Mane Voco’s elder son Isa has done something unheard of – he has started wearing glasses.
“When they first told me, ” Xhexho said, “I couldn’t believe my ears. I got up, threw a scarf on my head and went to see Mane Voco. The poor man was taking it bravely, but the women of the house looked stunned, as if they’d been turned to stone. I wanted to ask them what was going on, but I just couldn’t. How can you speak of something like that? Well, who should walk in in at that very moment? Isa, his glasses flashing! ‘How are you? How’s everything?’ he said to me, just like that. Well, I wanted the ground to swallow me up. There was a lump in my throat. How I kept myself from bursting into tears, I’m sure I don’t know. He walked to the cabinet, flipped through a few books, then went over to the window, stopped, and took off his glasses. Then he started rubbing his eyes. His mother and sisters stared at him, their lips trembling…”
Isa’s glasses are at the heart of this wonderfully funny, touching and terrible book, representing as they do his gauche, earnest intellectualism, the small city locked in patterns of thought that are centuries old, and the horribly modern fate of Isa at the end of the book. Tossed like a bone between dogs from the Italians to the Greeks to the Germans during the Second World War, the ancient stone city is home to the dreamy, short-sighted Ismail, secure among the rituals and larger-than-life characters of his family and neighbourhood, but inexorably drawn into confrontation with the ruthless logic of war. It is Kadare’s own story, but written with the purity of a child’s vision and with an unerring sense of how much to say and how much to leave unsaid.
One of the great childhood novels.