Friday 28 August 2009

Cold and oppressive yet strangely comforting

Chronicle in Stone, by Ismail Kadare (Canongate 2007)

Albanian author Ismail Kadare has been much celebrated by the literati since his arrival in the English language, winning the inaugural International Man Booker Prize in 2005 – open to any book published in English – for his semi-autobiographical novel, Chronicle in Stone. Developed layer on layer from a short story about a boy’s fascination and love for a big plane visiting an aerodrome built near his town during WWII, the finished book loosely traces the events, occupations and counter-occupations of Gjitrokaster, Southern Albania, during the mid twentieth century. Kadare took an oppositional stance towards the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, and tales of smuggled manuscripts and their political allegories imbue his work with a heady sense of dissident romance. Yet as this one shows, there is something very familiar about his stories; perhaps more so about the story of the man himself.

Kadare’s relationship to Hoxha’s dictatorship has attracted almost more interest, suspicion and speculation than his books themselves since his work has become popularised in the English speaking world. On the one side stand the collaboration cynics; on the other those who claim there’s nothing wrong with a dissenter who wasn’t killed. Kadare himself speaks scant English, and his manuscripts have only recently been translated from the French by dedicated translator David Bellos (from the French because the Albanian originals were not copyrighted and the rights therefore could not be secured (1)). But Kadare’s remarks on receiving the International Booker predictably touched upon the differences between the Albanian dictatorship and the rest of ‘your free cities’ when it comes to writing fiction, claiming, ‘dictatorship and authentic writing are impossible’ (2).

Yet whilst most good writers are good self publicists, it is sometimes difficult to work out whether Kadare, like most good authors, simply considers his work deficient in some way, or else is questioning the extent of totalitarianism in Albania, since his writing is really quite ‘authentic’, perhaps more so by contemporary standards because of the circumstances in which it was written. Nevertheless, it raises interesting questions about how artworks reach and speak to audiences, of where critical judgement is located. He was previously interviewed in 1999 singing a slightly different tune, ‘It is not individual freedom that guarantees the greatness of literature, otherwise writers in democratic countries would be superior to all others’, and going on to claim the problem in the West is lack of talent leading to over-publication of mediocre material (3).

His point, though, seems both moral and stylistic, as Bellos muses, Kadare ‘understood the constraints of writing “double”’ (1), needing to make sense to both a native and world audience with one and the same text. If anything, this dictates the form, and forward pulse, of his work. With Kadare, the idea, contradictions and absurdities of totalitarianism run like a thick thread through his fiction (described frequently as ‘Orwellian’ and ‘Kafkaesque’). Totalitarian Albania is not just the object of most of his writing and home of his characters, but in a less idealised sense, simply where he lived, wrote and was frequently published. It’s impossible to dislocate his writing from it; without Hoxha there would have been no Kadare. Regardless, the latter seems to have written nothing new since the regime’s collapse along with the Soviet Bloc towards the end of the 20th century.

As commentators point out, many artists had complex relationships with the authorities of the Soviet Bloc, walking a fine line between fulfilling their official state functions and producing other more critical or less correct work. The idea of the dissident artist, of the individual’s struggle against oppression by the state (and often society more generally), captures the contemporary imagination much more than the idea of struggles between vying groups for control of society. Often, it seems difficult to know who was doing what and where to whom - and unwise to make assumptions - yet it certainly can’t be true that all ‘dissidents’ were dedicated liberal humanists or yearning for parliamentary democracy, or didn’t benefit from their positions. Many supported violent revolution in principle and were initially loyal to the new regime – Bellos suggests in his introduction that for Kadare the violence in Albania was more akin to a civil war, unlike the official version of the socialist state (Bellos tells us that ’Communist Partisans’ liberated Albania in 1944, leading swiftly to a Stalinist regime). A self-defining Marxist who leant towards the Albanian Communist Party, Kadare is unrepentant in his initial support of Hoxha (4).

But this book communicates its politics through its sense of place. The ‘Chronicle in Stone’ is the town’s buildings themselves, cold and oppressive yet strangely comforting, falling down yet not fallen, frequently bombed and rebuilt relics, the resolute and ever-present living landscape. The book starts with the young boy having a conversation with the water tank in his house’s cellar, whose voice changes according to the water level. Nearly every chapter is interspersed by a ‘fragment from a chronicle’, usually starting and ending mid-sentence, often a record of weekly events kept by the town official, but in other cases the voice of an old crone (‘Old Sose’s News’), or even Adolf Hitler. Whilst world history is in full swing, as the town changes hands and back again between Italian fascists and the Greek Army with other groups coming and a going, the town chronicle carries on its idle record of births, marriages and deaths, changing currencies, prices and appointments at the town jail. Individual stories and the sweep of history intersperse, though they comprise two quite separate worlds. Since the story is told through the eyes of a child, the only reader has to find clues in the narrative to work out what is really going on in the outside world,  the only point of contact in the story being the characters Javer and Isa who talk in Latin about Jung, Freud, Marx.

Chronicle in Stone is best, though, in its social observation and narrative humour. Gossip is gossiped as the townspeople spy on each other and make up stories, shout across the street, cast and avoid curses and mutter ominously. The small town is alive with odd characters, gruesome animal slaughters, eerie rumours and terrifying predictions, as political posters come and go, as do gallows, statues. The supernatural is rife: for example, when an unfortunate bride has married a gay man, the old women of the town interpret events through talking about an indeterminate yet terrible magic, a magic which the young boys are constantly trying to find:

‘Behind that stone threshold, the spell must have been working. We felt sorry for the beautiful bride who disappeared every night behind that grim door.’ (p24)

Marriage is one constant that holds the people together throughout, the town’s face painter for new brides always has work, and Grandmother points out in the final pages, ‘People get married in all times’ (p299). But the game of hide and seek Kadare constantly plays with the reader through taking the perspective of a young boy in an adult world is equally endearing and frustrating, an interesting game of join the dots, often hilariously macabre. It’s a strangely ‘modern’ device for making sense of times of political unrest, which cuts across art forms – the film-cartoon Persepolis on the Iranian Revolution 1979 or the magical realist Pan’s Labyrinth on Civil War Spain take a similar tack, though written and made in the present, where it comes across more as a nostalgic inability to make sense of thing from an ‘adult’ and more mature perspective.

Yet at the heart of this book lies something quite different, an exploration of close-knit community and the quirks, norms and scandal that bind it together to keep the rest of the world out, making it safe yet stopping it from going forward. This world is mostly women and old men, and hardened older crones who have lost all need or desire for the all-important gossip, and live alone. Isa and Javer plot throughout how to wake up this sleepy town, whose people you guess know more about what’s going on than they want to let on.

The issue of religion is refreshingly not really raised so much as hinted at, as the pathos and rhythm of one episode involves a young woman having sex with an unknown man in the shelter during an air-raid. Again this is seen from the perspective of the young narrator, who is only proud it is his house’s cellar and no one else’s that has won the plaque for being most safe during the bombings:

’“Like an Italian slut!”
The women pinched their cheeks in despair, adjusted the scarves on their heads, and clucked in indignation. The men stayed stock still.
“Love,” Javer muttered through clenched teeth.
Isa watched sadly.
The whole cellar seethed.
The incident was the talk of the town for a long time. People were obsessed by those two arms hanging lifelessly around the neck of a boy whom no one seemed to know.’ (p110)

The unknown boy is later seen exploring the wells of the town; whilst the narrator’s new friend, a young girl he meets out of town at his grandfather’s, is fascinated by the story and wants to mock play through the episode in a cave. Getting to the bit where she’s hanging her arms around his neck, she’s discovered by her mother and led away in disgrace, leaving the boy musing if he now, too, will have to go down the wells, though not knowing why. On asking his Grandmother where the original woman really is, she responds impatiently that as he knows she’s away ‘visiting some cousins’. The idea of knowledge made sense of, accepted but not wholly acknowledged amongst the grown ups, talked about almost in code that you must learn to get in and can’t learn if you dare challenge, is constantly present.

Overall, the charm of this book lies in the innocent, imaginative playfulness of the young narrator, and the unselfconsciousness of his voice. Whether it was the best book published in English in the whole world in 2005 remains an open question. But it’s a more filled out, complex and moving work than, for instance, Kadare’s short story collection Agamemnon’s Daughter, set mostly in the 1980s: those stories are, maybe understandably, more ‘recognisably’ allegorical since they are set in an absurdist and bureaucratic regime with its terrifying horrors, that seems, in literary terms at least, just how totalitarianism must always be.

But it does make you wonder. Is Kadare liked by today’s liberal elite for his criticisms of Stalinism or because he himself can lay claim to innocuous enough socialist credentials? Would he have won the new International Booker if the political background to his work had been unknown, or is he being rewarded for his articulation of an implicitly liberal, though now slightly outmoded, outlook? Despite a transparent desire to use the history of totalitarianism to legitimatise the status quo, it is impossible not to see there is something missing from contemporary liberal politics. The fascination with a writer like Kadare perhaps represents a sort of flirtation with the grand political ideas of the past, an almost impotent desire to make sense of them from the perspective of the present, a reluctance to let go mingled with an innocuous yearning for the glorious future that never quite arrived.

(1) The Englishing of Ismail Kadare, David Bellos, Complete Review, May 2005
(2) Balkan author’s fight to be heard, BBC News, 5 June 2005
(3) Enver’s never-never land, Shusha Guppy, Independent on Sunday, 27 February, 1999
(4) Dissident or not, Kadare is one of the greats, Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times, 18 February, 2009

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