In September 1943, German soldiers advance on the ancient gates of Gjirokastër, Albania. It is the first step in a carefully planned invasion. But once at the mouth of the city, the troops are taken aback by a surprising act of rebellion that leaves the citizens fearful of a bloody counter-attack.
Soon rumours circulate, in cafes, houses and alleyways, that the Nazi Colonel in command of the German Army was once a school acquaintance of a local dignitary, Doctor Gurameto. In the town square, Colonel von Schwabe greets his former classmate warmly; in return, Doctor Gurameto invites him to dinner. The very next day, the Colonel and his army disappear from the city.
The dinner at Gurameto’s house changes the course of events in twentieth-century Europe. But as the citizens celebrate their hero, a conspiracy surfaces which leads some to place Gurameto – and the stone city – at the heart of a plot to undermine Socialism.
Thanks to Sarah over at Hard Book Habit for bringing this book to my attention and thanks to the well-known chain of bookshops that actually bothered to stock it, rather than just pander to the popular books and terrible novelty things clogging up the entrance that one has to wade through before getting to the good stuff.
World War II is a natural hotbed for history and literature (although perhaps it is reaching saturation point on the latter), yet Albania and its inhabitants aren’t mentioned in anything I have read. Neighbour Greece has plenty written about it but it is surprising that Albania hasn’t had as much coverage as it makes for an interesting study. Part of Italy’s empire until their eventual capitulation, taken over by Germany and then under the yoke of communism, there is certainly plenty of scope for exploring the political and human aspects of the conflict.
Mixing fact and fiction Kadare creates a thought-provoking story, filled with satire and darkness where fact and fiction mingle to manufacture confusion and fear at every turn. From the outset there is a feel of magical realism to the book, slightly reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez but this is layered over with a nightmarish quality that runs through the book, hinted at in the beginning and coming to brutal fruition towards the end.
The interpretation of events is key and coming to a truth – but not necessarily the correct version of said truth – is key to the book, the subsequent consequences based on these conclusions makes for a state in which heroes can become victims and vice versa at a whim. There is a fantastical element (in the way it is written) to this but also a brutal reality, it makes for plenty of comic tragedy of the highest order.
The chaos and uncertainty of war and the need for conspiracies to drive forward events to allow people to subject others; coupled with the nature of people, endlessly speculating, creating stories and sowing confusion makes for an enigmatic tale. One which moves fluidly between historical events, folklore, superstition and the inevitable ability for people to believe whatever is suggested to them, thanks to the paranoid and ridiculous fear of rulers.
At the heart of the book though is a resistance to forced authority of dictators and the whispers of a paranoid regime that sees treachery everywhere. Everything is seen as symbolic, of something mysterious and dangerous or heroic and defiant, its frighteningly absurd as the needs of the individual impresses on the truth corrupting it to their own needs, leading to an insurmountable problem that ‘needs’ to be policed.
Kadare’s book is very intriguing, not only did I feel the need to check out more about Albania during the war but also in general and I will certainly be looking for more of his books in future. His style is both oblique and incisive and will appeal to those who love a bit of Orwell or Kafka.