Book Review: Chronicle in Stone

Imagine a remote, superstition-gripped village in the mountains of Albania clinging to such a steep slope that when drunks fall off the sidewalk, they land on someone's roof. That's the setting of Ismail Kadare's Chronicle in Stone, newly updated, revised and published in a full version for the first time in English. The wonder-filled little town is based on Kadare's Balkan childhood home, Gjirokastër. Here witchcraft is a practical concern, eyeglasses are considered shocking and the severed arm of an English pilot can become a sacred relic.

Under Italian rule, then Greek rule, now German rule, the village has characters that loom as mythic figures in the eyes of the near-sighted boy narrator, whose whimsical imagination struggles to understand a world of resistance fighting and Allied bombing, a world where a girl who kisses a boy in public can disappear forever.

Because Albanian is unrelated to any language spoken in modern Europe, at first glance, the characters' names make you feel you've stumbled into a science fiction novel. But this only increases the humanity of the delightful characters you grow to love: Selfixhe, the matriarch grandmother who foretells the coming war from chicken bones; Kako Pino, the bridal makeup artist ("People never stop getting married"); Llukan the Jailbird who protests the opening of the jail and freeing of the prisoners; Argjir Argjiri, half-man and half-woman, who scandalizes the town by getting married; and Dino Cico, the mad inventor, with his fuel-less wooden airplane that will save Albania. And there are more: the teacher who steals local cats for dissection and the boy who searches neighborhood wells for the body of the girl he was caught kissing. This fascinating, alien world lives by its own laws.

Kadare is a world-class novelist, now 70, a Nobel Prize candidate and winner of the first Booker International prize. He's written more than 50 books, many of which are available in French (he now lives in France), only a few in English. Some of them are politically complicated and historical and symbolic. This one isn't. It's a narrative banquet, a chain of one brilliant, warm-hearting scene after another, all linked together and told by a shy, bright kid who's fallen in love with Macbeth. It's in the tradition of Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and David Mitchell (Black Swan Green), a childhood world re-created in literature so completely it becomes an entire little universe the reader can return to again and again. This loving tribute to his childhood is like nothing I've ever read before. It's a polished, many-faceted autobiographical jewel laced with horror and humor, compassion and a goofy childhood imagination. Welcome to Albania.

Some commentators quibble about Kadare's political affiliations. Sure, in a Communist country, he gave communism lip service. Kadare didn't have an option. An author says as much as he can get away with and still stay alive to write more. "The writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship," says Kadare, and as you'll see in this simple, honest, child's view of a war-torn mountain town, no one side is completely right. Collaborators and partisans, revolutionaries and reactionaries, even the hated occupying Italians, all get a compassionate word from this superbly ironic commentator on the human comedy, Albanian-style.--Nick DiMartino

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