The first book I have read after a whole month’s (a WHOLE MONTH’S!) hiatus was Ismail Kadare’s The Fall of the Stone City, a choice made by my book club. A couple of confessions here: I probably wouldn’t have read this book if not for my book club, and I probably would have disliked it if anyone in my book club had liked it.
The whole reason why I wanted to participate in a book club was to expand my reading horizons. My tendency to read books based on New York Times or NPR or Time Magazine reading lists gives me a fairly narrow view of the literary world, so I always appreciate the nudge to get out of my limited, Ameri-centric reading habits. Kadare’s novel–originally written in his native language of Albanian–approaches a familiar subject from an unfamiliar, distinctly un-American (also, un-Western European) perspective. The Fall of the Stone City is the story of Gjirokastër, a small Albanian town caught in the sites of the Italian, German, and Russian empires during the second World War, a town that spends more time gossiping about what their neighbors are eating for dinner than caring which tyrant rules their lives, a town trying to stay grounded in a time of rapidly shifting currents. In this town are two men, both surgeons and both, coincidentally, with the last name of Gurameto. Because of these two similarities, the Drs. Gurameto–dubbed “Big” and “Little” by the townspeople–are inextricably tied to each other. Tumult meets the stone city of Gjirokastër, not when Mussolini breaks ties with Hitler and the Nazi Army invades, but when Big Dr. Gurameto hosts German officers in his home for a mysterious dinner party. History battles myth, truth battles half truth, and a Communist inquiry into Big Dr. Gurameto’s night with the Nazis transforms memory into madness.
It all looks grim on paper, but Kadare’s lighthearted prose–full of so many quips sometimes I thought I was reading Douglas Adams or Pratchet, maybe–creates a mood that’s guiltily funny. One isn’t supposed to laugh at invading armies, oppressed peoples, and torture at the hands of fervent, deranged, police bullies. Kadare plays with those feelings of guilt and propriety, challenging the way we read history and the way we understand reality. The most enjoyable part of this book for me was the thin line Kadare walked between humor and horror, between magical realism and psychological thriller. Big Dr. Gurameto finds himself in deeper and deeper trouble with the authorities, and by default Little Dr. Gurameto gets dragged along with him. The identities of both men are at stake, and all hell breaks loose. And by, “all hell breaks loose,” I mean, “things get really confusing.”
Kadare does, however, sacrifice plot and character development to squeeze in his lines of black humor in this regrettably brief novel. The strongest character of the book isn’t Big or Little Dr. Gurameto, but the stone city itself. Gjirokastër is described as a collective, a city without a stable history, “inscrutable as a sphinx.” Its houses are called “ladies in stone,” and its ladies are called “the city’s hidden face, its soul, its exact reflection.” Anyone can see Kadare’s love (or at least obsession) with Gjirokastër, which was his birthplace, and his passion shows in his writing, making the city the fullest character of the novel. This is hardly a bad thing, and I can think of at least two other books I loved whose main character was a city/place (The Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino and 2666 by Roberto Bolaño). I would be curious to know of more examples that others have read. Please post them below!
I recommend this book to readers who like
WWII, war, magical realism, black comedy, or slightly trippy novels;
books by Italo Calvino or Kurt Vonnegut.