Gjirokaster is an historic Ottoman city of tall stone houses, situated in southern Albania near the border with Greece. Ismail Kadare's latest work to be made available in translation concerns a dinner party that takes place in the city during the Second World War.
It is September 1943, a turning point in the conflict. The Germans are taking control of Albania and a tank division is rumbling towards Gjirokaster. We learn that the commander of the invading forces, Colonel von Schwabe, is an old friend of Doctor Gurameto, one of the city's leading physicians. Long ago they were students together in Munich, and after an emotional reunion, they decide to dine together. But the atmosphere is fraught. Partisans fired on the Germans near the city's gates and the troops have taken 80 hostages. Their fate depends upon the outcome of this meeting.
Festivities commence behind closed doors, to the strains of Brahms, and soon von Schwabe begins giving orders for the release of hostages. As always, the city is gripped by febrile speculation, but exactly what takes place during the dinner remains mysterious. After the war, ghastly repercussions ensue. At the core of the story is a terrifying recurring dream that Gurameto has, of being stretched out on an operating table before being hit by the shocking realisation that his surgeon is himself. In turn, von Schwabe, too, has dreamed of being operated on by Gurameto.
The tale's twists and turns are often conveyed indirectly, by weighing up the rumours which swirl around the city's populace. The prose frequently evokes Albania's rich tradition of folklore, invariably in unsettling fashion: "A bitter north wind blew down the Gorge of Tepelene, as it always did when destiny took a turn for the worse."
This is classic Postmodern fiction; literature which tells us that we can never be sure about the past. But theory can take us only so far in describing Kadare's work. He is nothing if not Albanian, and Albania's terrible past has long been his subject matter. The country has a history of cruelty and violence under a variety of tyrannical rulers, of whom the Nazis are only some of the most recent. The Nazis' brief dominion in turn gave way to Enver Hoxha's insanely repressive regime. If Gjirokaster was Kadare's birthplace, it is interesting to note that it was also Hoxha's home town.
Kadare's dream-like explorations of the worst aspects of human nature have been compared to Gogol and Kafka. He was awarded the inaugural Man Booker International Prize and has been nominated several times for the Nobel prize. He stumbled with his previous novel, The Accident, perhaps because it was set after the fall of the Iron Curtain, with a slackening of the vertiginous paranoia that features in so much of his work. Fortunately, The Fall of the Stone City is a masterly recuperation; an outstanding feat of imagination delivered in inimitable style, alternating between the darkly elusive and the menacingly playful.