Saturday, 10 March 2012

Chronicle in Stone: Ismail Kadare (Albania)

In a seamless mosaic of dreams and games, Kadare's young narrator both reflects and distorts events as his ancient, magical home town and his own innocence and sense of wonder are lost forever in the madness and brutality of the Second WORLD War. A disturbing mix of tragedy, comedy, politics and sexuality, Chronicle in Stone is a fascinating early masterpiece from the winner of the inaugural Man Booker International Prize.

Ismail Kadare was born in 1936 in Gjirokaster, southern Albania, the same town in which this book is apparently set. He studied in Albania's capital Tirana, and Moscow, returning to his homeland in 1960 after the country broke ties with the Soviet Union.

I found this to be a beautiful and eloquently written book, based on a childs perceptions of war - the outbreak of WW2. The age of the child is unspecified, but one wonders whether this book is at least autobiographical, given the age of the author and the fact that it is apparently set in his hometown. The child, whomever and however old he is, has a vivid imagination, seeing images in raindrops and imagining that the echo from the cistern is an actual voice and therefore consciousness, answering hin back.

Life is not easy for this child, as he grows up in one of Europe's most superstitious countries, steeped in tradition, where any form of moral transgression is severely frowned upon - the men as they say are men, and the women, women, who have to know their place. When the boy pays a visit to the local slaughterhouse, he tries to imagine what the slaughter of a nation would look like, and sadly it is not too long before he begins to find out.

The first sign that anything is amiss is when an aerodrome begins to be built. The narrator is excited by this event, imagining the planes with their own personalities, just like people, but the adults around him recognise that this is the first sign of war. Then the blackouts begin, with his house, or rather the cellar, turned into an air raid shelter, where half the villagers, or so it seems, seek refuge. As the air raids intensify, the villagers begin to share their stories, one by one, and we learn what makes these people tick.        

The city oscillates between Italian, Greek and German control, with each vying among themselves as the most hated occupier. The young of the village, including one of the boys own relatives, begin to join the Partisans (Resistance), but the old among them (mostly women) fear that the young girls will bring shame on their families by mixing so freely with unmarried men. Some are invetitably caught and brought back, but then the Commander of the Garrison is assasinated and the trouble really begins, with executions and all sorts of reprisals, until the Partisans begin to fight and kill each other. When the Italians eventually leave, the Communist Partisans pour in, carrying out what they term as `revolutionary justice', but then the Germans come, following the mass exodus of most of the population into the surrounding mountainous villages. Only a few old women, whom the author refers to as "crones" remain, with a few other brave or foolhardy souls.

From their mountain refuge, their hear the gun fire and see their city in flames, until all goes silent and they eventually return to find the city burnt out and bodies swinging from lamp posts, lynched as traitors and informers. The war is not yet over, but at this point, the book is, with one wondering what happens next.

To sum up then, this is an excellent book, written by one who can justifably be called Albania's national author, it may not tell you everything about that small country, which remains as Europe's last bastion of Communism, but it goes a long way to helping one to understand the Albanian soul.

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