Novels about life under totalitarian regimes are generally not very uplifting. Think of Romanian novelist Herta Muller’s recent works translated into English. Or go back a little further—to the Baltics or Eastern Europe—and fiction that dwells on Communism’s vast reach after the end of World War II. During my own travels in these areas, what I heard frequently repeated was that the Germans during the war were not as brutal as the Soviets once the war was over. This is also true of Ismail Kadare’s The Fall of the Stone City, the Albanian novelist’s twentieth work translated into English, set during the war, in 1943, and concluding ten years later. I remember being taken by Kadare’s earlier novel, Chronicle in Stone (1971), but this latest work makes the same impact in much shorter space. Calling it a novella would be more appropriate.
The section dated 1943 begins as the Nazis are arriving in Gjirokastër, an ancient stone city not far from Greece. The Italians, the previous occupiers, have fled—before that it was the Ottomans. Two doctors (Big Dr. Gurameto and Little Dr. Gurameto) become the temporary focus of the story, both with the same name, but not related, and therefore identified by size. The German troops are led by Colonel Fritz von Schwabe, who years ago studied with Big Dr. Gurameto at a university in Germany. Once both are aware of one another—after a gap of ten years—the doctor invites von Schwabe to dine with him, even though the Germans have already taken hostages and the Albanians have fired on von Schwabe’s advance guard. But friendships being what they are, what’s important about a little war?
A year later, in 1944, the Germans retreat as the Communists arrive, and Big Dr. Gurameto is temporarily placed in handcuffs for aiding the Germans and turning against his own people. Later, he is released. In what has been a serious narrative, Kadare suddenly injects a little levity. The Communists instigate make work so that everyone has a job. The ideological enemies (“imperialism, Zionism, and Coca-Cola”) become identified as “the three ‘no’s. The lyrics of older songs change: “Lena lies sick in a hospital bed. / In the lonely ward, her hopes are dead.” The cult of Stalin mushrooms. The tone is satirical, irreverent as Gjirokastër is described as “a medieval city striving to become a communist one.” Then, both Doctors Gurameto are arrested.
In the final section of the novel, dated 1953, actions become more complicated, particularly past ones. There’s talk about a mysterious Jewish organization known as the Joint,” “a group of doctors [who were] preparing the greatest crime in the history of mankind: the elimination by murder of all the communist leaders throughout the world, starting with Joseph Stalin.” Rumors suggest that the plot originated in Gjirokastër.
Big Dr. Gurameto is once again imprisoned and tortured as his tormentors ask him what specifically happened at that dinner, September 16, 1943, when Colonel Fritz von Schwabe dined at his house. Is it true that the doctor was able to gain the release of eighty or a hundred hostages, including a celebrated Jew? Was he collaborating with the enemy or helping his own people? As his deflectors charge: “The people [were] shedding blood on the battlefield against the enemy while you host[ed] dinners with music and champagne.”
In true Kafkaesque fashion, details become confused. One version suggests that Colonel Fritz von Schwabe died several months before the invasion and, therefore, could not have been at the dinner that night. Another suggests that there were never two doctors with the same name but only one. And when Stalin dies, isn’t it proof positive that there was a secret plot to murder him since all good Communists know that Stalin was invincible?
The Fall of the Stone City is a cryptic narrative suggesting that the past not only haunts us but—perhaps equally disturbing—that full disclosure will never be possible. Even under duress or torture.
The translation by John Hodgson is seamless.
Ismail Kadare: The Fall of the Stone City
Grove Press, 168 pp., $23
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.