Book review

Gjirokastër - la ville de pierre
Ismaìl Kadaré

Translated by Edmond Tupja
Photographs by Etienne Revault
Michalon, Paris, 1997

When a well known author writes a book about his home town, still more when that town has inspired one of his novels, one may well approach it with some apprehension. Is this the book that uses up the material left over from the novel? When the town is one that has already been exploited as a vehicle for the self glorification of another of its sons (in a book dismissed in this one as the nostalgia of an old man), one may fear the worst, but in this case such a fear is misplaced.

This is a book in which a gifted writer uses those gifts to compose a tribute to a town that is at once one of immense and unmistakeable character, but a character which nonetheless remains elusive. Right at the outset Kadare points out that, unlike most other places, the buildings in this town do not grow smaller as one grows up, but, on the contrary get bigger. The awe and puzzled fascination for its mystery which he felt as a child have never left him. It is this he tries to capture in words. He leads us into a world of which we would otherwise catch only the slightest of glimpses. The means by which he does so is deceptively simple, an account composed of memories, of the Gjirokastër of his childhood. He does not, however, indulge in nostalgia, nor does he, even though the "I" character is the author himself, intrude on the text. If there is any fault in the prose, it is the (very) occasional excursion into exaggerated imagery, a consequence, one feels, of the difficulty of the undertaking, but most often one is delighted and surprised by the sheer imagination that makes this a far from usual book about a town.

The frame for the story is the houses that give the town its visual character and exert a powerful influence on its inhabitants' lives, all built in an unmistakeable style, but each one different from the next. Their overwhelming presence makes the town appear too big for its population, like a knight reluctant to take off his armour, as he puts it. The actors are the people who live in them, all Gjirokastrians, but each family with its own customs and its own secrets. Life in the town is reconstructed as a seamless series of vignettes, of small, perceptively observed details. Each one is specific, but together they coalesce into an image of the intangible that is this town.

We are taken into the sometimes mundane reality behind the imposing facades, and the turns of speech that cunningly kept up appearances (or created an illusion that they did), but also indulged in a self-depracating irony, Gjirokastrians between themselves referring to one's house as 'the ruin'. We are told the stories of hidden passages between the houses. Like all Albanian stories, they may be, or may not be, true. Many a traveller has called Gjirokastër that most Albanian of Albanian towns, and its stories are no exception. Habits and customs are recounted almost as if by a participant; we sense the young Kadarë watching those around him while remaining unobtrusive. Through his eyes we see customs that have passed into disuse, but which have a recognisable affinity with the present. To the untutored eye at least, the rituals of visiting into which, Kadarë tells us, mothers-in-law inducted their daughters-in-law have become more relaxed, but the change is more in form than in substance. A new bride is still taken on formal visits of introduction to her mother-in-law's women friends.

Throughout, the text is complemented by fine photographs of the town, the interiors and exteriors of its houses, and its inhabitants. Some are in colour, but most are in black and white, small poems to the endlessly fascinating textures of the stone of the book's title, that gives the town its character, and hides it too. They were taken in May 1995, before the streets had been battered by tank tracks and ever more Mercedes, and before recent events had taken their toll, through neglect (though thankfully not heavy damage), on the fabric of many buildings. Many who know Gjirokastër (and some who do not) will want the book for these alone.

And having read and perused the book, many times, having grown to know Gjirokastër the better for it, one can still set off again to explore the town afresh, warmed by a new familiarity, but without having lost the mystery that, ultimately, makes it what it is.

Book review. Albanian Life Issue 62. Winter 1997, pp.16-17.

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