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Chronicle in stone — book review

1 December 2011

Chronicle in StoneChronicle in Stone by Ismail Kadare

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eleven years ago I was in Albania, and after being taken on a tour of the capital, Tirana, by a university student, Theofania, we sat down at a pavement cafe to rest and have something to drink. Theofania said that a man at the next table was Ismail Kadare, one of Albania’s most famous writers. One of my recurring daydreams has been how nice it would be to sit at cafe tables having literary discussions, especially with famous authors. Tirana is a small enough town that one can see people doing that, even if one does not have the temerity to join in. In the course of our tour we also passed Albania’s most famous film star, riding a bicycle.

I’d never heard of Ismail Kadare before, but having set eyes on him, if not actually having spoken to him, I was curious about his books, and when I found one in a bookshop, The file on H, I read it and enjoyed it. Not many bookshops stock his books, so when I saw Chronicle in stone, I bought it, and enjoyed it even more than The file on H.

It is set in the town of Gjirokaster in southern Albania, which is the town where Kadare grew up, so it is probably semi-autobiographical, and I have no doubt that Kadare must have witnessed scenes similar to those he describes in the book. It is set during the Second World War, when Gjirokaster was successively occupied by Italians, Greeks and Germans, with several changes as the tide of war ebbed and flowed.

It is seen through the eyes of a child, possibly a somewhat older child than Kadare would have been at the time. Though the age of the narrator is never stated, it seems to be about 6-10, whereas Kadare would have been about 2-3 years younger than that at the time. It is a child’s-eye view, yet an adult recollection of a child’s-eye view, with adult powers of description. But it looks at the the adult world through a child’s eyes, remembering people for particular characteristics or foibles that would impress a child. Apart from the other children, most of the adults belong to the grandparents’ generation, and so much of the information about the world comes to the narrator through his grandparents and their friends and relatives, aunts and great aunts who pop in to visit and gossip. There is the grandfather who lies on his divan each day, reading books in Turkish. There is the old woman who comments on each piece of news that it is the end of the world.

The nearest comparison I can think of is the “William” books by Richmal Crompton, which is also a fictional representation of a child’s experience of war, but the viewpoint is different and the culture is different. Crompton’s books reflect adult amusement at children’s interpretations of the adult world, and so they are more detached from the characters. Kadare gets more into the skin of the child, and articulates it from the child’s point of view. Another difference is that though Richman Crompton‘s books reflect fear of invasion, the invasion never took place, and the country was not occupied. The war was closer in Albania, the bombing more devastating, and, towards the end, with three different resistance movements, it also became a civil war. There is humour, but there is also tragedy and sadness.

I enjoyed the book partly because it it portrays Albanian culture, and having been to the country, it helped me to understand more of the people and the way they lived and thought.

There is also a sense in which the city itself is the main character in the novel. Occupying armies come and go, the inhabitants flee as refugees and return, but the city remains almost as a sentient being. Even in translation, Kadare’s descriptions are lyrical.

I’d never have read his books if we had not, by chance, being sitting at a table next to him at a cafe. I’d probably still not have heard of him but for that chance. But, having discovered his books, I’ll be reading more in future.

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