Hello my lovelies! Long time no see!
This sheepish little owl has been rather lacking in the review department recently, and has been rescued by Kate who, despite being on a completely different continent and bossing it over in America, still manages to be more efficient than the owls that haven’t flown the nest! But my time has come, and as promised, I bring you my review of Ismail Kadare’s The Fall of the Stone City.
I’d like to set the tone of this review by letting you on to a little secret. Upon finishing this novel, I literally threw it at my bedroom wall, I’d never been so glad to have finished a book. That’s three hours of my life I’m never getting back. I’d read the blurb in Waterstones one day and had thought it sounded pretty interesting. Furthermore, considering it is basically historical fiction, I thought it would do me good to have a change of pace from the kind of novels I usually read, but boy was I wrong. I’ll be wary forevermore of straying from the beaten track!
Okay, rant over, and suddenly we are transported to a town called Gjirokastër in Albania. It is coming to the end of World War Two and the author is taking us on a riveting (yawn…) roller coaster ride around the history and inhabitants of the town in question. One evening, it transpires that an invasion from Nazi troops is imminent. The citizens go into hiding, several having been taken hostage in the town square, but by the next day, the Nazis have mysteriously disappeared and the hostages are allowed home safe and sound, leaving the townsfolk understandably bewildered. Rumours of a dinner party between the German Colonel leading the invasion and a notable citizen, Big Dr Gurameto, soon begin to circulate. From this point, most of the book is left to explore the aftermath of this confusing close call, looking at it from several people’s different perspectives. The story is told from the point of view of an aloof yet somewhat scathing third person narrator who relays the events in quite a sarcastic manner, commenting on the ridiculousness of the situation and the townspeople with sardonic indifference. However, despite being able to look at the happening from several viewpoints, the reader is never actually given a definitive solution as to what happened on that fateful night and is instead left with a lap full of loose ends and background stories that amount to having next to no bearing on the outcome of the narrative.
Here, I would normally go into a discussion of the significant characters of the novel, but I’m left at a loss as to what to do when the two main characters are totally undeveloped and one of them has hardly any role to play in the plot. There seems to be a running story that there is a rivalry between the two doctors of Gjirokastër, Big Dr Gurameto and Little Dr Gurameto, and yet it comes across that this rivalry has been entirely constructed by the inhabitants themselves, presumably to give them some form of occupation to entertain themselves in this mind numbingly boring, dead end town. Indeed, Big Dr Gurameto is the one who hosts the Nazi troops in his home when they’ve come to invade his hometown and it is alluded to that this is down to the two knowing each other from their university days. However, even this isn’t the straightforward explanation it appears to be. As mentioned, other than this cameo from the Big Doctor, there is little input from either of the two men and by the end, the plot just seems to descend into complete random chaos.
I was even left bewildered as to the nature of the novel; from reading the reviews, I gathered that it documented a true moment in Albania’s history. However, when trying to research the events depicted, I was left empty handed. There was no mention anywhere of anything like this taking place.
One redeeming feature of the novel is that it is pretty well written and there is a tiny chapter that touches on some pretty interesting issues concerning women’s rights in an undeveloped dictatorship in Eastern Europe in the mid-forties on the backdrop of the tail end of WW2 and the beginnings of the Cold War. But even then, this isn’t explored to its full potential. Basically, for something that was described as “masterful”, “astonishing” and the “perfect showcase for Kadare’s wonderfully powerful, eccentric storytelling”, I was left high and dry.
As always though, I urge you to read this book for yourself. After all, there must be a reason it won the Man Booker International Prize, for goodness sake! If someone finds that reason, please do enlighten me.