Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: albania, book reviews, books, gjirokastër, ismail kadare, lit, literature, reading, WWII
Ismail Kadare’s Chronicle in Stone follows a southern Albanian city, Gjirokastër, through the occupations of the Second World War. Kadare, who grew up in Gjirokastër, offers as narrator a boy slightly older than Kadare himself at the time of the events he writes about. Although the narrator offers little real understanding of the war or the occupations, or of what these things mean for his town and for Albania, in its place he gives a certain personhood to the city itself. Chronicle in Stone is divided into chapters, featuring the boy’s first-person narration, and of pages between those chapters composed of either anecdotes from the boy or selections of the local papers. These selections from the papers at times offer the reader a way of better understanding and placing the events the boy writes about, but even without them the novel would be one notable for the ways Kadare views history as almost a part of the landscape, and that landscape as having a selfhood all its own.
Time and again Kadare writes of the life the city holds. Although it would be hard to think of the Albanian mountains as offering any tenderness, over the novel’s course the city begins to take on a sympathetic cast, appearing not so much harsher than the people living in its confines, despite Kadare’s early description of the city and its people.
Everything in the city was old and made of stone, from the streets and fountains to the roofs of the sprawling age-old houses covered with grey slates like gigantic scales. It was hard to believe that, under this powerful carapace, the tender flesh of life survived and reproduced.
Kadare’s prose manages to be both solemn and lighthearted, shifting easily from these moments of almost ecstatic description to jokes and off-color observations. Although the novel has been translated twice – from Albanian to French, from French to English – the translator, David Bellos, has done an admirable job keeping intact the text’s unique style and description. See the continuing description of Gjirokastër:
It was a slanted city, set at a sharper angle than perhaps any other city on earth, and it defied the laws of architecture and city planning. The top of one house might graze the foundation of another, and it was surely the only place in the world where if you slipped and fell in the street, you might well land on the roof of a house – a peculiarity known most intimately to drunks.
Yes, a very strange city indeed. In some places you could walk down the street, stretch out your arm, and hang your hat on a minaret.
Gjirokastër during the Second World War is marked both by its occupations – with Italian, Greek, and German soldiers changing places so often and quickly that residents sometimes wake to find a new occupying force has moved into place – and by the growing forces of Communism. Enver Hoxha, the man who would make himself as Albania’s dictator for forty years (entirely shutting the country off from the outside world, so that the only televisions and cars were owned by the State), came from Gjirokastër, and he and his partisan forces receive some attention near novel’s end as the city’s young men and women join the partisans in the mountains.
The narrator’s version of these events, again, are curiously limited. This is a boy who never ventures out of the city, who early on questions, “What were the villages like? Where were they and why didn’t we ever see them? To tell the truth I didn’t really believe the villages existed.” The world he describes in Chronicle in Stone seems formed as much by his reading of Macbeth as by the war; the city, and all the inanimate objects in and around it, take on their own personalities and reasoned actions in our narrator’s eyes. When the occupying forces build an air field outside of the city, the boy writes lovingly of one of the planes:
Only the big plane was free of all suspicion. Even if all the other planes were evil, my plane couldn’t be. I still loved it just as much. My heart swelled with pride when I saw it lift off the runway, filling the valley with its impressive din. I especially loved it when it came back exhausted from the south, where there was fighting.
Even memories and sentences take on a physicality, suggesting some sense of being:
Bits of memory, fragments of sentences or words, splinters of trivial events swarmed about, shoving and catching one another by the ear or nose with a brusqueness sharpened by the speed of my steps.
This sentence echoes an earlier one, when the boy is still reading a borrowed copy of Macbeth. It’s the sense of the action contained within the book’s covers that in time seems to spill out into the boy’s world, rendering everything in it worthy of note and suspicion, down to the neighbor who regularly carries cabbages (reimagined as human heads) past the boy’s house. The boy views the book with an absolute wonder that in time encompasses everything in his world.
I couldn’t get to sleep. The book lay nearby. Silent. A thin object on the divan. It was so strange … Between two cardboard covers were noises, doors, howls, horses, people. All side by side, pressed tightly against one another. Decomposed into little black marks. Hair, eyes, legs and hands, voices, nails, beards, knocks on doors, walls, blood, the sound of horseshoes, shouts. All docile, blindly obedient to the little black marks. The letters run in mad haste, now here, now there. The h’s, r’s, o’s, t’s gallop over the page. They gallop together to create a horse or a hailstorm. Then gallop away again. Now they create a dagger, a night, a ghost. Then streets, slamming doors, silence. Running and running. Never stopping. Without end.
That is the same sense that emerges from the novel as a whole. Not of a story without end, but of a place without end. As the occupying forces move in and out, as the partisans become a part of daily conversation, the city sustains itself, carries on without end. There is a tremendous, indescribable beauty to the life Kadare has given his city in this novel, to the way even a war can seem a bit player next to the city’s life. Kadare doesn’t just offer beauty, of course; his description can veer sharply, shockingly, in the other direction, as when one character is shot while eating and “[m]orsels of half-chewed meat mingled with blobs of Azem’s brain as they rained down together onto the low dining table.”
Chronicle in Stone is a gorgeously imagined and written novel. The strength of the narrator and the ways he considers his world will stay with you long after you return the book to your shelf, as will Kadare’s Gjirokastër, improbably holding strong to its mountainside perch, guarding its inhabitants but with little care of the world surrounding it.
Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: book review, books, literary fiction, literature, peter ho davies, reading, the welsh girl, think of england, WWII
A few weeks ago I was at the Peace Corps office to do something (pee in a cup, probably) and another volunteer gave me The Best American Short Stories 2001. That I consider getting a ten-year-old anthology a coup is a sign of where I’m at in life right now. Peter Ho Davies has a story in it, and it was one of those moments of (John Cusack, John Cusack – when I lose my English I retain visual cues) serendipitous reading that I realized after reading his author notes that I also had found his novel The Welsh Girl. Things like this never happen to me in Macedonia.
Peter Ho Davies’s novel The Welsh Girl is an expansion of his story “Think of England,” one of the best from The Best American Short Stories 2001. Davies’s story, about a Welsh girl whose schoolgirl English has gotten her a job serving soldiers the “English” side of a bar in her town during World War II, works better than many stories in the anthology because it never strives too hard to force the reader to a conclusion.Davies suggests the oddness of Esther’s position and the ways her Welsh background colors her view of the war; which isn’t to say that she doesn’t want the English to win, rather that her feelings about seeing them in her town are mixed. Despite this she has a romance with one of the English soldiers, a sapper named Colin. Where the story ends, with Esther’s rape, is where the novel begins to build, as the (slightly edited) story makes up the first two chapters of The Welsh Girl.
For his novel Davies focuses on the mysterious work of the English sappers that is mentioned in the story. The sappers are building a POW camp, and Davies introduces one of the POWs, Karsten, as a counterpoint to Esther’s voice in his novel.
As you might gather from the way that Davies centers his novel around the lives of people living in the midst of England who are not themselves English, what he is interested in here are the ideas of place, roots, the formation of self-identity and national identity. Esther, despite her skill with the English language and her flirtation with the English Colin, is fiercely protective of her Welsh roots. Her father, despite understanding English, rarely speaks it. Jim, a nine-year-old English evacuee who lives with Esther and her father, is never able to fit in with the local boys despite his best efforts to impress them. Karsten, the German POW, chose to surrender rather than to fight to the death for Germany, a point of his story he is, for much of the novel, incapable of admitting to his mother, who has made her own stories about his situation. Rotheram, an intelligence officer for the British who was born in Germany to a Jewish father, is often identified as a German Jew by the British and Germans, despite his refusal to accept that label.
Davies peoples The Welsh Girl with characters all intent, to some degree or another, on exploring their own cultural and national histories. From this he’s built a good story, but never one that illuminates the questions of identity he seeks to explore. Davies’s prose is unadorned, rarely making an explicit approach to these questions of identity. This prose style works to the benefit of his novel’s plot – The Welsh Girl is a quick and enjoyable read – but it also has the effect of keeping to the surface at points where Davies could have delved deeper.
The Welsh Girl is a pleasurable read, especially for the interactions between Esther, Jim and Karsten, which largely take place through the fence of the POW camp, but not one that lends any new insight to the way we form our ideas of ourselves and our nations.
Filed under: Book Reviews, Classic Fiction | Tags: book review, books, bucharest, classic fiction, fortunes of war, harriet pringle, lit, literature, nyrb, nyrb classics, olivia manning, reading, rumania, the balkan trilogy, the great fortune, war, world war two, WWII
In The Great Fortune, the first volume of her Balkan Trilogy (which is itself just half of her six-volume Fortunes of War), Olivia Manning sets a group of the must repugnant people to be found in fiction in front of a backdrop of looming war. The newly married Harriet and Guy Pringle form the center of this self-absorbed party, and it’s to Manning’s credit that by novel’s end these characters become, if not likeable, bearable and intriguing.
Guy Pringle is an Englishman teaching English at the university in Bucharest, returning from a vacation with his new wife, Harriet. Guy is gregarious, and when the couple arrives in Bucharest Harriet is left largely to her own devices – introduced to Guy’s friends, but having to sort out for herself questions of his relationships with these people and where she fits in this foreign country. The lives of Harriet and Guy are spent shifting from one ex-pat bar to another; but though they’re surrounded by English-speakers Harriet is often left adrift in the wake of Guy’s kindnesses to near-strangers or acquaintances.
One of these acquaintances, Prince Yakimov, spends the novel on the verge of destitution, surviving off the kindnesses of often frustrated acquaintances. Yakimov, or Yaki, stumbles into a brief career as a newspaper man, but when that ends is left with no money, no hotel room. He poses as a refugee to get enough money to pay for a room in a poor part of town, but even that game comes to a close, leaving “poor old Yaki” to wander the streets until Guy Pringle takes him in. Yaki is one of the central characters of the novel, and also one of the worst: he’s a man who for much of the book has no aims and no shame, who realizes himself to have no options but who cannot resist spending any money he comes across in pursuit of the small pleasures that salve his wounds. What’s extraordinary about Manning’s writing is that she never shies from showing characters as they really are – only near novel’s end, when he finds some occupation in a play being put on by Guy, does Yakimov become less repugnant, thanks to his absorption in his role as actor. Manning shows Yakimov making the same mistakes time and time again, in so doing suggesting that there’s a limit to the growth any character can go through, that not every reprehensible feature must be countered by a positive one. She manages, too, to sum up Yakimov’s character in brief but telling scenes, as when Yakimov is left to his own devices after crashing a lunch:
Yakimov had expected the offer of a lift, but no offer was made. As Clarence and Steffaneski drove off without him, the glow began to seep from him. Then he remembered he had twelve thousand lei. He went into the confiserie attached to the restaurant and bought himself a little silver box full of raspberry pastilles. Holding this happily, he called a taxi and set out for his new lodgings, where he would sleep the afternoon away. (139)
Oblivious as Manning’s characters may be, behind them is the growing threat of war, suggestions of German advances and victories. That her characters are so unchanging before all this, so often unconcerned with the course of the war, is in some ways a comfort, as much as it suggests how self-interest and self-absorption blind them to what is, inevitably, coming to Bucharest.
Harriet is often a more sympathetic character than either Yaki or Guy, left largely to herself in a foreign city where she’s unable to speak the language and has to get by on her schoolgirl’s knowledge of French. But she, too, joins in the minor cruelties that the others do, without pausing to think of what those cruelties signify. In one scene Harriet, Guy and some guests pants one of their guests, Clarence, placing his trousers on the balcony and leaving Clarence on the floor in his underpants. When he retrieves his trousers he does so without a word, then letting himself out of the apartment in silence. After:
There was a silence, then Harriet said: “What is the matter with us? Why did we do that?”
“It was a joke,” said Guy, though he did not sound sure of what he said.
“Really, we behaved like children,” Harriet said and it occurred to her that they were not, in fact, grown-up enough for the life they were leading. (185)
Manning captures something here – a sense of wanting to be better but knowing that’s impossible, maybe – but doesn’t push it, lets the scene end and stand as is. By leaving the cruelties and half-thought-out acts of her characters to the reader, not elaborating on these scenes but letting them shift one into another into another, is sometimes exhausting, but develops an appeal as the novel progresses. Manning shows us what her characters do and say, without ever telling us what these things mean. Whether Guy cares as little for Harriet as he often appears to, then, is left to the reader, as are suggestions that Harriet is not happy with the arrangement of their marriage, that Guy is not, when surrounded by friends, the man she thought he was when she had him to herself.
Behind all this is the growing threat of war. Guy and Harriet and their circle are often either oblivious or unconcerned with the progress of the war, dismissing it as something that is unlikely to impact their lives in Rumania. Near novel’s end the German advances begin being tracked in the windows of the British Propaganda Bureau and the window opposite, run by the Germans. At this time Guy and the other ex-pats are working to put on one of Shakespeare’s plays, and the reaction to these windows and their displays is eerily similar to the reactions of playgoers:
The map with the red arrows disappeared. The window remained empty. No one was much impressed. The move had not, after all, been the beginning of events. It seemed a step into a cul-de-sac. The audience waited for more spectacular entertainment. (244)
What a damning, nightmare description of war: nothing more than an entertainment. The war doesn’t seem to come alive for Manning’s ex-pats until the shocking change of the newsreels run before films in Bucharest. The French films cease arriving, the English films are blocked, and only U.P.A. news films are coming in:
People sat up at them, aghast, overwhelmed by the fervour of the young men on the screen. There was nothing here of the flat realism of the English news, nothing of the bored inactivity which people had come to expect. Every camera trick was used to enhance the drama of the German machines reaping the cities as they passed. Their destructive lust was like a glimpse of the dark ages. (255)
Manning handles the relation of her characters to the war masterfully. That the reader is seeing events through the characters’ eyes, knowing that the war is more serious and closer than they imagine or want to believe, makes the fall of France a shock not just for those in the book but for the reader as well. The gulf between Manning’s characters and the war is so vast that to see it bridged is a shock, a disappointment. We know it’s coming, of course, but don’t want to see the war make its way into the lives of the Pringles simply because they don’t want to see the war make its way into their lives.
The Great Fortune isn’t an easy book to enter, but it’s one that’s worth the attempt. Manning pulled many details of the Pringles’ lives from her own life, and to read this first volume of The Balkan Trilogy is to gain a truer sense of how the seemingly inevitable German progress of this war could be such a shock to those living through it, or adjacent to it.