Chronicle in Stone
Arcade Publishing / 320 pages / $25
"War," the old woman says as she points to red places on the rooster's breastbone. "War and blood." The words haunt the boy who narrates Ismail Kadare's autobiographical novel, Chronicle in Stone. They also foreshadow the plot as well as establishing the tone and background of this gem-like growing-up tale, which was first published in Albania in 1971 and first translated into English in 1987.
This new English translation by David Bellos is based on Kadare's revisions to the original, which were written after he received the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005 for the body of his work. The Man Booker International, given every two years to a living author, is considered on a par with the Nobel Prize.
That the judges chose Kadare from an illustrious group of authors which included Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gunter Grass and Doris Lessing suggests the caliber of this writer. As the judges put it, Kadare is a writer in the tradition of Homer; he "maps a whole culture: its history, its passion, its folklore, its politics, its disasters."
A prolific Albanian author, Kadare was born in 1936 and began publishing literary works in 1963. Although he has written more than 50 books of fiction, poetry and criticism, Kadare is relatively unknown in the United States. He is also challenging to readers. His highly literary style blends allusions to classical works of literature with Albanian folklore.
Chronicle in Stone exemplifies Kadare's preference for verbal pyrotechnics as it fuses poetry and prose to achieve a portrait of an Eastern European artist as a young man. References to the one-eyed Cyclops, the Trojan horse, Carl Jung, William Shakespeare and Albanian magical talismans exist side by side. Unusual metaphors, similes, and puns appear like figures in a fun house.
The story begins as an unnamed man returns to Albania many years after the Second World War has ended. Looking at the stone from which his city was built, he reflects on his childhood, specifically the years just before and during the war when his country was bombed by the British and invaded alternately by the Italians, the Greeks and the Germans.
His reflections put the fantasy world of his childhood into a historical perspective. To appreciate the power of Kadare's narrator and his narrative style, imagine James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus living in a Marc Chagall setting. Like Dedalus, Kadare's narrator is obsessed with the poetics of language. But unlike Dedalus, Kadare's narrator lives in a mundane world devoid of poetry except for that within his own head. Even his muse is a pilfering middle-aged hussy, and their "encounter" turns the Joycean epiphany on its ear.
The novel is set in an unnamed Albanian city, modeled on Kadare's hometown of Gjirokaster. The superstitious inhabitants believe in dreams and omens. To protect themselves against the ravages of war, they gather hair and nail clippings, chimney soot and other dark matter while wrapping them in scraps of cloth and whispering spells "to make your blood run cold." They practice divination as easily as they burst into song while walking through the streets (although no one fiddles on the roof as in Chagall). The songs have double meanings, often with sexual innuendoes. Along with numerous references to Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth, the songs contribute to the story's unique tone with its blend of tragedy, comedy and pathos.
Moving from childhood to early adolescence, the novel is a flashback told from several voices and in several perspectives. There's the voice of the narrator as he remembers the past; there's an interior voice as the narrator encapsulates the past into something resembling a prose poem. And there's a journalistic voice that records an event in the past as if it were a fragment in a newspaper. Each voice comments on the circumstance, puts it into relief and brings a layer of meaning to an already thickly textured story.
Among these voices, there are fragments of conversation, which the boy overhears. The effect can be surreal and somewhat confusing, as when the boy studies the rooster breastbone mentioned earlier and sees drops of blood become streams rushing down slopes and turning everything red. Is the circumstance real or imagined? Kadare deliberately blurs the two.
Words "cast off their usual idiomatic sense." If the boy hears someone say that his head is boiling, he can't help but imagine a head boiling like a pot of beans. "Chaos reigned in my head," the narrator explains. "Words had a certain force in their normal state. But now, as they began to shear and crack up, they acquired amazing energy. I was afraid they would explode." And explode they do as the first bombs fall.