
It is 1943 and Gjirokastër is buzzing — not about the impending German occupation, but about how the Italian capitulation and German victory in Albania could affect the relationship between Big Dr Gurameto (trained in Germany, and physically more formidable) and Little Dr Gurameto (trained in Italy and his title is self explanatory). Come the German invaders with airborne letters of friendship and reassurance, and the city’s gossip divides between the nationalists (Germany is just as bad as Russia, so why bother) and communists (destroy Germany). And then, there is mysterious firing at Germany’s first emissaries to the city.
The Third Reich’s wrath is incited and 80 hostages are extracted from the city to pay for the insult to the friendship extended by Germany. In the midst of tanks rumbling around the city, of rifles being loaded and pointed at the hostages in the city square, of muffled cries for mercy from the hostages and the terrified silence from the stone houses, come the “machine gun” strains of Brahms and Strauss. Learning that the music is coming from Big Dr Gurameto’s house, people think this is the doctor’s way of showing his valour while Little Dr Gurameto is cowering like the rest of the town. But soon enough, the rumour spreads that the German commander is Big Dr Gurameto’s old friend and the music is to celebrate their reunion at a dinner hosted in the German’s honour. Thereafter follow increasingly droll and mysterious accounts of the dinner, of things said between friends and things left lingering, of silences and music, of idle chatter and intimacies uttered in Latin. The result: the hostages are released and Big Dr Gurameto hailed a hero.
Ten years later, under the Communist regime, the case of the hostage-freeing dinner is reopened and the two doctors are hauled into the fabled Cave of Sanisha where the tools of torture still rest in their ancient cases. Here, Big Dr Gurameto learns that the man whom he invited to dinner had died three months before the German convoy came to Gjirokastër. “So what really happened that night?” ask the ruthless interrogators. And with an assault of records, files and information on the city’s folklore and mythical history, the Stone City begins to fall.
The novel takes on a voice much like folklore — a qissa if you will, not of the glorious adventure type, but of smaller stories that make up a people’s memory. There is a wonderful postmodern underpinning in the novel where the idea of ‘truth’ becomes a free claim, better illuminated by the rich mythical memories of the townspeople through generations rather than files containing reports and figures — in short, facts. Rumours become more important than eyewitness reports; identity is continuously fumbling and changing; and actions are dimly guided by intentionality and sometimes lack it completely. The past is always present: before the interrogation of the doctors there was the dinner with the dead German colonel and before that was the tale of the boy who accidentally invited a dead man to dinner.
Everything in Gjirokastër can be very simply reflected back in its history to reach a much more nuanced and complete understanding of it, no matter how porous or fragmentary that history may be. A tale repeated in the novel is that of the boy who accidentally left a dinner invitation on a grave. According to the Albanian code of honour, the dead man rose from the grave to accept his invitation and the family too had to keep their word and entertain the dead man. The word corpse isn’t used here, possibly because of its association with the physical. ‘Dead man’ is more apt as it suggests a connection with the unknown; with the impossible. Big Dr Gurameto, towards the end, returns to this tale of his boyhood to finally understand what happened that night at dinner with his friend, and in doing so reaches a simultaneous fulfilment for the story and himself.
Throughout the novel, we are reminded about the insular nature of Gjirokastër; of how historical and international events become part of a localised narrative and seem to find their significance in things such as the 300 imperial judges unemployed since the fall of the Ottoman empire, or in the changing poetry of Blind Vehip’s, the city’s blind poet and at times the decoder of the mysterious and the miraculous. Ambiguity is raised above all else in the writing style as the real world and a mythical counter-world exist side by side, complementing and assaulting each other. The narration is in the third person, and yet a constant voice is that of the townspeople as they watch events unfold and mull over them. The narration also carries a sharp strain of humour which serves to, at some instances, bring out the stark ironies in the situation and at other times is just funny.
Kadare has been compared to Kafka, and even to Marquez, for his writing style and themes, but what is sometimes ignored in this attempt to universalise is the fact that each of these writers wrote under specific conditions of extreme geopolitical uncertainty which led them to adopt a style that best spoke to their historical epoch. For Kadare, it is the Albanian struggle and an attempt to recreate the Albania of the folklore, and of the myths: the “eternal” Albania. He stresses on the continuity of national character and the historical determination of the Albanian people to resist communist, royalist, Ottoman, Fascist and countless other influences to retain their essential Albanian-ness. This is not a limiting term in any way, but the basic starting point from where the county may rise, not towards artificially imposed regimes and their ideologies, but towards an independent and organic development of identity. And this is the general inclination in The Fall of the Stone City whereby the epistemological centre lies in the rich tradition of Albanian mythology, collective memory and, most importantly, within the eternal time of the people of Gjirokastër.
The Fall of the Stone City
By Ismail Kadare
Grover Press, US