I’m something of a Kadare fan, so when I realised that another of his books had been translated into English I got very excited. My expectations rose yet higher when I read the blurb, and discovered that this novel was about 1958 Moscow when ‘A young writer is woken by the sound of angry voices on the radio … he hears the news that a novel called ‘Doctor Zhivago’ had earned its author the Nobel prize. There is uproar. The author, Boris Pasternak, faces exile, the press hound him and demand that he refuse the award. A few days earlier the young writer found a copy of this book – could those simple pages really be so dangerous?’ It seemed like fate. This novel was actually written in 1978, but had somehow managed to put off arriving in English bookshops until Shoshi had just about finished her 2015 Russian reading project, a project that ended with Pasternak’s controversial epic. ‘Twilight of the Eastern Gods’ made its immediate appearance on my 2016 reading pile.
As is always the case, the blurb introduced major themes but left much of the novel hidden. While the Kadare-like narrator does indeed find some pages of an unnamed novel and can’t avoid following the media attacks on Pasternak, he is much more concerned with his own position as an Albanian at the Gorky Institute for World Literature. As for the rhetorical question quoted above, it’s clear from the start of the novel that stories are important and can be very dangerous indeed. Opening in a writers’ retreat and mostly set in the Kafkaesque halls of the Gorky institute in Moscow, the book is an extended meditation on the writer’s craft and responsibilities.
Echoing Pasternak’s very public persecution, the narrator is increasingly aware on his precarious status as a visitor to the epicentre of Soviet power and culture. He desperately holds on to his own country’s myths, obsessing over the story of a son brought back from the grave by an unfulfilled promise and his mother’s curse. At times, he even seems to be reenacting the myth, but this part is played out in the streets of 1950s Moscow rather than the Balkan forests.
As with all of Kadare’s work however, the personal story is only the reflection of a larger narrative. The idea of language and control over language is key as, within the Institute, even words are tightly controlled. During one hideous sequence the residential building becomes a Tower of Babel: ‘the denaturalised group was now thoroughly mixed up and speaking all its dead and dying languages simultaneously. It was a dreadful nightmare. Their greasy faces distorted by drink and sweat, and streaked with dried tears, they were hoarsely espousing the languages they had rejected, beating their breasts, sobbing and swearing they would never forget them, they would speak them in their dreams; they were castigating themselves for having abandoned their languages, their mother tongues, for having left them at home to the mercy of mountains or deserts so they could take up with that hag of a stepmother, Russian.’ Ironically, the ‘Institute for World Literature’ is revealed to be restrictive, narrow and intolerant. The words spoken there are too garbled or boastful for writing down, and that which is written is instantly censored. ‘Twilight of the Eastern Gods’ goes beyond the story of Pasternak to the wider issue of who owns language and how far writers can be silenced.
I highly recommend ‘Twilight of the Eastern Gods’. If you like Russian Literature, it fits very well into the anti-Soviet canon, if you like Kadare, it’s every bit as magical and demented as you would expect. Also, for anyone aiming to complete any world-reading challenges in 2016, an Albanian writer is a good place to start and they don’t come any better than Ismail Kadare.