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book review

‘The Fall of the Stone City’ by Ismail Kadare

“Chronicle in Stone,’’ one of Ismail Kadare’s early books, is a boyhood memory of growing up in the provincial Albanian town of Gjirokaster. The boy is largely Kadare himself, though with a dose of invention. The town’s quirks, destiny, and characters — comic, extravagant, and all but floating an inch or two off the ground — are in some ways reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, though as invaded by history as Macondo in “One Hundred Years of Solitude’’ was removed from it. The boy could be Huck Finn exploring his Mississippi.

In “The Fall of the Stone City,” a dark sequel, the Mississippi is filled with crocodiles. After a first part centering around a cheerfully extravagant wartime story, cracks develop; a hallucinatory crumbling ensues and descends into tightening nightmare. The Albanian Communists rule, with Moscow their overlord — this was before the post-Stalin break — and the nexus between totalitarianism and madness is twisted tight. It is the motif in some of Kadare’s greatest books, such as “The Palace of Dreams,” and here it is set out with greater brutality, and less subtlety and perhaps artistic power.

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The novel starts in the blithe wackiness of a place where gossip and rumor play the role that facts might anywhere else. It is 1943, and Gjirokaster divides into pro-German and pro-Italian factions and a majority that detests both of them. The pro-Germans are led by Big Dr. Gurameto, the pro-Italians by Little Dr. Gurameto, his arch-rival. A German regiment marches in after scattering leaflets announcing its benevolent intentions; when partisans fire on it, tanks shell the city, and 80 hostages are seized.

The next anyone knows, Big Dr. Gurameto’s house blazes with light and blares music; the German officers led by their commander, Colonel Von Schwabe, are being feted. Rumors swirl: Is the Big Doctor a traitor or has he something in mind? Something, it turns out; soon the hostages are freed. And the story shifts inside.

Big Dr. Gurameto and the colonel had been classmates and intimate friends when the doctor studied in Germany and instilled in Von Schwabe a romantic attachment to Albania. As a colonel he leaped at the chance to lead his troops into the land of his imaginings and reunite with his old friend. Tears, embraces, reminiscences, followed by Big Doctor’s demand to free the hostages. The colonel bristles, gives way, insists on retaining the sole Jew, gives way again when told that under the “kanun” — Albania’s ancient code of honor — guests must be protected; and the Jew is a guest.

A sweet enough story, and Kadare tells it in agile and suspenseful detail, while maintaining a faintly skeptical irony. And then in the book’s second part, which takes place 10 years later in 1953, he takes the story, bends it, and turns it into horror; something the way that a child, asleep, may transmute his daytime birthday party into a terrible dream.

Enver Hoxha, the country’s vicious dictator, has been in power since the war; many have been imprisoned or worse; Big and Little Dr. Gurameto have gone to jail several times, been released, and reinstated in their practices. Hoxha’s rule was suffocating and porous.

Then, in 1953, the Soviet Union announced a plot against Stalin by hundreds of Jewish doctors. The Communist bloc took up the hysteria; as its contribution Albania put the two Gurametos in a medieval dungeon once used by the Ottomans for torturing their prisoners. An ambitious interrogator works zealously upon Big Dr. Gurameto to try to get him to admit that his dealings with the German commandant held the roots of the doctors’ plot. He denies it. The interrogator keeps pressing him for evidence, which does not exist. After a while an East German expert is brought in; when he, like the Albanian, concludes that Gurameto is telling the truth, a top interrogator flies in from Moscow; truth is not wanted, only a confession.

And each time the story of the meeting is retold, the interrogators’ distorted expectations transform it into something more grotesque, more hallucinatory, until all that is left at the end is the horribly tortured corpse of the Big Doctor.

Kadare’s point here, as elsewhere, is that tyranny is not just a distortion of life but its own hallucination. The book’s second part, the interrogations of Big Dr. Gurameto — all but unbearable in their brutality — makes the case vividly. Hallucinations, though, are tricky to write; they can get away from themselves and go over the top. Kadare’s writing, so shrewdly and wittily managed in the first part, clouds over after that.

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at
richardgeder@gmail.com
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