In these beleaguered book-buying times when the boilerplate thriller and ghostwritten celebrity memoir still hold sway, the news that a 1978 novel with little in the way of plot or character development has finally been translated into English is not likely to quicken the pulse of the average reader. Learning that its author is Albania’s best-known poet and novelist may be more hindrance than help.
However, for those familiar with the name or charmed by the work of Ismail Kadare, or for those venturesome souls whose interest is piqued by unheard foreign voices, Twilight of the Eastern Gods [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk] could prove a treat.
This enigmatic and beguiling novel is a fictionalised account of Kadare’s time as a student at the illustrious Gorky Institute for World Literature in Moscow in 1958. This “factory of the intellect” sought to inculcate a new generation of poets, novelists and playwrights in adhering to and churning out state-sanctioned socialist realism. Kadare loathed the doctrinaire teaching (to such an extent that he seriously considered abandoning literature), and has his anonymous first-person narrator also rail against the programme and mock its brainwashed participants.
To avoid ranting the whole time, Kadare’s narrator gets out as often as he can and puts himself at a safe distance from Communist Party professors and their vapid instruction. In doing so he creates his own freedom, and what follows is a celebration of the recklessness of youth.
We eavesdrop on drunken parties and literary soirées that lead to the discovery that “a man can encounter more marvels in a single night than his anthropoid forebears got to see in tens of thousands of years of evolution”. There are ski outings and trips to dachas, wild train journeys into the unknown and a madcap hunt for King Zog’s villa. Some of the holidays at writers’ retreats are lacklustre – non-stop rain and billiards in Yalta, endless white nights and ping-pong in Riga – but our narrator is resourceful enough, devising his own entertainment (usually in the form of dalliances with Soviet girls) and mining humour from the absurdity around him.
Kadare fills his novel with an assortment of secondary characters. There is Auntie Katya, the unsmiling babushka who monitors the porter’s lodge at the writers’ hall of residence like a poker-faced sentinel; the former Greek partisan and present drinking buddy Antaeus; and the pretty medical student Lida, who is happy to have an Albanian lover, just as long as he isn’t a writer.
It is not surprising she dislikes them. The writers at the institute are depicted as a claque of pompous, toadying goons and snitches. The older, supposedly eminent ones nurse old prejudices and resemble “the monstrous beings I had seen preserved in glass jars in the Natural History Museum”. The new recruits are envious back-stabbers. Every one of them is a mediocre talent who has dispensed with imagination to write what they are told. Traversing the city, the narrator reflects on their artistic disingenuousness: “Not a single Soviet novel contained anything like an exact description of Moscow.”
In contrast, his urban sketches are quirkily and starkly critical: Red Square is “desolate”, the Kremlin’s bastions appear “unfinished, apathetic and undramatic” and rain-drenched crowds disperse “like the thinning blood of an anaemic trying to make its way to the brain”.
Kadare’s novel is excellently translated from a 1998 French edition by David Bellos, and so mercifully doesn’t feel like a Chinese whisper. Kadare’s self-effacing wit, despair and caustic digs at the lickspittle writers remain intact. Those digs are upped into scathing broadsides towards the end of the book when all the writers are caught up in the furore over Boris Pasternak’s Nobel Prize win. As they denounce Pasternak day in day out, their truest colours are revealed. Kadare’s hero can only step back and wonder at how “a sixth of the globe was awash once more under a tidal wave of invective”.
The main draw of Kadare's novel is his refusal to play the game he has been selected for and his snapping at the authoritative hand that feeds him. There is further pleasure to be got from witnessing his shrewd juxtaposition of ancient Albanian legend with his real and surreal escapades. Balkan folklore permeates many of Kadare's poems and novels, particularly The Ghost Rider (2011), but here he uses it to supreme effect to skewer the artifices of Soviet literary culture.
An early and, in places, somewhat rudimentary work, Twilight of the Eastern Gods is nevertheless pockmarked with brilliance and a welcome addition to Kadare's oeuvre. He has already bagged the Man Booker International Prize. If there is any justice he will be returning to northern Europe again sometime soon to graduate from perennial Nobel contender to long-overdue winner.
Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The National.