Book Review | Chronicle in Stone

Rose Lapira is captivated by this surreal and tragic tale of an Albanian city from Ismael Kadare.

We have been inundated with stories of WW11 from the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan but how many war stories have come from Albania?  This novel helps partially to fill the void for Ismael Kadare,

Albania’s best known poet and novelist, deals with events during the last war in the city of Gjirokaster, called the city of stone, because of its distinctive style of houses and the precipitous layout of the city built around an ancient citadel.

Gjirokaster, described as ‘a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town’ in southern Albania is on the World Heritage List. It is also the birth place of the former communist leader Enver Hoxha, and of the author.

The city was under the Ottomans for five centuries. Taken in 1912 by the Greek army, it eventually became part of Albania in 1913. During the war Ismael Kadare was a child, and the events that are recounted in this novel are written in the first person in the voice of a child, as seen by a child.  Chapters describing a mix of surreal situations and political drama alternate with Fragments of a Chronicle written by the town’s official chronicler. Chronicle in Stone is based on real events during the war.

The novel is a semi-autobiographical account of the war and a young boy’s coming of age. A tragic tale which has moments of black humour as the boy describes surreal situations.

The boy gives fanciful descriptions of people walking with severed heads under their arms, a young lad looking for his drowned loved one in cisterns, women living to a hundred and fifty and other tales of black magic and superstition. And yet one asks how “surreal” were these situations? Are they the workings of the fertile imagination of the young or do they describe the pre-modern world of Albania which was one of the most patriarchal countries in Europe?

The author certainly shows us how Albania was different from the rest of Europe in many ways and also how people suffered during the war. This novel, as well as others by Kadare, were written and published under harsh conditions during the time of Enver Hoxha. It was only in 1990 that he was granted political asylum in France.

To avoid censorship Kadare often turned to fable, myth and legend when writing about the history of his country. Chronicle in Stone conveys the grand scale of the tragedy of war, but it is also the story of a city. I knew nothing about Gjirokaster before I read this book and now the city is firmly impressed on my mind as if I had actually been there.  Ismael Kadare has drawn an unforgettable picture of his birthplace, lyrical and absurd in turn, where as he admits it was not easy to be a child.

In 2005 the author was awarded the inaugural Man Booker International Prize. The award is given every two years to a living author of any nationality for fiction either published in English or translated in English. It is not given for a specific book but for the author’s body of work and its influence worldwide.

Awards like this show that there is a whole literary world waiting to be discovered that can help us widen our ideas of Europe. We need to have a comprehensive knowledge of contemporary European literature if we are to discover a sense of ourselves within a European context.

But we also need to make our authors better known to the outside world for others to understand us as well. This can only happen if more Maltese works in translation are published.