Chronicle in Stone, is not a book I would have chosen to read on its own merits. Its primary recommendation was in being written by Albania’s most popular (and therefore most translated) contemporary novelist, Ismail Kadare. Actually, he’s the only translated Albanian novelist of any kind that I’ve managed to find as yet. Which is actually an improvement on the status of Georgian writers. He’s had several books published in English, including Broken April, which takes a more adult perspective, I think. Chronicle in Stone is told in first person from the perspective of a boy of perhaps ten growing up in Gjirokaster, an Ottoman style stone city in southern Albania during the second world war. It’s mostly autobiographical, with enough departures to be classed as fiction.
Kadare’s strongest when describing inanimate objects such as the stone houses, rain, airplanes, anti-aircraft gun, and other things around town, and imbuing them with texture, temperament, and even agency. Often these objects show more character than the humans who inhabit the city. Even after several hundred pages, I still can’t tell most of the people apart, which is amplified by the strangeness of Albanian names, such as Selfixhe, Xhemo, Kako Pino, Xhexho, Isil, and a handful of characters who stay throughout the entire book, but are only ever named by their relationship with someone else I can hardly remember, such as Mane Voco’s daughter in law. I end up knowing about one thing about each of them: Selfixhe is the narrator’s grandmother, Kako Pino makes up the brides on their wedding day, Isil is a revolutionary, and so on. The affect is a solid, living, intentional city filled with strangely etherial inhabitants, and I think that may be intentional. Kadare is also fairly successful at conveying some of the oddities of seeing war through the eyes of a child, such as the excitement and even fun of air raids and of seeking shelter first in the strongest basements, with the whole neighborhood of up to 90 people all coming over nearly every day, and then the entire town seeking shelter for several days in the medieval fortress, along with the strange unreality of death, even of some of the main characters.
The city sits there, and the people in it, entrenched on its hill, covered with its stone houses, while the rest of the world moves wildly around it. It’s taken like a game piece by Italy, Greece, and finally Germany, and bombed by England; ruled by one government, abandoned by another, then filled with refugees of one side or the other, and finally with home-grown communists, without ever caring very much. The rain and the cistern containing it are more relatable than the soldiers marching south with their artillery, and north again wrapped in blankets and mud. For some reason it reminds me of the feeling in One Hundred Years of Solitude, I think because of the insularity of the town. Wars are fought and won or lost, and people leave to fight or get caught up in the ways of the world; they even post notices in the square and drop bombs on the houses, and people kill and are killed — but somehow all in a fuzzy, surreal sort of way which seems somehow intentional. Another strength is conveying the perspective of people living between several great powers, who are not themselves part of such a power, and the ambivalence they feel toward all sides of the conflict as they march north and south through the stone streets, claiming the city, but never really touching its own self-contained life.
I’m not sure how I feel about it. It’s well written, and has a lot of good details, but I wish that the characters had more character and story about them, even if that were to break the magical realism feel.