Canongate, £14.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop
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
Saturday 15 December 2012
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.
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre