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The Fall of the Stone City, By Ismail Kadare, trans. John Hodgson

A mysterious and masterful novel that captures a pivotal moment in Albania's history

Ismail Kadare is this generation's Kafka, bleakly comic, ethically impenetrable, plain-spoken to the point of obscurity. The prolonged issue about his political stance in Albania during the Enver Hoxha years, dissident or glad-hander to the regime, is curiously beside the point.

Kadare is more profoundly concerned with the nature of narrative and the slippages of language than with politics. His work has ranged in time from ancient Egypt to the post-Hoxha years, but the new novel returns him to the theme, if not the strict time-frame of his first book The General of the Dead Army, which was set in the 1960s and concerned the repatriation of Italian war dead from Albanian soil. Events in The Fall of the Stone City happen after the wartime surrender of Italy, which had claimed Albania along with Abyssinia as part of Mussolini's empire, and with German troops (invaders? occupiers? liberators?) pushing south through the Balkans to fill the vacuum.

As tanks arrive in Gjirokastër, Kadare's place of birth, the populace hears rumours that the German educated Big Dr Gurameto, is entertaining the friend of his student years Colonel von Schwabe, who leads the Wehrmacht column. Loyalties ebb and flow. There is a dinner. Gramophone music, most sinisterly Schubert's Death and the Maiden, echoes across town from Dr Gurameto's house. Hostages are freed in batches but the German commander will not trade on the sole Jewish prisoner.

By morning, mysteriously, the Colonel and his men have gone. Has a deal been struck? Whatever the cause, Albania's fortunes take a turn, leading her away from Renaissance/Enlightenment Western Europe and into the "Asiatic" camp of Soviet Bolshevism spiced with Maoist ideas. For the moment, royalist, national and communist interests jostle in what seems an ontological rather than political vacuum. It is here Kadare seems most obviously "Kafkan". Actions seem to lack obvious intentionality or purpose. Identity is slippery and random. Rumour has more solidity than fact. It's witty, light and profoundly disturbing. It does also make a profound political point, that ideology is neither tribal, nor "visceral", nor necessarily connected to either self-interest or altruism.

Previous English translations of Kadare have been taken from the French texts. John Hodgson's version is from the Albanian original. It's a wonderfully mysterious story, masterfully told.

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