"It was a strange city, and seemed to have been cast up in the valley one winter's night like some prehistoric creature that was now clawing its way up the mountainside. Everything in the city was old and made of stone...It was hard to believe that, under this powerful carapace, the tender flesh of life survived and reproduced."
At its heart, a barely adolescent boy is narrating his way through a neighborhood of friends and relations, while life as they have known it for generations is being upended by occupying armies during World War II. Now Greek, now Italian, now German, while the skies perpetually swarm with RAF bombers out to liberate the city by leveling it.
The old women, called crones, provide a running commentary.
"It seems a new kind of war has broken out," she said. "I forget exactly what they call it, war with classes or class war, or something like that. It's a war all right, but not like the others. In this war brothers kill each other. The son slays the father. At home, at the dinner table, wherever."
And that's exactly what happens among their friends and relations.
As seen through the eyes of the young narrator or the crones, events are seldom clearly understood, but they are profoundly felt. The take is often humorous, the humor being ironic and shaded black.
The engaging narrative voice is made even more so by a thematic preoccupation with MacBeth. David Bellos writes in the introduction: "One of the most important events in the life of the narrator is an encounter with Shakespeare's MacBeth. The underlying material of that play -- not just ghosts, witches and murder, but the dynamics of the struggle for power, the ineradicable nature of a crime committed, and the inexcusable flouting of the rules of hospitality -- run through Kadare's entire work."
I can see why the book won the Man Booker International Prize, and I also enjoyed getting to know Albania.