An ironic, sober critique of the way totalitarianism rewrites history, from an Albanian author who’s long been the subject of Nobel whispers.
The novel opens in 1943, as the Nazis are poised to move into Albania, retaking the country from Italy and invading the city of Gjirokastër. The locals are understandably restless, and an advance party is fired upon. Hostages are taken, and bloodshed seems inevitable. But in an effort to calm tensions, a leading doctor, Gurameto, meets with the Nazi commanding officer, Col. Fritz von Schwabe, who also happens to be an old college classmate. The loose plot of Kadare’s novel (The Accident, 2010, etc.) turns on the question of what exactly happened at that meeting. Various theories circulate among the citizenry: the invasion was all about locating and handing over a prominent Jew, Gurameto was angling for a governorship, the Albanians were being punished for their own incursions into Greece, and so on. Through these stories, Kadare explores the way people project their own nationalistic anxieties and prejudices onto every situation; the lyrics of a local bard turn the events into a kind of folklore. Kadare’s omniscient view emphasizes political processes at the expense of characterization, but if we don’t get to know the doctor, the colonel or the residents very well, Kadare is still a potent storyteller, and as the story jumps to 1944 and then to 1953, he reveals the grim consequences of dictatorships on identity. The tail end of the novel focuses on Stalinist interrogators’ efforts to bully and torture the truth about the meeting out of Gurameto, and his refusals don’t symbolize heroism so much as resignation—a realization that the facts will never be clear in the face of anti-democratic thuggery.
A harsh but artful study of power, truth and personal integrity.