Albania – Ismail Kadaré and his “chronicle in stone” – 1941 to 1943

Continuation… the second world war in Gjirokaster, seen with the eyes of the child that Ismail Kadaré was. In 1941 he was five years old and he wrote his memories down in the novel “chronicle in stone”.

Changing hosts in Ismail’s town – and the beautiful black plane is back – bombing at the boy

After the Italians have left, the town is without government for 40 hours. Then the Greeks take over. After 70 hours the Italians are back and stay for 30 hours. The same story repeats several times. The citizens stay in their houses. But then the Greeks have left and the Italians do not come back. The citizens come out of their houses. The cows are back on the airport grazing.  Then the Greeks take over in town again and for now they stay. Gjergj Pula changes his name from Giorgio Pulo to Jorgos Pulos. The boy looks at the dark skin of the Greeks and wonders, whether they are gipsies.

All of a sudden there are planes in the air. Amongst them the black plane that Ismail had loved so much. The people are in the streets and so is the boy with his friend Ilir. The black plane throws bombs at them. The boys lie down in the open street – scared. Ismail thinks he lost his ears and his eyes and he is dead. After a while, all is quiet again. Ismail and his friend cry. Ismail cannot understand, why the beautiful black plane did this to him.

Greece was defeated and as refugees they leave the town asking for “psomi” which is “bread” in Greek. They boys, Ismail and Ilir, reflect whether in Poland and France they also say “psomi” for bread, as these two countries have also been defeated. It is cold and there is snow – winter 1940/41. The Italians come back, and Gjergj Pula changes his name back to Giorgio Pulo.

The vaults are no longer good enough, and the citizens hide in the castle

An engineer in a black cape (he must be a German – I am convinced about that with my German roots mixed into my Swiss roots) tests the walls of the vault with a knife and says that it is not safe enough for air raids. All vaults in the town are now deemed not to be safe enough. The plate “Air raid shelter for 90 persons” that Ismail had been so proud of is elimimated from the house of the Kadarés. The number of air raids by the English is augmenting. The citizens move into the castle above the town. Only Grand-Ma Selfixhe stays in the house of the Kadarés. The boy is scared, but she is confident that nothing will happen to her. Well, Ismail’s Grand-Ma remembers me very much of my own (Swiss) Grand-Ma, who survived serious air raids in Karlsruhe in Germany and also felt this trust that nothing will happen to her. I remember that I always felt safe, when as a little girl I was close to her.

Partisans are becoming active. The leader Enver Hoxha emerges and violence is increasing

The townhall is burning. The people are shocked: “The cadasters are burning”. “What are cadasters”, the boy and his friend Ilir ask. Javer explains that cadasters are  documents that show who owns what land, what fields and what houses. More such townhalls should be burnt, Javer says. The boys do not understand this. Ismail dreams that the fields and houses freed from ownership start to move and bend. Several suspects are arrested. I believe that Javer has joined the partisans and was the incendiary, but he escapes for now.

After a long summer with his Grand-Papa – (the parents of Ismail’s mother that live in the outskirts of Gjirokaster), Ismail returns back home in autumn 1941 and discovers that his town is empty and the doors are closed. Except the door to his home. His parents are shocked that he returns exactly now, because violence has escalated and also Gjergj Pula has been wounded.

In winter 1941/42, flyers from the communist party appear in town. Ismail recognizes the handwriting of Javer. People that “were against it”, are being arrested and deported in trucks. The town falls asleep – presumably without those that “were against it”… but… in the morning there are more flyers “against it” in town. Ismail and his friend Ilir climb a roof “to talk against it” paying attention not to be heard. They are six years old now.

More and  more people join the partisans, even Ismail’s aunt. The boys Ismail and Ilir play in a ruin. In the ruin, they find a notice in two languages: “Wanted: The dangerous communist Enver Hoxha. He is about 30 years old and tall…”. “This ruin was his house”, Ilir whispers to Ismail. At home, Xhexho says: “A new kind of war has surged, I do not exactly know, they call it something like the war of classes. In this war the brother kills his brother and the son his father. The worst is ahead of us.”

Xhexho is right. While the boys are playing in the street, they hear shooting. The town commander has been murdered. And in the night, they knock at the neighbor’s door and arrest Isa, the son who will be hanged later. Javer is also searched for. He goes into the house of his uncle, claims to regret all, and then shoots him down. Dead bodies are transported on a cart under a cover. The town is swimming in blood. The world around the boys Ismail and Ilir starts to decompose. The winter is cold and white. The boy is afraid of the white color, because he sees one word written on this white color: “Terror”.

Italy has surrendered and the partisans take over Gjorkaster violence is increasing even more

Refugees again. Italy has surrendered (in September 1943) and the Italian soldiers are leaving Gjirokaster. The town is dirty from clay and sludge. The partisans invade Gjirokaster in four crews, each crew carrying a read flag. The boy is surprised: The crews are small and come with a few mules that carry some munition and wounded persons. The partisans take over the town. A one armed partisan looks for non partisans in the neighboring houses, shoots them and is then shot by his commander, because he has also shot a girl that was not on the list.

The German occupation of Gjirokaster

In 1943, the Germans invade Albania from the south. The citizens flee the town and stay in a nearby village for some time. Only Grand-Ma stays in the house of the Kadarés.  While the citizens are in the village, the Germans arrive in front of the town. The partisans resist for three hours, until one citizen manages to raise a white flag. Now the German tanks enter the town. From their village, the refugees watch the town which is silent and dark in the night. On the next day, the citizens return to town. Dead bodies on the way. Among them friends of the family that had stayed in town. Grand-Ma is waiting in the house of the Kadarés. The boy looks at the German flag above the castle. Life is back in this town – now under German rule. But the ecosystem of the boys Ismail and Ilir has decomposed. In a way, Ismail was lucky: His parents and his Grandma Selfixhe have survived.

Ismail comes back many years later

Many years later, Ismail Kadaré returns back into his immortal grey town made out of stone. He feels that the cobblestones recognize him. Ismail’s ecosystem of people – Grand-Mother Selfixhe, Xhexho, Aunt Xhemo, Grand-Mama and Mother Pino – they do no longer exist. But Ismail feels that their shades are engraved for ever in this town made out of stone.

I can understand Ismail Kadaré. Whenever I come to places that I have been with my grand-parents, with my parents, with my husband, with persons I loved… I feel that they are engraved there – still being present for me and talking to me. I was lucky in my life to not have experienced such a war, but while growing older, the feeling of such places full of memories is very similar.

They say that Ismail Kadaré may be nominated for the nobel prize in literature and that his “chronicle in stone” may be his best book. So far I have only read this one book of Ismail Kadaré and I have been deeply touched by it.

Albania – Ismail Kadaré and his “chronicle in stone” – 1940

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.