Book review: Chronicle in Stone

My goals for this upcoming summer is to travel to places that quite frankly don’t see a large volume of travelers, and the Balkan nation of Albania is high up on my list. I’ve long been interested in the region (especially Bosnia), so when I was given a list of Balkan authors, I immediately jumped on the chance to get a glimpse into a completely strange genre of literature. Given the complicated (which is an understatement) history of the Balkans, any and all novels provide a valuable insight. Ismail Kadare’s novel serves to enlighten foreigners about the daily routine of Albania, as well as a big “take that” against the unique brand of Communism in his native country; Albania officially shredded the ideology in 1998, and they eschewed the Soviet Union’s brand for the entire duration.

Before you get to delve into the contents of the book, there’s a solid exposition that greets you. This is necessary for two reasons: 1. to get you acquainted with the difficult Albanian pronunciations and 2. to provide historical context for Albania’s history. As alluded to in the preceding paragraph, the people were under Communist rule, both during and after Yugoslavia. Thus, this information absolutely sets the stage for the reader, which to me, definitely helps to immerse yourself in the experience.

From the very beginning of the book, you’re swept away in a grandiose image of the unnamed city. Kadare’s language, to me, conjured up images of wonderful cobblestoned streets, replete with small yet homely residences; this was accomplished by making the narration come from the viewpoint of a young pre-teen child. From what I understand, Kadare used his hometown of Gjirokastër as inspiration, so this does make sense. Whether or not this influenced the novel, it was hard not to build the world of this town whilst reading; in a way, it felt like I was a citizen of this story. Each and every character was vibrant, and again, you could imagine their lives outside of the main storyline. I do admit that at first, it took me a bit to warm up to certain characters, but with each new paragraph, the realization dawned on me that their flaws and quirks are what made it so enjoyable.

What I found unique was the use of a “Fragment of a Chronicle” at the end conclusion of each chapter. I realize that the purpose of these things was to present a window into the town’s history, but for the first few times I read them, I thought my Kindle was playing tricks on me. Over time this became endearing given you did genuinely feel immersed into this city’s daily life. Naturally, these updates seem fragmented, but they lent an authenticity of an occupited city in the middle of a war. In my humble opinion, literature would greatly benefit from something as peculiar as this. And in no way did this interrupt the overall flow, which, I should add, was super.

Chronicle in Stone has been described as “magical realism”, and that label would be apt. The introduction clearly defines the plot as being based in World War II, as the Italian occupation/ Greek counterinvasion and the ever-increasing shift towards Communism plays a solid role. However, the fantasy manifests namely through the residents’s collective belief in black magic-it’s wonderfully surreal yet brilliantly incorporated. There are two running gags as well: how the possession of the town constantly shifts between the Italians and Greeks much in the way of a tennis ball in action, and how one character subsequently changes him name to blend in with the current occupiers. It’s brilliant.

The magic of this book is that the Albanian culture presented wants me to travel there as soon as possible. Located in the Balkans, you don’t hear much of it, but this just makes me absolutely want to dive in! In conclusion, this short novel is definitely worth your time, and I will be reading more of the brilliant Ismail Kadare’s works!

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