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twilight of the eastern gods

26 december 2014

A blurb on the dust jacket of Ismail Kadare's Twilight of the Eastern Gods states that the contents are "only lightly fictionalized." Which makes me wonder. How does a reviewer (in Scotland, incidentally) in the year 2014, reading a novel about events 55 or more years earlier in the Soviet Union, written by an Albanian over several decades and then translated first into French and then from the French into English – how does that reviewer have the slightest earthly idea what degree of fictionalization that novel entails?

Granted, the Scottish reviewer might be correct. Kadare's books often take place in historical settings, or impossible countries, or surreal Albanias (that suggest that Albania is quite surreal enough on its own). Twilight of the Eastern Gods, however, is narrated by an Albanian writer of Kadare's age, attending a literary institute in Moscow, at an era when Kadare himself was attending such an institute. Quite a few real authors are mentioned by name, and the incidents of their life correspond with reality, or at least with Wikipedia. I'm still at a loss as to why "only lightly fictionalized" is a recommendation, but it seems to be a feature that attracts a lot of readers.

Given that I have zero experience of Khrushchev-era Soviet literary institutes, of course, it didn't matter a jot to me how heavily fictionalized Kadare's novel was. He has to do the same world-building as if he were writing science fiction or sword-and-sorcery. Kadare's Moscow may be a real place, but has the advantage of also being bizarre. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and sometimes fiction about fiction is stranger than truth.

At the center of Twilight of the Eastern Gods is a complicated, tragicomic historical event: the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Boris Pasternak, and Pasternak's subsequent tortuous refusal to accept it. Pasternak came under pressure from the vast Soviet propaganda machine, which produced an apparently endless supply of testimonials from the working class to the effect that Doctor Zhivago was capitalist-sponsored propaganda. The only things I remember about Doctor Zhivago are Julie Christie and lots of snow, but evidently it touched a nerve in post-Stalinist Russia.

Kadare's unnamed narrator reacts to the Pasternak affair in much the same way that Proust's unnamed narrator reacts to the Dreyfus Affair: he worries about his writing vocation, his supply of food and drink, the next party to go to, and especially, whether he's lost his current ex-girlfriend forever. He even invokes Proust at one point, though like many a writer behind the Iron Curtain he doesn't quite know, in the novel's time, what he's invoking. In other words, he reacts the way any relatively sane, red-blooded, and high-verbal young person might react.

Of course, a socialist writer was supposed to react quite differently, by joining in the ritual abuse of Pasternak, or by writing odes to selfless Party loyalists and loyal cooperative farmers. At the institute, Kadare's narrator is surrounded by time-servers from across the Soviet Union and its empire who do just that – but also by other writers who see through the idiocy and hypocrisy of the Soviet literary apparatus, yet dare not express their disdain even in code. Despite the Albanian break from the Soviet orbit, despite Kadare's unique place among Albanian writers, he was unable to complete his novel for 15 years, or to publish it fully for 20. (The 1981 French translation is apparently the definitive edition, supplemented by material that Kadare had suppressed in Albanian in 1978.)

Twilight of the Eastern Gods is one of those rare books that one does wish longer. Even though its narrator is a callow, self-absorbed young man with a cavalier attitude toward women, even though the setting and plot are shot through with esoteric, and doubtless even private, matters of little global significance. You want the pathetic narrator to succeed somehow (even though reaching any kind of success via accomplishment or duty to society would be a Socialist Realist cliché). You want him to be less of an idiot, and more able to tell a woman he loves her: though that's the first plot in the playbook of world literature, it gains special resonance here from the certainty of the narrator's imminent exile from that woman. You admire the inventiveness of the narrator's language (wonderfully rendered by David Bellos from Jusuf Vrioni's French), and his sense of storytelling that somehow transcends the deadening constraints that the political situation places on his writing.

Kadare doesn't explain too much about the Pasternak situation, and leaves you wanting to learn more. He doesn't show his narrator at work as a writer, which is always an excellent idea. The farrago of personalities, styles, nationalities, and shades along the political spectrum that populates Kadare's literary institute is a marvel of satire. Twilight of the Eastern Gods is yet another strange complication in one of the world's most peculiar and rewarding literary careers.

Kadare, Ismail. Twilight of the Eastern Gods. [1978; from the French translation by Jusuf Vrioni, Le crépuscule des dieux de la steppe, 1981.] Translated by David Bellos. New York: Grove, 2014.