First up for me this year on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist was a visit to Armenia. Last week I was recalling if I’d read any Turkish fiction before, well I can categorically state that this is my first foray into Armenian literature. In 2005 Ismail Kadare became the first winner of the Man Booker International Prize, an award for a body of work (not a single piece of writing), beating a well-known shortlist including Margaret Attwood, Milan Kundera, Philip Roth , Gunter Grass, John Updike, Doris Lessing, Ian McEwan, Muriel Spark and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize twice before and apparently is “Albania’s best known poet and novelist”. His conflicts with the communist party has seen him live in exile in France since 1990. This novel is set in the town of his birth Gjirokastër the ancient “stone city” which is close to the Greek border.
This short novel, my edition is 168 pages, covers the period 1943-1953 in three “parts”. We commence with the German “liberation” of Albania (more precicely Gjirokastër) as the Italian withdrawal of power commences. As the German “peaceful” efforts in taking control of Gjirokastër are tackled by an anonymous Albanian resistance force who shoot at the lead German motorcyclists, the ancient city of Gjirokastër is now under threat. The city surrenders in a mythical way, nobody knows who waved the white flag and the talk in the coffee houses is that it was merely the wind blowing a large white curtain.
Not only did the city refuse conciliation, as a warning it illuminated its prison at night. This prison was inside the castle, at the stone city’s highest point. With this baleful light, which travellers compared to a malignant version of the floodlit Acropolis of Athens, Gjirokastër sent its message to its entire hinterland, Laberia, Lazarat, Lunxheria, and the Greeks: here you will all rot, without distinction, without mercy.
The city is home to two doctors, both called Guremeto but not related. We have Big Dr Guremeto and Little Dr Guremeto, the big doctor always seeming to be on the winning side. Little doctor was seen on the side of the Italians and big doctor amazingly knows the Nazi Commander, Fritz von Schwabe, from his university days. Big Dr Gurameto invites Von Schwabe to dine at his house, concurrently 100 citizens of Gjirokastër are being taken hostage. This scene sets us up for a powerful historical revelation of Albania through the eyes of one city.
Part two covers the period 1944, when the “New Order” is in place and the myth of the famous dinner that saved the city has taken hold and part three covers 1953 and the engagement of “the communist Albanian secret service, the German Gestapo and Stasi and the Soviet and indirectly the Israeli secret services”. All interrogating Big Dr Gurameto about that fateful dinner.
Gentlemen were easy to deal with. You summoned them to court, found them guilty and chained them up. But you couldn’t do anything to ladies. They rarely left their houses, only once, at most twice in as many months. They were elusive as mirages.
A magnificent novel that draws on historical fact but paints it in a mystical dreamlike manner, that gives context to the struggles of Albania to be an identity as it has lived through numerous successive dictatorships (Ottoman empire, Italian fascism, Germany Nazism and communism) but at the same time being told through the eyes of a city, it’s morals, its culture, its beliefs and history – but how can an ancient city have those qualities, isn’t it just a sum of the inhabitant’s beliefs? But is it history? Or is it myth or dream? As we have stories of dead people attending parties, white surrender flags being flown by mythical winds, music being played whilst the whole room slept and more to play havoc with your mind.
I was reminded of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (the tale of the Buendias family and their founding of Macondo), probably due to the crossover between reality and fantasy, the central theme of a place not necessarily a person and the fluid writing. But this does not simply draw from another famous work, it quite assuredly stands on its own two feet, it has put Albania on the map for me, I now understand a lot more of its history, place and culture. Something all good historical novels should do.
A magnificent work – one that makes me happy to visit the Independent Fiction Prize shortlist each and every year.
For interests sake here is the finalists for this year’s Man Booker International Prize:
U R Ananthamurthy (India)
Aharon Appelfeld (Israel)
Lydia Davis (USA)
Intizar Husain (Pakistan)
Yan Lianke (Chine)
Marie NDiaye (France)
Josip Novakovich (Canada)
Marilynne Robinson (USA)
Vladimir Sorokin (Russia)
Peter Stamm (Switzerland)
No comments here but simply compare that to the list from 2005 in my opening paragraph of my review and I’m sure you’ll know my thoughts.