From Swift to Orwell, political satire has played a major role in the history of European fiction. Much of it takes on an allegorical cast, but not all. The Fall of the Stone City, an incisive, biting work by Ismail Kadare — one of Europe’s reigning fiction masters — refines our understanding of satire’s nature. Kadare’s instructive and delightful book takes us from the 1943 Nazi occupation of a provincial Albanian town, the ancient stone city of Gjirokaster, to the consolidation of communist rule there a decade later. Rather than taking the allegorical road, Kadare works his satirical way by infusing thestory with specific details and actual history. This method tends to enliven the novel with a sharp-edged, sometimes almost madcap mockery, more Saturday Night Live than Animal Farm.
Kadare’s invention opens just as the German army’s need for passage to Greece leads it across Albania’s border. When the oncoming German tanks arrive on the outskirts of this town of about 45,000 people (one of whom, in actual fact, was the novelist, then a schoolboy), some resisters open fire and the Germans take hostages.
But it appears that the town’s leading surgeon, known as Big Dr. Gurameto, has an old school friend in Col. Fritz von Schwabe, the commander of the German army division (or so it seems; the affair becomes more complicated as the novel progresses). That evening, at a dinner in the surgeon’s home with other guests — including the doctor’s surgeon friend Little Dr. Gurameto — Dr. Big takes advantage of his old friendship with the Nazi officer and presses the military man to set the hostages free. His intervention saves the lives of dozens of local citizens.
The repercussions of this event reverberate through the following decade, from the time of murderous Nazi rule to the period of murderous communist rule. The reputations of the two surgeons appear to the new communist rulers as somehow suspect; the famous dinner and liberation of the hostages suggest collaboration. The doctors’ lives hang in the balance while Kadare holds up for intelligent ridicule various customs and inequities of Albanian life.
He makes us laugh in disgust at the efforts of some 300 retired judges — holdovers from the old rule of the Ottoman Empire — to gain a foothold under the communist regime. He makes us laugh and wince at the manners and mores of “the ladies,” as they are known, who occupy the biggest stone houses, built by their wealthy, old-regime husbands. He makes us suffer as witnesses to the nastiness, stupidity, careerism and criminal madness of newly minted Albanian Stalinist functionaries, who interrogate and torture the good surgeons for their past good deeds, particularly for that dinner. Of that fateful evening, Kadare writes that “it had started as Big Dr. Gurameto’s fairy-tale reunion with his German college friend,” but the denouement “was a blasphemous parody.”
Blasphemous parody might be a good way to think of Kadare’s particular tone in this and in many of his other books. The horrendous events of Albania’s modern period — events that, as the story makes clear, pollute the souls and destroy the hearts of the Albanians — seem to have molded Kadare into a genius, really, of dark historical and political comedy. If you don’t know his work, this is a good place to begin. I hope you won’t stop here.