I’ve always had an interest in Albania and its history, mainly due to its connection to Italian history (The Arberesh speaking population have been residing in southern Italy for centuries; the country was briefly annexed by Italy under Mussolini) not to mention it’s role as part of the Ottoman Empire (hence the spread of Islam into this corner of Europe). There aren’t many Albanian authors translated into English and Ismail Kadare is probably the best known who has. This wasn’t my first read of Kadare - his more recent The Accident was. Chronicle In Stone was his 1971 debut and to my mind a far superior novel.
Although the city in which this story takes place isn’t specifically mentioned, it is safe to assume that it is based on Kadare’s hometown of Gjirokaster, which does bear a striking resemblance to the city described in the novel. It is an ancient city, made entirely of stone - stone homes, stone streets, stone bridges etc - and it is close to the border with Greece. It is the early stages of World War II and the city - as is the nation as a whole - is under Italian occupation. However, occupation changes hands quite often between the Italians and the Greeks. Meanwhile the British are constantly bombing this old city. It is in this atmosphere of occupation and violence that the narrator - an unnamed child - tells his and the city’s story and it is from this child’s point of view that we meet his family, the various occupiers, as well as the many colorful characters that populate this ancient town (One hundred year old women, “a woman with a beard”, a man who relishes spending his days serving his time at the local jail which is always being emptied). Being that it is being told from the point of view of a young child, there is an innocence about it all that allows the harrowing details of life in this city to have a somewhat humorous tinge. The boy’s imagination is wild and there is an almost dream-like mixture of history, folklore and fantasy in his observations: everything around him is alive - the streets, the homes, the stone bridge, the air field, the trees, the sky, each with it’s own thoughts on what is taking place in the city. It seems to be a way for the young boy to deal with the madness he sees all around him: the bombings, the killings, the hangings, the men walking through the streets with severed heads under their arms. However, he is just a boy and naturally he often retreats into the very things that boys his age concern themselves with. He is a lover of Shakespeare’s MacBeth (although he often misunderstands the meaning of the words) and is fascinated with his grandfather’s Turkish books.
Naturally, politics plays a part in this novel as well and the appearance of Enver Hoxha as a young partisan is an interesting inclusion when you consider that this novel was originally published under the Hoxha dictatorship of Albania. He is neither praised of criticized (and if he is, he is only through the mouths of his “enemies”). But Kadare doesn’t pull any punches revealing the infighting among the differing anti-occupation factions: the partisans, the Ballists, and the supporters of King Zog and it doesn’t shy away from the brutality they inflict one another and how these divisions even divided father and son, uncles and nephews, and so on. Add to this that in between the chapters in which the boy narrates his story there are short “chronicles”, which come in the form of fragments, which alert the reader as to what is going on outside the boy’s experience and understanding.
The entire novel has a somewhat magical realist feel to it, this tendency to blend folklore and history in such a way that it can only be seen that way through the eyes of a child. The imagery of stone is ever present - a symbol of the city being eternal, something which records memory and history, it’s inhabitants both past and present, and naturally, its endurance. This is a fantastic novel and if you are a fan of Eastern European literature (Kundera, Kertesz, etc) I would highly recommend this. A wonderfully written novel and one of those few that will stick with you long after reading it.