CHRONICLE INS TONE Ismail Kadare New Amsterdam Books/Meredith Press. 277 pp. $17.95 By Blair T. Birmelin
Although unknown here, the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare is much talked of in Europe. Beginning with "The General of the Dead Army," which he wrote in 1963, there are to date nine novels, all of them widely translated.
"Chronicle in Stone," written in 1971, would seem a good introduction to his work, for the story is at once autobiographical and yet oddly impersonal, giving the narrative the ring of truth. We see Kadare's native city of Gjirokaste r, occupied and under siege in World War II, through the eyes of a child, and the resulting tone of naive objectivity both amuses and horrifies.
Children usually are given to animistic speculation, and this young hero more than most. From the big cistern deep in the cellar of his house and the drops of water trapped therein to the spoken word itself -- everything has a life, as he does, and is vulnerable, as he is. But it is his stone city that is most alive, and that in the course of the book he sadly comes to understand is vulnerable as well. From the valley that the occupying Italians will make into an airfield, the city looks like "some prehistoric creature ... clawing its way up the mountainside." Wind and rain seem to loathe the city, but the boy loves it, "wet and gray and disdainful in the midst of all this destructive hatred." And near the close of the war, when the Germans take the city, the child mourns, imagining "iron tank claws ... sunk into its chest. It was being strangled in the darkness."
The narrator populates his city for us rather as a primitive artist might, in great number and variety, through a series of anecdotes told in the first person. The voice, at least in the beginning, is nearly as unknowing as we imagine the child himself to be. We meet the boy's parents and his beloved grandmother and his best friend Ilir, and Ilir's older brother and his best friend, and so on in an ever-widening circle, getting to know them in a child's haphazard way.
The talk of the old women who come to the house to visit with his grandmother is full of foreboding. "The end of the world!" they cry, not only at the Italian airfield, but at the Italian brothel and the Italian nuns. There is a report that spells are being cast, that a young woman of the town has grown a beard, that a hermaphrodite is taking a wife. And in the midst of this omen-ridden time, the boy grows up, goes to visit his grandfather, meets a little girl named Susan and learns to read by poring over "Macbeth," a drama he imagines as happening in the big stone citadel in the center of town.
Real trouble comes when the British begin their bombing, and it comes again when the Greeks take the city from the Italians and the Italians take it back. For many months it suffers under one occupying force or the other, until the tired population is convulsed by political strife, some struggling to throw off their captors, others to make peace with them. Through the boy's naive vision, we comprehend the suffering of particular people -- a young partisan, an old woman, even a traitor. Each tragedy is carefully representative, perhaps too much so; but then, Kadare's subject is not personal misfortune but a collective trial.
There is irony implicit in the boy's innocence, a gap between his understanding and the cataclysmic events, while the first part of the book conveys a gentle humor. As the narrative progresses, though, it becomes apparent that a whole population shares this innocence. Until now, these people have lived untouched by modern technology and the nationalism it makes possible. As the horror mounts at the end, the irony disappears like a trick of light. The partisan killings and the reprisals are presented as matter-of-factly as earlier events, yet of these things we can have no more understanding than the child.
With "Chronicle in Stone," we doubtless learn something about the author and about Albania, but what we mainly come away knowing is that author and place are not divisible. Kadare writes about his country with a self-consciousness surpassing even that of other European writers. Like them, he has been forced by the vicissitudes of history to question the existential nature of nationhood the way authors from other parts of the world confront the problems of class or race or sex. And he does it with great spirit and imagination.
The reviewer is the author of two novels, "The Superintendent" and "The Dead Woman's Sister."