The Fall Of The Stone City by Ismail Kadare (Text Publishing $37.99)
It seems that poking oblique borax at his native Albania has become a hard habit to break for Ismail Kadare, that country's most noted writer. He's had to dress his opinions up in enigma for so much of his career that even now that the political danger of speaking out has (for the time being) gone, he can't bring himself to speak plainly. The Fall Of The Stone City is as baffling and slippery as anything he ever penned under the repressive Hoxha regime.
The Fall Of The Stone City opens as World War II is coming to a close. The Italians have surrendered and the Germans are in retreat. It seems certain they'll shortly overrun Albania. The sole question is: will they come as visitors, just passing through, or as an army of occupation?
Sure enough, motorcycle scouts riding ahead of a column of tanks soon appear at the gates of Gjirokaster (the stone city of the title) and are met with a volley of gunfire. As the main strength of the Nazi force arrives, the citizenry cowers in anticipation of reprisals.
But the SS commander, Colonel Fritz von Schwalbe, steps from his car and announces that he has a friend in Gjirokaster. He orders that Dr Gurameto, with whom he studied in Munich before the war, be brought to him.
As hostages and a firing squad are assembled in the town square, von Schwalbe and Gurameto repair to the latter's house for a dinner that soon passes into town legend. After the reunion has been in progress for several hours, the hostages are released. The Germans settle into Albania for the remainder of the war, only to depart ahead of the advancing Soviets.
Throughout the subsequent, turbulent history of Albania, the events and significance of Gurameto's dinner are endlessly contested. It acquires a mythological dimension, as it resembles an Albanian folk tale, and it is always a political event.
Gurameto is a hero one minute, a craven collaborator the next: his stocks are sky-high under one regime, and he is imprisoned and tortured by the next.
As it has weathered all manner of changes down the course of history, Gjirokaster (his birthplace, and incidentally also that of Enver Hoxha) appeals to Kadare as an apt symbol for the spirit of the Albanian people through countless regime changes, the rise and fall of empires, the comings and goings of invaders.
Curiously, although the city "falls" neither in the novel nor in reality - it remains a World Heritage site - it has experienced many, many spiritual and moral falls in its time.
Kadare populates the city with remnants of former regimes: "In the city there were 11 former vezirs and pashas of the Ottoman Empire, four former overseers of the sultan's harem, three former deputy managers of the Italian-Albanian banks, 15 ex-prefects of various regimes, two professional stranglers of heirs apparent, a street called 'Lunatics Lane' and two high-class courtesans, not to mention the famous 300 former judges and more than 600 cases of insanity: a lot for a mediaeval city now striving to become a communist one."
The Fall Of The Stone City is playful, supremely sarcastic, mystifying, charming and bleak, by turns and all at once.
Kadare raises ambiguity to an art form, and perfectly evokes the uncertainties of life under arbitrary rule.
John McCrystal is a Wellington writer.