f i c t i o n every ten dwellings, and assembled in the town square to await their punishment. But, as they wait, the music of Strauss can be heard drifting from the dining room belonging to the local physician, Big Dr Gurameto. Inside, Gurameto dines with the colonel in charge of the German forces. Is the doctor a collaborator or the saviour of the city? What exactly is the nature of his power over the fearsome Colonel Fritz von Schwabe? ‘What was this occasion really about? Some still called it the “dinner of shame” but others referred to it as the “resurrection dinner”.’ No one, it seems, can do anything except speculate.
Gradually, a story emerges or, rather, is woven out of rumour. The two men were once at university together in Germany; they were like brothers; they have a bond of honour. And yet others seem to know differently: the town’s blind poet confronts Gurameto with an old lay about a dead man who comes to dinner, and that grisly tale is only one of the strange revenant scraps of information which haunt the novel as Nazi occupation gives way to communist rule. There is Gurameto’s wraith-like namesake and counterpart, Little Dr Gurameto, whose fate is tied through bureaucratic misprision and popular association to that of his more substantial competitor. There is the story of the city’s society ladies, hunted down like startled rabbits by their new ‘comrades’. And then, most distressingly, there is the story of Gurameto’s ordeal, deep in a forgotten dungeon, at the hands of Soviet interrogators.
Kadare’s interest has always been in the interplay between history and historiography, in the mutual shaping of past and present through story and myth. Simply and affectingly rendered here in a translation by John Hodgson, The Fall of the Stone City is in this regard characteristic. And yet all this deep resonance and fabular storytelling does provoke one to wonder how much these rather flat figures – the Big Doctor, the Little Doctor, the Colonel, the Ladies – contribute to Kadare’s effort to tell a wider story about postwar Albanian history. In their incarnations here as little more than archetypes, they endow the book with Kadare’s signature mood of uncertainty, so much so that it feels at times like a well-worn narrative offered up at third or fourth hand. Wartime tales passed down often have that feel about them. And yet it may be that very effort to universalise which leaves The Fall of the Stone City feeling slightly thin, more like a particularly gruesome fairy tale than a fully realised attempt to work through the human cost of Albania’s troubled 20th century. To order this book for £11.99, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 35
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Big Trouble in Little Pagford he Casual Vacancy By J K Rowling (Little, Brown 503pp £20)
In case you’ve been on another planet, this is the first novel for adults by the author of the Harry Potter books. The hype that attended the publication was enormously silly and rather comically misjudged: news editors recalled the long queues and midnight parties that heralded each new addition to the Potter text, and assumed this time there would be more of the same. I did a soundbite for local radio on the morning of publication, and heard a live report from the queue outside the bookshop – which contained just two people. Foyles apparently had six.
Does this mean The Casual Vacancy is a turkey? Reviews generally ranged from the sniffy (Margaret Drabble in the New Statesman) to the personally nasty ( Jan Moir in the Daily Mail ) . Some people were upset by the amount of swearing, particularly among the teenage characters. Others objected to what they saw as the lefty propaganda implied by Rowling’s obvious sympathy with those who have not had her advantages.
Well, the headline is that it ’s really not bad at all – immensely readable, often amusing and generally on the side of the angels. Did anyone, even Rowling herself, expect more? If it hadn’t been by the most successful writer in history, this book would still have made a decent impression and sold quite well, without attracting much (or any) serious critical attention.
Rowling has taken the great Victorian doorstop as her inspiration (one critic wittily renamed it ‘Mugglemarch’). I caught whiffs of Trollope and Gaskell, with undertones of Winifred Holtby, Barbara Pym and Jilly Cooper. The setting is Pagford, a small town split between smug middle-class types and the feral denizens of a nasty housing estate known as the Fields. In the opening chapter, Barry Fairbrother, a popular local councillor, suddenly drops dead. This leaves a ‘casual vacancy’ on the council. Who will take his place?
The basic argument is over whether Pagford or the neighbouring town of Yarvil should take responsibility for the Fields. Barry Fairbrother was passionate in his defence of the poor, to the extent of including a ghastly Fields teenager named Krystal Weedon in his rowing team. Howard Mollison, hugely fat owner of the Pagford deli, sees Barry’s death as a golden opportunity to bag the vacant seat for his son, Miles, and cut off the plebs n o v e m b e r 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 55