7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Gjirokaster is an ancient stone city in southern Albania - not far from the Greek border. It was the birthplace and hometown of the wonderful novelist, Ismail Kadare. It was also where the terrifying Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha came from. Hoxha is a ghostly figure who lurks on the peripheries of many of Kadare's books (e.g. The Successor and Agamemnon's Daughter: A Novella and Stories). And this, his great (semi-autobiographical) masterpiece, Chronicle in Stone is no exception. As I'm due to return to Albania in a few weeks, I eagerly picked this book up on holiday and my expectations were surpassed.
The narrator is a young boy trying to come to terms with the turmoil of war. His ancient city is swarming with occupiers, collaborators, revolutionaries, survivors, ordinary folk just trying to exist. And in the early 1940s, all is confusion - only a few decades after Albania's independence from the Ottoman Empire, the city changed hands several times back and forth between Italians, Greeks (with the aid of the British RAF bombers), Nazis - not to mention the various Albanian factions each with their own agendas (monarchists, nationalists, communists). Trying to understand the world of adults is hard enough for children - but when this is going on, it's impossible.
Kadare recaptures the innocent confusion of children with pitch perfect poignancy. Here is a little moment where the young narrator has a go.
"I wondered how it was that it had occurred to people to pile up so many stones and so much wood to make all those walls and roofs and then call that great heap of streets, roofs chimneys and yards a city. But even less comprehensible were the words "occupied city", which came up more and more in the grown-ups' conversations. Our city was occupied. Which meant that there were foreign soldiers in it. That much I new, but there was something else that bothered me. I couldn't see how a city could be unoccupied. And anyway, even if our city wasn't occupied, wouldn't there be these same streets, the same fountains, roofs and people? Wouldn't I still have the same mother and father and wouldn't Xhexho, Kako Pino, Aunt Xhemo and all the same people still come to visit?" (p25)
Without giving much away, these words would prove to be strangely prescient.
One aspect of childhood that Kadare vividly evokes throughout the book is the inability of young children to understand metaphor and allusion (let alone the simple issue of gravity). Everything gets taken too literally. Here our narrator is chatting with his best friend Ilir. His wonderful imagination gets carried away as he processes what they have overheard. The cause of some of the confusion is that he and Ilir a few months before had secretly gone to check out the local abattoir.
Ilir raced down Fools' Alley.
"Guess what?" he said, as he came through the door. "The world is round like a melon. I saw it at home. Isa brought it. It's round, perfectly round, and it spins without stopping." He took a long time to tell me what he had seen.
"But how come they don't fall off?" I asked when he told me there were other cities under us, full of people and houses.
"I don't know," Ilir said. "I forgot to ask Isa. He and Javer were home looking at the globe. Then Javer tapped it with his finger and
said, `Soon it'll be a slaughterhouse.'"
"Yes. That's what he said. The world will drown in blood. That's what he said."
"Where will all the blood come from?" I asked. "Fields and mountains don't have blood."
"Maybe they do,' said Ilir. "They must know something, they way they talk. When Javer said the world would be a slaughterhouse, I told him we'd been there and had seen how they slaughter sheep. He started laughing and said, `Now you'll see what happens when they slaughter nations.'"
"Nations? Like on the postage stamps, you mean?"
"Right. Like that. Nations."
"Who's going to slaughter them?"
Ilir shrugged. "I didn't ask."
I thought about the slaughterhouse again. One day when she was talking about the aerodrome Xhexho said that the fields and grasses would be covered with cement. With wet slipper cement. A rubber hose sluicing cities and nations. To wash away the blood... Maybe we were only at the beginning of the slaughter. But I found it hard to imagine nations being led to the slaughter, bleating as they went. Peasants in their black woollen cloaks. Butchers in white coats. Rams, ewes, lambs. People standing around to watch. Other people just waiting. Then it was time. France. Norway. The square awash with blood. Holland bleating. Luxembourg like a newborn lamb. Russia with a big bell around its neck. Italy a goat (I don't know why). Something mooing all on its own. Who could that be? (p91-92)
The book opens with a massive rainstorm (which causes all kinds of overnight chaos with flooding cisterns and streets) - but within a few pages the storm abates, and all is calm.
"I went back up the two flights to the living room, looked out and saw with joy that far off, at a distance too great to measure, a rainbow had appeared, like a brand-new peace treaty between mountain, river bridge, torrents, road, wind and city. But it was easy to see that the truce would not last long." (p10)
And in many ways that longed for, far off peace treaty is what everyone in the city craves, as the storms of war descend. The book doesn't end with a rainbow. Interestingly, as the excellent introduction by David Bellos observes, it doesn't end with Enver Hoxha's triumphant conquest of his own country in the name of the people - we just know that it is coming (though not as triumphant as he'd have liked). This is in itself a sly form of Kadare's rebellion against the official propaganda about the inevitability of the regime's victory. But that is part of the book's brilliance. He sustains his artistic and human integrity without compromising too much with the regime he submits too.
This boy (clearly based on Kadare himself) is a impressionable, curious and above all resilient observer of the world he's in - and he sees the glimmers of hope even in the darkest corners. He is obsessed with Shakespeare's Macbeth which he discovers in the course of the book - and sees all kinds of resonances within the stone walls of his own medieval home town. And the walls have seen it all. The people who inhabit them pass - but the walls survive (despite the aerial and artillery bombardments) - and tell their story. They are a chronicle in stone of the many rulers that have claimed Gjirokaster as their own.
But this book, a chronicle in its own right (interspersing the narrative with only apparently snippets of news items, observations and reflections), is a true act of bravery. First published in Albanian in 1971 when the Hoxha regime seemed so unassailable, to even hint that it might pass was potentially reckless. But it is more than a brave book. It is also a beautiful book and a humane book. And I suspect it is a book I will return to again and again.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 21 January 2008
Kadare recreates the irrepressible wonderment and imagination of childhood. All the characters come alive, their traits seemingly emphasised by child-like observation and innocence. Unsophisticated routines of long sheltered traditions and community are shattered by war and foreign intervention but there is a timeless quality in the depiction of human foible and behaviour.
The introduction is informative. The translation reads well,suggesting a poetic quality in the original.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Another atmospheric book about Albania by its great national writer. This one is about his native town, the ancient, higgeldy-piggeldy, stone-built city of Gjirokastër, near the Greek border. It seems to be permanently either swept by freezing winds or drenched in rain. Its older inhabitants are primitive and superstitious, especially the old women, and they believe in witchcraft. The story is told in the first person by a child. He must be very young, though his age is unspecified. He has a poetic imagination and the ability to put it into words which are both so extraordinary that they defy credibility: for example, he sees the raindrops which are caught in a cistern as sentient and resentful prisoners; or he imagine his eyes as sucking in images. Never mind that these seem to be more like the imagination of an adult poet - simply enjoy these and other wonderful conceits throughout the book for what they are. More credible: the boy becomes obsessed with words, tries to fit images to idioms like `devouring someone with his eyes'. When he hears that soon there will be `a slaughter of nations', the boy, whose has been horrified by a visit to a slaughter-house, tries to imagine what the slaughter of nations might look like.
He soon finds out. The story covers the period from 1939 to 1944. When it opens, the Italians, who had taken Albania in April 1939, are in occupation. The Greeks capture the town in 1940; the Italians recapture it briefly, are driven out again, but then return once more. When Italy leaves the war in 1943, the Germans take over Albania.
The first sign of war is that, just outside the town, the plain where the cows have been grazing is being turned into an aerodrome. Then there are orders for a black-out at night; then planes start flying over the city; and eerie searchlights play over the sky and the buildings. And then the air-raids begin, steadily becoming more frequent and intense. Initially the Italians are not hated as much as the old enemies, the Greeks. But then young people - boys and girls - go up into the mountains to join the Partisans. (For the old women, the main anger is that the girls are up there with the boys and will bring shame on their families.) Some partisans are caught and deported. The commander of the Italian garrison is assassinated. There are now executions by the Italians and reprisals by the Resistance. But the partisans, divided into three rival groups, also murderously fight each other. When the Italians leave the war and the city, the Communist partisans hold the town for a while and carry out `revolutionary justice', but then the Germans pour into the country, and before their arrival there is a mass exodus of the citizens into the unfamiliar countryside. Only a few old women remain behind, together with a handful of resistance fighters. From far off the refugees hear the thunder of German artillery subduing the town. Then the guns fall silent, and the refugees return to the battered stone city ... And there, with the war not yet over, Kadare ends his book.
One old woman in the story keeps on crying `the world is coming to an end'; but as often as not, what provokes these exclamations has little to do with the war: strictly local dramas, the behaviour of neighbours, the gossip about them, is just as likely to provoke them as having to shelter from the bombs. And because our little story-teller pays much attention to what his elders are saying, his narrative is not confined the war either. As in so many books that present historical events through the eyes of a child, it is the adult reader who attaches significance to things that a child would not fully understand and that are often of lesser importance to him than more quotidian events. Only towards the end of the book do the horrors of civil war in the town, the exodus and the return overwhelm everything else and move to the centre of the boy's narrative.
Once again Kadare has given us an unforgettable picture of his harsh homeland and of its gritty inhabitants.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 12 February 2009
I read this book while spending a week in Albania last summer and went to Gjirokaster, where the book is set. Chronicle in Stone is about a boy growing up in Albania during the Second World War. This book is written so beautifully invoking a real sense of this town in Albania, built on the side of a hill with steep stone roads. It is deeply moving as you read about what happens to the town, thrust into the middle of the war with the flag placed at the top of the castle changing on an almost daily basis from Italian to German and back again. Albania (and Albanians) are so frequently misjudged, as I learnt from the comments I had from people on hearing that I was going there. This book would undoubtedly open some people's eyes somewhat. A real pleasure to read - one of those books that only once you finish it and look back do you see the full picture.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 11 July 2007
In this intriguing novel Kadare creates wonderful atmosphere and portrays his childhood town through the eyes of a young boy. He allows the reader both to picture all the idiosynchracies of Southern Albanian life with its mixture of traditions and superstitions for him/herself, and through the narrators youthful innocence.
Kadare allows us to see how the all consuming nature of the second world war broke into the relatively insular life of Gjirokaster.
The narrative through a young boys eyes also provides humour and fear.
An easier read than most Kadare novels
on 19 September 2013
I visited Gjirokaster in Albania in 1984 during the last year of the life of the country's dictator, Enver Hoxha. This town is the setting for "Chronicle in Stone" first published by Ismail Kadaré in Albanian in Tirana in 1971. It was also his birthplace in 1936 and that of Enver Hoxha in 1908. I can attest that the city is indeed, to quote Kadaré's words, " ... a stone carapace" inhabited by human flesh.
I did not realise until I read the book how many times the city had been occupied during WW2, repeatedly by the Italians and the Greeks, and finally by the Germans.
The author must have been about 7 or 8 years old when Gjirokaster became a 'theatre' of war and was occupied by the Italian forces for the first time. As David Bellos points out in his 'Afterword', the narrator of the tale, a young boy, must have been a little older than Kadaré. The author describes the city's misfortunes through the eyes of an innocent young boy. The result is a magical yet also realistic and credible description of the effects of war and occupation on the inhabitants and fabric of his city. The narrator finds things interesting that the adults disdain. For example, his excitement and delight about the airfield constructed by the Italians and the comings and goings of their 'planes, which were clearly up to no good as far as Albania was concerned, upsets his family, who only see the bad side of its existence. At first, the boy is full of wonder about everything, but gradually the seriousness of the situation that he and his family are experiencing dawns upon him.
This novel is, at the very least, a beautiful and unusual portrayal of modern war through the eyes of a child. It contains deeper meanings and messages, most of which would not have been lost on his Albanian readers who were living under the heel of a repressive dictatorship.
Later on in the book, we are told of the arrival of the Communist partisans, who were under the leadership of Enver Hoxha, and we read things that may well have been risky to express whilst living, as the author was, under a repressive Stalinist regime, where any criticism of it was not allowed. However, Kadaré was criticised by the regime but never, unlike many of his fellow authors, imprisoned. The reasons for this are to some extent revealed in an interview published in the edition of the novel that I read and also in the author's brief book Albanian Spring: The Anatomy of Tyranny . In Albanian Spring: The Anatomy of Tyranny , Kadaré hints that the exiled Albanian writer Arshi Pipa may have tried to incite trouble over Chronicle in Stone for him from his place of exile in North America. Pipa, according to Kadaré, may have tried to persuade Enver Hoxha that this book about Gjirokaster contained coded messages detrimental to the Albanian Communist government and also to Hoxha himself.
And, Pipa must have known the novel well because he was the first to translate it into English. Indeed, the edition that I have just read (Canongate, 2011) is a translation based on Pipa's. It has been edited by David Bellos who has added material that Kadaré added some time after first publishing it. Bellos has also written an interesting 'Afterword' that follows the novel. Following this, there is his translation of an interview between Kadaré and Stéphanie Courtois in which the reader can learn much about the struggles of artists, and writers in particular, living under a repressive regime.
There is much to recommend this unusually constructed fictional history of an ancient city during times of war. It is an interesting, enjoyable, at times humorous, novel or fictionalised memoir, maybe. I have enjoyed reading it, and encourage everyone to experience it. Get the Canongate edition, if you can; the additional material that it contains is well worth reading.
Review by Adam Yamey, author of "ALBANIA ON MY MIND"
on 24 March 2012
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 him 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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 2 July 2013
This is a view of the 2nd world war in an albanian hill town form the perspective of a boy - it's not clear how old he is 8 or 12 or maybe it doesn't matter. It's bleak but never heavy and the quirky take on the world sticks with you. It makes one see the present from a very different perspective. I've reread this several times and given it to many others, all of whom have been inspired to chase down more of Kadare's work. This to me is the best of it though.
on 11 June 2014
with childish voice , funny and innocent narrating of albania during the WWII by a young boy.nothing fascinating in all it's part,just he kept prattling without something that break the dullness of his voice.
though not up to the expectation,still want to read his other works.
on 8 June 2015
present for someone else