Ismail Kadaré – a child of Gjirokaster in World War II
Ismail Kadaré was born in Gjirokaster in 1936. In his “chronicle in stone” he describes the events of the years 1940 to 1943 with the eyes of a child. The years were dramatic:
- 1940 (Ismail is 4): After having invaded Albania in 1939, the Italians build a military airport near Gjirokaster. In October Italy attacks Greece, and in December Greece – with the support of England – conquers Gjirokaster. Gjirokaster is bombarded and the citizens hide in their vaults.
- 1941 (Ismail is 5): With the help of the Germans, the Italians return to Gjirokaster in spring. The partisans emerge lead by Enver Hoxha (born in Gjirokaster in 1908). From the air raids, the citizens now hide in the castle.
- 1943 (Ismail is 7): After Italy’s capitulation in September the Germans take over in Gjirokaster. Ismail Kadarés memories end now.
After school, Ismail studied in Tirana and Moscow and became a writer – and for some time he also participated in Enver Hoxha’s politics. The “chronicle in stone” was published in 1977. Describing the events seen by the eyes of a child allowed him to present thoughts he could not present otherwise in Enver Hoxha’s Albania. In a subtle way he was not fully in line with the regime.
I read the German translation by Joachim Röhm (Fischer Taschenbuchverlag). Let us look at how I experience some of the pictures that Ismail draws using the eyes of the child – 3 to 7 years old, if my calculations are correct.
Gjirokaster is the town made of stone climbing towards its castle
In the introduction Ismail takes the view of an adult person. He explains that his town is very steep, perhaps the steepest town in the world… it could happen that the basement of one house touched the roof of another house. It was a town made of stone. Ismail says that it was not easy to be a child in this town. – No, it was not easy – I understand that after having read his book.
The child’s view of the cistern and of the hatred between the river, the bridge, the wind, the mountains…
The houses in the town made of stone have cisterns to collect rain water. In a dark and stormy night, the rain drops land on the roof of the house – not yet knowing about their fate. Their fate is to get caught in the drainspout and to be captivated in the dark cistern, until mum lifts some of them into a bucket to clean the floors in the house. During the stormy night, the cistern fills with water – too much water. The boy shouts “huuuh” into the cistern, but it is angry and does not reply. With the aid of their neighbors the parents empty the cistern that has become a danger for the house. Now the cistern answers again, when the boy shouts “huuuh”. In the morning the river is flooding the road below the town, after having tried to get rid of the bridge. The child sees hatred between the river, the bridge, the wind, the mountains and the creeks attacking from the mountains – and between all this hatred is the town – all lonesome – with their stone walls that the boy loves. In the morning the boy sees a rainbow that makes peace between the elements, but Ismail is convinced that this is only a temporary peace.
How right the boy is! In 1940, there will be the fights between Italy and Greece. And there will be more fights in the following years.
The child is proud of the plate at the house of the Kadarés
It is end summer (I understand it is now 1940). The boy watches that everyone sews curtains. The Italians in town ask for “oscuramento”. One morning the boy discovers a metallic plate next to the door of their house: “Air raid shelter for 90 persons”. Passerbies read the plate. The boy smiles proudly at them: “Look, this is a house, it is stronger than all the other houses, it is the only one with such a plate.” The adults do not notice him. The boy goes down into the vault and admires the thick walls. With the first air raids, the windows in the upper rooms burst, but the vaults do not take notice of what happens outside. The boy is proud of his house with the safe vault that now has become the center of the quarter, as neighbors, guests and passerbies look for shelter from the ongoing air raids. As I understand it, the bombers are from England that supports Greece which has been atacked by Italy. One plane is shot and the citizens find the arm of an Englishman with a gold ring at his finger.
Even 1001 nights do not suffice to create Albania – the child listens to the debates in the vault
In the vault, the people debate nations, kingdoms and governments. Sometimes they mention “Albania”. The boy listens carefully trying to understand what Albania really looks like. “Is Albania everything around me, the farms, the bread, the clouds, the words – or only part of that”, the boy reflects. The former artillerist Avdo Barbamo says that a Dervish wanted to know from him, what he prefers, his family or Albania. “Albania, this is evident”, the artillerist answered. His reasoning: You create a familiy over night, after having met a woman in a café. But Albania? You do no create Albania in a night, even 1001 nights do not suffice. – Yes, Albania is a complicated piece of history, the people in the vault agree.
The child’s view of the Italian airport below the town
Also in summer 1940 the Italians have built an airport below the town. The boy has observed the process. The cows have disappeared. One day, a huge fleet of airplanes arrives frightening the citizens that have seen so many planes throw bombs. But these planes do not throw bombs – not here. The citizens come out from their vaults and watch the planes land on the airport. The boy admires the parade of white planes. He is proud that Gjirokaster now also has planes. One morning, a huge black bomber stands between the white planes. It becomes the boy’s favorite airplane – he thought of it like a big friend. He watches the planes go south and he is alaways happy to see them come back. He cannot understand, why his parents are angry at those planes and at him admiring them. It is autumn 1940 and the Italians are attacking Greece.
But beginning of November the Italians give up the airport. The beautiful planes disappear, all the white planes and also the big black plane. They boy is sad and cries. Grand-ma Selfixhe cannot understand him: “The boy cries because of the airp… I can even not pronounce the name of this thing.” Also his parents do not understand their now almost 5 year old son. And the boy is sad.
… Let us continue later with the years 1941 to 1943.