As Ismail Kadare’s name increasingly gets mentioned in connection with the Nobel Prize, it’s fortuitous that Canongate should publish one of his early novels, Twilight of the Eastern Gods, in English for the first time, which takes as one of its one of its central events Boris Pasternak being awarded the Prize in 1958. Much has changed since then – no need now to debate whether Kadare is a dissident or not – though it’s interesting that Kadare should focus on Pasternak , a writer who was criticised by both the Soviet Union and Solzhenitsyn, just as Kadare has been criticised for compromise with the Albanian regime before his eventual exile. Twilight of the Eastern Gods is translated from the French by David Bellos – as Kadare’s complete works were published in both French and Albanian in 2004, it seems that this will now be the journey they make into English.
Twilight of the Eastern Gods tells of Kadare’s experiences at The Gorky Institute in Moscow (or at least those of an Albanian writer very like Kadare). Surrounded by writers from all over the Soviet Union, the narrator is developing his own identity as a writer, though it sometimes seems reluctantly. Not only does he mark himself out as an outsider form the start – “I happened to be the only foreigner staying there” – he hides the fact he is a writer from his Russian girlfriend, Lida:
“I shook my head and mumbled a few words to the effect that I did something in the cinema, regretting instantly that I hadn’t invented a calling even more distant from literature, such as table-tennis or Egyptology.”
The Institute is presented as a maze of corridors, perhaps representing all the possible variations of ‘the writer’:
“The corridor was truly endless: maybe sixty doors opened on it. No corridor before had played such an important role in my life.”
It is in an abandoned room, however, (which he describes as his “sanctuary”) that he finds scraps of Doctor Zhivago, uncertain what he has discovered – “it might be a forbidden work circulating from hand to hand.” When Pasternak is awarded the Nobel Prize an intensive propaganda campaign is launched against him:
“What must it be like to be the target, to be the eye of that whirlwind?”
However, it would be misleading to suggest that this is the novel’s only concern. Much of it is concerned with the narrator’s loneliness, his relationship with Lida, and the problems created for him by the worsening relationship between Albania and the Soviet Union. Kadare uses the legend of Doruntine and Konstandin to explore this, something he will return to in more detail in The Ghost Rider. The narrator takes the part of Konstandin, the brother who returns from the dead to fulfil a promise and rescue Doruntine. At one point he tells Lida, “Did you know I’d swum the Acheron, the river of the Underworld,” with reference to a literal river in Albania. Prevuiously, in an attempt to end the relationship, a friend told Lida that he was dead:
“I thought, It’s all over now. Now she believes I’m dead, it’s all done for. ‘If only you hadn’t killed me off entirely,’ I said with a flicker of optimism.”
When he does finally leave her he does so very much in the manner of Konstandin, perhaps realising that he must return to his homeland. You can’t help but think that the promise which is greater than death also relates to the idea of writing.
If this makes Twilight of the Eastern Gods sound gloomy, that’s not a fair representation: much of it is a satirical look at literature in the Soviet Union. Here, for example is his description of the writers on holiday in Latvia:
“Most of the children who ran around noisily in the daytime had poems and stories dedicated to them by their parents…As for the older women…I knew that quite a few were still stepping out on the pages of some books as good-looking women in high heels, under the mask of initials such as D.V. or N.”
There is also a large cast of characters I haven’t mentioned to poke fun at, and an outbreak of smallpox to be dealt with. It probably isn’t the best introduction to Kadare’s work, but is a fascinating addition to what is available in English, particularly for those interested in Kadare himself, providing insight, as it does, to his early life.