I dreamed that, as the result of a protracted competition of handwritten poems, I had won the position of Poet Laureate, though the appointing company seemed reluctant to conclude this. But there was no doubt. Andrew Motion had, after ten years, become rather fed up with the business. It now fell to me to juggle enthusiasm, devotion, sacrifice and ― of course where poetry was concerned ― ultimate failure.
This released a great deal of talk and made further sleep impossible. I tossed in autobiographical surges.
I first heard of the name of Ismail Kadare when Radio 3’s Nightwaves programme interviewed him on 4-Jun-08. Astounded that there could be an Albanian writer of international repute, I was also impressed by the quick sense he made, aided in French by David Bellos, his translator from French to English. (The story of the books’ journey from Albanian to French is a longer one, initially involving controversies with Arshi Pipa, who is at least fully credited in the Introduction to Chronicle in Stone.)
I have subsequently been introduced ― by the patina-rich Paul Bailey, to whom I have owed so much over so many years ― to the Jewish Bulgarian writer and diarist, Mihail Sebastian, through another Radio 3 programme, Thirsting For Music,12-Sep-08. But that is another story. And why should not Romania, too, produce its literary genius? It is hardly the fault of the writers if these countries were admitted to the EU a little bit too rapidly.
So what sort of world did I find when I set about acquiring and reading one of the earliest of his novels, Chronicle in Stone?
This is a fecund novel of childhood and something of a matrix for characters and themes for the novels that followed. Although the period of the Second World War is seen through the eyes of a growing boy, the boy does a great deal of growing and factual content of all kinds, military included, is thin on the ground. All is event. The main character, as in the title, is the city of Gjirokastër (or Gjirokastra, to taste) itself in which Kadare grew up. Perhaps the most striking description of the city occurs on the first page:
It was a slanted city, set at a sharper angle than perhaps any other city on earth, and it defied the laws of architecture and city planning. The top of one house might graze the foundation of another, and it was surely the only place in the world where if you slipped and fell in the street, you might well land on the roof of a house — a peculiarity known most intimately to drunks. [p. 1]
The city is stone and slate, coursed over by water, but is in a state of constant mobility and imaginative flux which do not merely reflect the constant bombing by the English, Greek, Italian and German planes so much admired and loved by our little boy. The boy narrator himself sees the city as the main character in his life, but we meet his friends and the many old women – their magic, superstition and pessimism ― who populate and nourish his world.
Gjirokastër is taken and retaken ceaselessly by Axis and Allied powers throughout the war, and the mood of the book, bare and hard to begin with, becomes progressively more violent and oppressive as the boy leaves childhood behind. Towards the end, people who have become objects of affection through familiarity, are being pointlessly and arbitrarily killed. The human environment was always superstitious, hard and unforgiving, especially to love, while remaining luridly responsive to the abnormal (a girl grows a beard, a homosexual marries and is assassinated) or simply the new (a boy acquires spectacles, the city’s only statue is shot in the thigh):
A Greek sergeant fired several shots, but no one was hit. He did, however, get the city’s only statue in the thigh. It was a big bronze statue in the town square, erected back in the days of the monarchy. The city had never had statues before that. The only representations of the human form were the scarecrows in the fields on the other side of the river. When plans to put up a statue were announced, many fanatical citizens who had hailed the anti-aircraft gun had been somewhat sceptical. A metal man? Was such a novelty really necessary? Might it not cause trouble? At night, when everyone was sleeping as God had ordained, the statue would be out there standing erect. Day and night, summer and winter, it would stand. People laughed and cried, shouted and died. But not the statue. It would just stand there and not utter a sound. And everyone knew how suspicious silence was.
The sculptor who came from Tirana to inspect the proposed site of the pedestal barely escaped blows. A bitter polemic raged in the city newspaper. At last the majority of the population resigned itself to having the statue. It arrived in a huge lorry with a tarpaulin over the back. It was winter. They set it up at night in the main square. To avoid trouble there was no unveiling ceremony. People stood and stared in wonder at the bronze warrior with his hand on his pistol, who gazed severely down into the square as if asking, “Why didn’t you want me?”
One night someone threw a blanket over the bronze man’s shoulders. From then on, the city’s heart went out to its statue. [pp. 165-6]
A glance at the map shows that mainland Gjirokastër is only a few miles east of island Corfu. The moment war broke out the fatuous Mussolini hopped across from Brindisi to recruit backward Albania for his Italian Empire (of operatic fascism). From then on, war sputtered between the Greeks (until their defeat), the Italians (until their defeat), and ultimately between the British and the “men with yellow hair” – the Germans (until their defeat). Gjirokastër, as the only sizeable town in the region, is deemed worth fighting over and regularly bombed. Finally, a third force emerges, that of the Communist partisans who in the atmosphere of the time acquire a higher moral standing and recruit easily among the young, girls as well as boys.
Kadare offers no comfort and no quarter. It is obvious to a small boy that all these people end up killing each other as well as us. The flags, the currency, the style, the language of proclamations changes overnight from Albanian to Italian, from Italian to Greek and back again, from Greek to German and so on. Only the arrival of the Germans provokes a wholesale exodus of the city’s inhabitants to the unfamiliar countryside; but within a few hours they are all trekking back again under cover of darkness.
In addition to the narrator’s continual imaginative fluctuations, there is great scope for comic potential, notably where the Italians are concerned. Their soldiery is effeminate:
“When foreigners set foot in the country, you have to be ready for anything,” Grandmother answered. “A young girl can’t sit in the window any more without the Italians taking out pocket mirrors and flashing signals at her.”
“It was obvious from the day they arrived that they were fops,” said Aunt Xhemo. “God knows I’ve seen my share of armies, but I never thought I’d come across soldiers wearing perfume.” […] Everyone cursed the Italians. We had long known that they were evil, despite their beautiful clothes, their plumes and their shiny buttons. [pp. 90-1; 132]
The city’s natural human environment is a cultural and ethnic patchwork, as much of the Balkans and Middle East has always been until recently, though Ottoman Turkey is looked to as the regional source of influence and atmosphere (the books are Turkish). And having imported ― inappropriately to a primarily Moslem country ― the various institutions of operatic fascism, the Italians see these disappear overnight:
The city had been left without a government. In quick succession it had lost the planes, the anti-aircraft guns, the siren, the brothel, the searchlight and the nuns. [pp. 145-6]
The city has its share of eccentrics, who are lovingly handled, and there are unforgettable scenes, as when the city jail is taken over by virtually the whole population as an air raid shelter. In the midst of his war-oppressed childhood, our boy starts to notice the legs of girls and discovers Macbeth and words. Given the omnipresence of history, there is remarkably little in the fabric that describes or explains the evolving situation other than through the eyes of Cassandra-like elderly women. The boy’s parents scarcely make an appearance. No child ever goes to school. Few men seem to do any work. Yet life is hard, attitudes punitive and what starts out as merely bleak reaches, under the escalating duress of war, far towards the extreme of bitter despair.
The absence of factual content is important. Anecdote, movement and event swirl together to create an atmosphere in the mind of a young but growing boy, who in turn as narrator implants this atmosphere in our minds. Though the book is short and not difficult to finish, it leaves behind a haunting, a sort of vacuum in which the absence of emotional, intellectual and physical resources invests the city itself, a compendium of stone and water, as the leading character, as well as stage set and drama. This is exactly where we began and how we began, an artistic triumph of simplicity, economy and focus.
Dark, discreet, softly spoken, our 24-year-old relative has left to continue his programme of European visits.
What do people want to do when they find themselves in London for half a day in dry weather? National Gallery? Yes. Birdcage Walk? Yes. A peep at the proportionate statuary in front of Buckingham Palace.
How about Eggs Benedict at the Ritz?
How about a “straight blade shave” at a proper barber?
How about a visit to Taylor of Old Bond Street for some sandalwood shaving soap for one’s brother? The base tone should be sandalwood, of course, but there ought to be overtones of cedar.
How about evening attendance at a Peaceful Warrior presentation ― this concession to mind-body-spirit to gratify a helpful friend?
There is no hurry. Some of these goals are accomplished, others not. Nelson is extremely high on his pillar. Only British Colombia, with its proximity of mountains and sea, offers scope for nostalgia, appreciated less growing up there at the time.
But London is London. A brother is a brother. This one, born a century or two adrift, has been painted, qua Velasquez, with a ruff, hand on globe, positioned in front of a dog. It all got “more and more outrageous”.
An e-mail arrives from their mother: “I hope he’s not taking up too much of your time.”