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Review: Chronicle in Stone, by Ismail Kadare
Translated from the Albanian by Arshi Pipa
Edited by David Bellos
Arcade, 2011. 301 pp. $18

A nameless, near-sighted young boy living in a small Albanian city near the Greek border grows up in the late 1930s. To call him an unreliable narrator would be incorrect, for he sees everything unfold around him with great precision — his relatively cushioned existence during the Italian annexation of spring 1939, the world war that soon follows, and numerous occupations, as the city changes hands.

Rather, his myopia is emotional, for he understands little or nothing of what goes on around him, which his overactive imagination turns inside out. And that could not be otherwise, when, for some reason never explained, he receives no schooling, and the only perspective he hears comes mostly from elderly relatives and neighborhood widows, whose constant preoccupation is sorcery. Every evil occurrence, or even those actually benign, are explained by malevolent magic, whether it’s a boy who starts wearing eyeglasses — unthinkable! — or a stolen kiss on the street. A young woman is said to sprout a beard; witchcraft must surely be responsible, a sign that the world will end soon (a familiar refrain). Burn your nail clippings and the hair in your hairbrushes, or the witches will target you.

Italian invasion of Albania, April 1939 (courtesy Axis History Forum via Wikimedia Commons)

So Kadare’s naïve narrator may be forgiven for wanting to visit the slaughterhouse, because it promises entertainment, or for admiring the aerodrome the Italians build. He ascribes different characters to the warplanes, as if they were human, and seems not to reckon on what it means that they bomb other places, though he soon finds out what that feels like.

I’ve never much cared for magical realism, and Chronicle in Stone skates close to my sensibilities. But as a metaphorical tale about hatred and divisiveness, the novel packs a wallop — even without a plot. Several characters try to break out of their roles and suffer for it, and the boy comes to learn something of what pleasure and evil mean. But I think the real power — and story, such as it is — comes from Kadare’s painstaking account of persistent animosities that seemingly arise out of nothing for what looks different or potentially threatening, such as the alleged beard that will end the world. It’s a short walk from these prejudices to the violence that grips the city (read: Albania), or, for that matter, juxtaposing a jaunt to the slaughterhouse and a world war.

As with other highly metaphorical novels, the prose has a lot of work to do, and Kadare’s is flawless. This early passage conveys the boy’s imagination and fascination with violent destiny:

I pictured the countless drops rolling down the sloping roof, hurtling to earth to turn to mist that would rise again in the high, white sky. Little did they know that a clever trap, a tin gutter, awaited them on the eaves. Just as they were about to make the leap from roof to ground, they suddenly found themselves caught in the narrow pipe with thousands of companions, asking “Where are we going, where are they taking us?” Then, before they could recover from that mad race, they plummeted into a deep prison, the great cistern of our house.
Here ended the raindrops’ life of joy and freedom.

Kadare captures the stubbornness of people who, for months on end, speak only of a select few topics — you know what they are — take absurd pride in an antiaircraft gun that never hits anything, or expect corruption everywhere. Does empathy even exist? Every once in a while, someone talks sense, but you can be certain no one will listen, to the point that the reader has to laugh. So in a way, the main thrust of Chronicle in Stone is comic, darkly so, which is why having a half-blind, ignorant narrator makes perfect sense.

I can’t say this book is for everyone; if you open it and look for a plot, a climax, or a crescendo, you’ll be disappointed. And yet, this slight novel is worth your time, and the pages will fly by.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.