Friday, August 1, 2014

Ismail Kadare's Twilight of the Eastern Gods

I had read about Ismail Kadare, the Albanian author, a few years ago when I was trying to pull together a list of novelists from Eastern bloc nations, and my interest was piqued by the glowing words in praise of his writing.  The novel Twilight of the Gods is my first plunge into his work, and it didn't disappoint; I'm ready to read much more of his work.

Part of the appeal, for me, was the skillful way in which he evoked the often subtle, bizarre features of the Soviet world.  One small example is the way the concierge treats him after the police come to visit him.  The way he described her behavior was eerily familiar to me.  I lived in Ukraine (fourteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union), but there were so many things that drove us nuts that were relics of Soviet life.  Being required to pay your utility bills at the bank cash was strange, but stranger still was the fact that you had to have exactly the amount or they wouldn't take it.  I may have told this story before, but the first time it happened to my wife, she had to leave the bank and go get change from a kiosk on the street.

But back to Kadare.  The novel is narrated by an Albanian writer who has been invited to study literature at the Gorky Institute in Moscow.  While this is an honor, the narrator shows us a world of literary work that is anything but inspiring or creative.  He makes clear that success as a novelist, poet, or playwright has little to do with merit, and much more to do with writing works that espouse and support the ideological positions of the Soviet leadership.  And the students surrounding him are, for the most part, quite happy to play that game.  This is demonstrated most effectively in the section of the novel that deals with the day Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the days that followed that announcement.  For several days, the radios and newspapers attack Pasternak mercilessly, and within the Gorky Institute, the students take the party line and criticize the decision and Pasternak.  But Kadare doesn't let his fellow writers off by saying that they were all forced to do this--he suggests that many writers genuinely felt that Pasternak, and any writing critical of the Soviet Union, should be destroyed, not praised.  So Kadare sets up an interesting juxtaposition:  on the one hand, you have Pasternak winning the most prestigious literary prize in the world; on the other, you have aspiring writers at the most prestigious literature program in the Soviet Union who Kadare portrays as nothing more that apparatchiks.  We all know who wins that one:  Pasternak refuses to accept the prize, and the apparatchiks control the writing world.  It's not so much that these are new insights, but more that Kadare does such a fine job of developing characters who demonstrate the Soviet mentality.

One other observation:  Kadare does an excellent job of showing how much he, and his narrator, are outsiders at the institute, and in Moscow.  For all the propaganda that all the nations making up the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, Kadare shows that he and other non-Russians are inferior, and definitely suspect.

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