The Fall of the Stone City

  • Ismail Kadare
  • Grove Press
  • 176 pp.

The heart of magical realism beats in this novel suffused with a city’s collective emotions in response to events of World War II.

Where does identity reside? Author Ismail Kadare suggests it lies in the city of Gjirokastër. Don’t be fooled by the fact that Big Dr. Gurameto and Little Dr. Gurameto are introduced right away. The story of the two Dr. Gurametos may carry the reader through the novel, but The Fall of the Stone City is an unsettling tale of the greater consciousness, the one that speaks with the crowd’s voice and never really knows how stories begin or end. The heart of magical realism beats in this novel suffused with collective emotions, not just those of the angry mob, but others that range from “an agony of conscience” to paralysis, disappointment and relief. The Fall of the Stone City’s unique voice is one of many reasons to read this book.

Translated from the original Albanian by John Hodgson, The Fall of the Stone City begins in Gjirokastër in 1943 during the middle of World War II. Surrounded by monumental world events, Gjirokastër was curiously unaffected by them. “The city had always had a reputation for arrogance,” and perhaps that was why the Germans left the city alone for so long after “the Italian invasion” or “Albania’s unification with Italy” depending on the crowd’s point of view. The most important talk in the city through the years was instead about the rivalry between Big Dr. Gurameto and the unrelated Little Dr. Gurameto. 

The city embraced the highs and lows of each Gurameto as if such a thing could be owned by a crowd. As long as one Gurameto was besting the other in a way that could be discussed, then the city was in balance. But in 1943, events moved so fast that Gjirokastër “seemed to lose its bearings,” temporarily unable to understand how the competition between the two Dr. Gurametos related to the war which had at last arrived in the city.

The Germans, who had promised to pass through Gjirokastër without incident, were fired upon by someone in the crowd. No one in city knew who provoked the Germans. Even if a name had surfaced, individual names meant so little in Gjirokastër. Nicknames meant more, but even then, identity did not necessarily exist. Nicknames changed as often as the crowd’s sentiment. Gjirokastër could not answer the Germans’ question about who had fired the first shot. As a result, the city was to be punished according to the rules of war, which meant it would be leveled by every bomb at the disposal of the Germans. The city trembled. The bombardment began.

But somewhere in the city, a white flag was raised. Of course, no one knew who surrendered the city or even if a flag had actually been raised. Gjirokastër considered the raising of such a flag to be cowardice. After much thought, the city surmised that “The September wind had pulled a white curtain out of a window left open when the occupants of the house sought shelter in the cellar…Destiny itself in the form of the wind had done the necessary job.” Of course, Gjirokastër was not responsible for the flying of this white flag just as she felt no responsibility for the cruel destiny in store for the two Doctor Gurametos.

The German commander is an old friend of Big Dr. Gurameto, and Big Dr. Gurameto does what seems the only sensible thing: he invites the invading German to dinner. Through the long night, Big Dr. Gurameto and his family entertain the German commander and his attendees. Through the long, dark years that follow, both Doctor Gurametos are made to answer for what happened at that dinner. Angst-ridden, the city had too many questions about the evening’s events. A troubled crowd cannot be calmed. It can only be dispersed, but a thinning of feeling is not possible when the stone walls hold in the crowd that is the city of Gjirokastër. 

To categorize this disquieting novel as “magical realism” does not do justice to its complexity. Still, questions abound regarding who is dead and who is alive. Rumors of ghosts persist. The city feels the call of the cemetery. A surreal queue of elderly volunteers offers their skills as torturers. In Gjirokastër, people cluster around each other “as if listening to a fairy tale.” All so-called facts are questioned. Time goes backward. No one knows why, but it must have happened because, at some point, “There was no news of the doctors.” Identity disappears. The crowd has its own rules about what makes an orderly society. Destiny offers the conditions that allow orderly society to break down.

Andrea M. Pawley lives and writes in Washington D.C., her favorite city in the whole world. 

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