The Fall of the Stone City

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[Editor’s note: this post was contributed by Joshua Garstka.]

The Fall of the Stone City
Ismail Kadare (translated by John Hodgson)
Grove Press, February 2013
168 pages
$23.00

Gjirokastër was not as wise as it should have been. Or perhaps it was wiser. It came to the same thing.

Just before World War II, Gjirokastër, Albania, faced a revolving door of invading nations: Italy in 1939, Greece, Italy again, and then Germany, before the Albanians finally reclaimed control in 1944. In Ismail Kadare’s The Fall of the Stone City, the German occupation is the basis for a fable that’s briskly told and often absurd.

Kadare’s novel, published in Albania in 2008 and recently translated by John Hodgman, has no time for sentiment. Even the most traumatic incidents have a cartoonish bent. Kadare writes with a wide-angle focus that seems to overlook the people themselves; their countries perform much of the action:

Italy’s big German brother felt not the slightest pity but turned violently against her. Germany accused Italy of betrayal and showered her with insults and contempt.

We are anchored by one individual: Big Dr. Gurameto, an imposing gynecologist trained in Germany. When the Germans come to town, Dr. Gurameto recognizes a colonel as an old friend, and invites him to dinner to demand that the troops release their hostages (which they do). This encounter is the cornerstone of Kadare’s narrative, and the night of Dr. Gurameto’s negotations takes on a mythic status for Gjirokastër, distorted by memory and speculation. Some citizens even pretend they were hostages, inventing eyewitness accounts.

Soon Communists have taken control of the country, and the dinner is roundly dismissed as imagined—until 1953, when Dr. Gurameto himself is taken hostage, believed to be part of a plot by Jewish doctors to exterminate all Communist leaders, starting with Stalin. Imprisoned, the doctor is forced to revisit what really occurred at that fateful dinner.

Compressing ten years of politics into 168 pages, Kadare impresses with his sense of economy. Yet the retelling is wildly fictitious, and the political backdrop changes rapid-fire; this isn’t for readers who want a broader knowledge of Albanian history. With so many shifting allegiances, and distortions of Dr. Gurameto’s dinner, the truth feels elusive throughout. Yet Kadare closes with the reminder that this all happened, more or less. No, it may not have happened quite this way – but what does that change?

Josh Garstka is not slaving away at his first manuscript, but has nonetheless published a few poems, recently in Cream City Review and Stirring. He received an M.A. in writing and publishing from Emerson College, and currently works in textbook publishing. His past with Ploughshares stretches back to the early days of this blog.