Chronicle in Stone
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". . . a timely read, and instructive, as Albania seeks membership in NATO and the European Union."
Ruled by the Ottomans for five centuries until 1913, besieged during World War II, and then locked up for forty years by hardcore Stalinist leader Enver Hoxha, Albania, Europe’s only Muslim county, nearly evaporated from the map until the early 1990s.
Now it is wide open. Yet few still visit. Last year I was among the few and found a country lost in time. Women still wear traditional clothes and horse-drawn carts share space on newly paved roads. Along the Adriatic Sea, thousands of crumbling concrete defense bunkers remain, a stubborn legacy of Hoxha’s paranoia.
Ismail Kadare in his novel Chronicle in Stone memorializes life in the stone city of Gjirokaster (a World Heritage Site) where he was born and lived through numerous military invasions during World War II. The Italians under Mussolini first occupied the city and then the British shelled it, followed by invading Greek and German troops.
We get a glimpse of life through the eyes of a young boy as he observes assassinations in the city square, collapsing buildings, the shocking arrival of brothels, and his curiosity with sirens, searchlights, and life in underground shelters. Intrigued with the Italian constructed aerodrome, the boy is disappointed when the fighter planes disappear. Kadare writes: “From the far horizon bedecked with a thick mist which soon swallowed up the great plane came the last sound of the throaty breathing I knew so well, but it had already grown distant and alien. Suddenly the world sank back into silence.” His grandmother laments that the kids have “fallen in love with war.”
The author, fascinated with Macbeth, weaves mystery and intrigue into the lives of citizens forced to take shelter in the city’s citadel, a 13th century stone fortification with underground aqueducts and passageways. The irreconcilable “Karllashis and Angonis, Muslims and Christians, nuns and prostitutes, the scions of great families, street cleaners and gypsies” all sought refuge in the labyrinth.
It’s a timely read, and instructive, as Albania currently seeks membership in NATO and the European Union. In the now UN-protected former Yugoslav province of Kosovo, Albanians – who outnumber the once-dominant Serbs – are pushing for independence and perhaps a merger with neighboring Albania, events that could spark yet another Balkan ethnic conflict.
Could more violence loom in fragile, reborn Albania, the kind Kadare describes in his poetic and rhythmic voice of Gjirokaster under attack: “Thousands of terrified windows spewed their shattered panes … The City withdrew into its ancient stones.” Kadare breathes life into his characters—their superstitions, personal relationships, and the loss of traditions in the horrors of war.
Awarded the Man Booker International prize in 2005 and translated by Arshi Pipa, this novel was first published in 1971.
Reviewer: Kate Padilla