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Ismail Kadare: Darka e gabuar (The Fall of the Stone City)

Like many of Kadare’s novels, this book is set in and around his home town of Gjirokastër. It opens in the 1930s. The town has two doctors, both called Dr. Gurameto. They are not related. One was called Big Dr Gurameto and he was older and more imposing than Little Gurameto. Moreover he had studied in the bigger country, namely Germany, while Little Dr. G had studied in Italy. However the two doctors seemed to get on and people waited in vain for some dispute between the two.

They thought it might occur when Italy invaded Albania but it did not. Then things changed. Italy had surrendered to the Allies and was now opposed to Germany and the Germans. But where did that leave Albania? Had it also surrendered along with Italy and was it now an enemy of Germany? The answer came soon. A German plane flew overhead and dropped leaflets explaining that the Germans would pass through Albania but as a friend. The Albanians were not entirely happy about this but it was better than being at war with Germany.

Meanwhile we learn the situation of Gjirokastër as regards its hinterland. The city had always had a reputation for arrogance. There were different explanations for this. Viewed in the most charitable light, its pride was an aspect of its isolation. There were four main villages to contend with: Labëria, Lazarat, Lunxhëria, and the Greek-minority villages stretched along both sides of the river valley to the south. They did not like Gjirokastër and Gjirokastër did not like them, for various historical reasons. However, all agreed that they just wanted the Germans to pass through.

However, the Germans did not pass through without any trouble. As the advance motorcycle squad approached, it was fired on and they beat a retreat back to the main troop. As we know Germans did not take kindly to being attacked. The troop came up to the town and it was suggested that the town would be blown up as punishment. At this point, in particular, though we have had glimpses of it before, we get various views: what actually happened and what the locals think has happened/might happen. Of course, the locals do not always agree so we get two or more divergent local views. All of these – the reality and the divergent local views – are mixed up so it is not always clear which is which.

Three things seem to have happened though their whys and wherefores are not clear. Someone, it is not clear who or even if it was merely an accident, waves a white flag/sheet in surrender, which seems to work. The Germans do not blow up the town but they do take hostages but, of course, there is then speculation as to the fate of the hostages. Finally it seems that the commander of the German troop, the much decorated and injured Baron Fritz von Schwabe, was at university with Big Dr Gurameto. A dinner is held chez Big Dr Gurameto with von Schwabe and other Nazis and the family of Big Dr Gurameto. But what actually happened at this dinner? We get various ideas but there remains a certain ambiguity which will continue to haunt this novel. the locals knew something went on as they heard the music (German, of course) playing loudly from the doctor’s gramophone.

As well as the running theme of the two doctors, the disparities between reality and rumour and the famous dinner and what actually happened at it, we also have the old judges. There were quite a lot. They lost their jobs when the Italians took over, When the German occupiers appealed for recruits for the newly founded Albanian gendarmerie, they all eagerly volunteered. This is not the last time we see them volunteering for similar work.

Of course the Germans go and the Communists take over and we still see the two doctors not in dispute, to the annoyance of the locals. However, more than once, the doctors are arrested by the Communists and then released. Interestingly, at the last interrogation, the Communists want to know more about the famous dinner and, as it turns out, with good reason. Even more important is the idea that they might have been involved in the famous Doctors’ Plot. Stalin had alleged that a large number of doctors (many of whom were Jewish) were plotting to kill him and other senior Soviet officials and this plot might have extended to other parts of the world under Soviet influence, as Albania then was. Indeed, the Albanian officials feel that it would look good for them if they could show it all started in Albania and they had caught the perpetrators

Kadare is scathing about the Communists and their (lack of) achievement and mocks them, for example for their attack on the traditional songs of the elderly ladies of the town. Their only refgret is that it is easier to lock up men than women. Renaming is also fashionable, with, for example, Lunatics’ Lane being a candidate for renaming. (Kadare lived on Lunatics’ Lane as a child). There are other words beginning with re- which become fashionable.

Kadare keft Albania and moved to France, so clearly feels free and, indeed, obliged to point out the horrors of the various occupations – the Italians, the Germans and the Communists. This one ends while Albania is still in the Soviet sphere of influence. However, we will see in a later book by Kadare (translated into many languages but not English) that Albania switched from the Soviet Union to China. Nevertheless Kadare has enough material for this book and the story of the alleged but non-existent rivalry between the two doctors and what really happened at the mysterious dinner with the Germans all add to the entertainment.

First published in 2008 by Onufri, Tirana
First English translation in 2012 by Canongate
Translated by John Hodgson