In 1943, as World War II turns against the Axis powers, Mussolini is ousted and with it Italian Fascist claims on Albania. The Nazis replace them, entering the ancient southern city of Gjirokastër, long known as Stone City. There, a Nazi tank commander and a local doctor, prewar student friends in Germany, match wits with the fate of hostages at stake. “I’m not Albania. Just as you are not Germany,” say the civil doctor, Guramento. “We’re something else.” In Kadare’s clever hands, the apparently benign remark is a trapdoor into conspiracies theories. The war over, now-Stalinist Albanian is busy cleansing the past. So how was it, ask investigators, that the doctor was able to secure the release of hostages, including a Jew? Might he have been part of a Jewish conspiracy? Suddenly, Guramento is in the clutches of Stalinist paranoia.
Underneath this is the story of calcified Gjirokastër, which is able to resist both the Italians and Germans only to fall prey to an eviscerating communism in consant search of the “new.” Except that in the Balkans there is no “new,” only the endless recycling and embroidering of folk tales and conspiracy-oriented gossip that reflect an Ottoman status quo that even the fallen city can’t relinquish.
Kadare’s story is tragicomic parable that hinges on Guramento’s subtle wartime remark about humans beings possible standing for more than their nationality, the “something else,” from which the dim-witted regime is determined extract meaning, and from meaning a confession. This Communist absurdity also helps places Albania in the context of a history whose “intense opacity” makes truth and lies into kissing cousins.