The Fall of the stone city By Ismail Kadare, Canongate, Rs 550
Albania, as a nation, has had to shift its loyalties several times, almost always with a great deal of reluctance. It has neither expressed a pervasive opinion nor held any consuming points of view about the condition it seemed to find itself in, perhaps because it knew that its protests would be hopeless and could lead it into darker areas; the only thing it believed it was capable of doing and, under the circumstances, did well, was to endure. Was this because it knew that it was a matter of time before someone else would come forward to stake a claim? Ironically, or perhaps not as such, the country has time and again risen above its subjugators, turning away from the voices that whispered,“You will see, there will be nothing after this, this is final”, or yelled out, “This is irrevocable”. The Albanian people knew that neither was this final nor was it irrevocable. Four monarchies separated the other occupations — the Ottoman, fascist Italy, the Germans, the communists and, finally, a home-grown republic. Albania watched as around it, more so in our times, nations crumbled, were cut up and cobbled together to form new allegiances. Within it too, ethnic branding, in the main, created areas of diversity, if not for overtly political gains then for evidently communal reasons. Someone suggested that three or four more heads should be added to the two-headed eagle in Albania’s flag.
Ismail Kadare places his story between the fourth and the fifth decades of the 20th century. The Italians have fled and Germany, fresh from its exploits in Greece and Serbia, is moving in when Kadare describes the first incidents that take place in Gjirokaster, the city of stone in the book’s title, so called because most of its houses have stone walls and slate roofs and many of its streets and squares are paved with cobbled stones. The city is a reflection of the Albanian psyche, one of divided opinions and quiet acquiescence, and Kadare’s story, at least in its first passes, is an expression of the city’s temper. By the time the story ends, and that may not be the right word to use, the Germans have withdrawn, leaving behind some very prominent townspeople whose motives are now severely questioned by the new occupiers, the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, helmed by Enver Hoxha on whom the shadow of Joseph Stalin and Russia rests darkly, and uneasily at times. (It took decades for this love affair to end). In any case, when a nation has the word ‘people’s’ in its name, chances are that it ends up being not too occupied with the wants of its average citizen. Big Doctor Gurameto and Little Doctor Gurameto are not average citizens; as a matter of fact, they are the most respected surgeons in Gjirokaster, having performed thousands of operations between them. Moreover, their rivalry — at times one is ascendant at other times the other — serves as a barometer for the townspeople; as long as the doctors skirmished, even covertly as they were skilled in doing, everyone was sanguine that things were going well in the city. Then, in an incredible turn of events, Big Doctor Gurameto discovers that leading the German forces into his city is his best friend from his schooldays, Colonel Baron von Schwabe, who, at about the same time, learns about him. The Albanian invites his old German buddy along with the other German officers to a grand dinner at his house. “In the gathering dusk, something for which there was still no word, crept over the city.” (Yes, Kadare writes like that.) By next morning, the German invaders have vanished and the hostages which the Germans had taken have — at least most of them — been released. There are, as is the imperative in Gjirokaster and indeed thoughout Kadare’s narrative, more than one interpretation of what had really happened that night, the reason of all that raucous laughter that was punctuated by tense verbal duels and Big Doctor Gurameto’s gramophone blaring out Strauss and Schubert and versions of Lili Marlene. The consensus seemed to suggest that whilst it was a matter of great fortune that the Germans had left hastily and the hostages were set free, doubts were expressed about the way the war was going in Europe with the Axis on the run; after all, as someone lamented over coffee, the Germans are bad but the communists are worse.
Gjirokaster’s fears soon concretize as Russia promotes a communist takeover and the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania is born. The first task of the new rulers is to start construction projects wherever their gaze falls; the second is to pick out those who are sabotaging the ditch-digging operations of the glorious republic and throw them into the dungeons of the Cave of Sanisha; the third is to systematically decimate the Ladies of the Town who, till now, have been a decadent law unto themselves and finally, to appoint an investigative team to single out, interrogate and, if necessary, use torture to extract confessions out of alleged German sympathizers. This last is economically convenient as the medieval instruments of torture from the days of Ali Pasha Tepelene are already on display in the Sanisha dungeon. The ambience in and around the Stone City changes, and not even so subtly at that. A number of Doctor Gurameto’s comatose patients wake up to sense that something is very wrong around them. One man, who had been conscious through the takeover, says that there has been a takeover and there would be many more changes in the offing.
Moscow appoints Shaqo Mezini, a nondescript Gjirokaster man, to lead the investigation. Shaqo has always been in awe of Big Doctor Gurameto, more so because women tell him all their secrets, and he is also resentful of the fact that they allow him to touch them everywhere; in fact, his mother has visited the doctor too. But the awe factor overwhelms the revenge factor and consequently the investigations get nowhere. Big Doctor Gurameto answers his interrogators in monosyllables and stubbornly refuses to admit to any subversion or duplicity. Something akin to a psychosis seizes Mezini and we see Kadare at his luminous best. The burden of that dinner weighs heavily on Big Doctor Gurameto’s head and shoulders and pulls him down, literally in to the torture chamber in the Cave of Sanisha.
Rumours circulate that Stalin is going to visit Gjirokaster soon, but before that happens, Stalin dies. A specialist investigator from Moscow flies down to take charge and round things up fast. The torture stops, but Big Doctor Gurameto’s singular horror begins and carries the narrative relentlessly forward. I think there are very few, apart from Ismail Kadare, who could write an ending like we have in this book.
Kadare has been likened to Kafka, though I believe that thinking along those lines will not make you understand him any better. Keep Kafka aside — admittedly not an easy task — and approach Kadare on his own terms. You will find out, I am sure, why he has been on the periphery of the Nobel prize for years.