The narrator of “Twilight of the Eastern Gods” is unnamed, but we might as well call him Ismail. Like Ismail Kadare, he is a student at the Gorky Institute for World Literature in Moscow in the late 1950s. He tells someone he’s writing a book about “a dead army commanded by a living general” — an allusion to Kadare’s 1963 novel, “The General of the Dead Army,” in which an Italian officer returns to Albania after the Second World War to disinter the bones of his soldiers. He’s also obsessed with the Albanian legend of Konstandin and Doruntine, which goes like this: When his sister Doruntine marries and moves far away, Konstandin promises his mother he will ride to fetch her for weddings and funerals; when he and all his brothers are killed, his ghost does the job, delivers his sister to the church and leaves her at the gate, saying, “You go on, I have something to do here.” This story would be the basis for Kadare’s novel “The Ghost Rider,” and by the end of “Twilight of the Eastern Gods” the narrator has become a sort of Konstandin figure himself. The Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha’s schism from the U.S.S.R. is occurring, and the narrator knows his days in Moscow are numbered. He’s become a ghost in the city, and it’s become ghostly to him. “Once upon a time there used to be a giant state whose name was Soviet Union,” he thinks.
I lost £20 at Ladbrokes betting on Kadare to win the Nobel Prize this year. At the age of 78, he’s been tipped as a contender for decades and would be the first Albanian laureate. (He won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005.) The Nobel figures in the central episode of “Twilight of the Eastern Gods,” when in October 1958 Boris Pasternak is announced as a winner and an extensive campaign against him begins across the Soviet Union. One of a pair of “Belarussian virgins” at the Gorky Institute calls the prize a “poisoned gift of the international bourgeoisie.” The narrator has seen a samizdat typescript of “Doctor Zhivago” and is advised to keep mum about it: “You could get into serious trouble over nothing.” Pasternak is censured by his friends and fellow writers in a meeting at the Gorky Institute. The newspapers print letters denouncing him from “oil drillers, drama students, Orthodox priests, Bolshoi ballerinas, mountain climbers, atomic physicists, beekeepers, Caspian Sea salt-rakers, reformed mystics, the mute and so forth.” Then, presumably upon his telegram of refusal to Stockholm (not mentioned by Kadare), the trashing of Pasternak abruptly ends.
“Twilight of the Eastern Gods” was published in parts in Albania between 1962 and 1978, translated into French by Jusuf Vrioni in 1981, and only now appears in English, in David Bellos’s translation of Vrioni’s French. In his introduction Bellos assures us of the factuality of Kadare’s account of the Pasternak affair, and says that many of the faculty and students at the Gorky Institute are called by their real names, but reports that Kadare’s wife’s study of his early correspondence has shown that other elements of the book, such as the narrator’s romance with a young Moscovite called Lida Snegina, are entirely fictional. The end of that affair is artfully entwined with the Pasternak scandal. “All day yesterday the radio went on and on about a writer who committed betrayal and I thought of you,” she writes in her breakup note. The narrator, and Kadare, meanwhile come to reject the socialist realism promoted at the Gorky Institute, with its heroic blond farmers and its eschewal of political realities: “All you got was the rustling of birch trees — ah! my beloved silver birch! — and in all that literature it was always Sunday.” Another parallel is Albania’s looming break with the Soviet Union, which starts to have a physical effect on the narrator. “All the parts of my body were about to disconnect and reassemble themselves of their own free will in the most unbelievable ways: I might suddenly find I had an eye between my ribs, maybe even both eyes, or my legs attached to my arms, perhaps to make me fly.”
Kadare’s novels are full of startlingly beautiful lines of that sort. Bracingly original similes swarm with an apparent casualness. (A stunner early in this novel, describing a writers’ retreat in Yalta: “The life we led there had something sterile about it, like an extract in an anthology.”) I began reading Kadare as a teenager, because my father’s mother’s family came to the United States from Korce, not far from Kadare’s native Gjirokaster, and for diaspora youth, ethnic Albanian role models of any renown, beyond Mother Teresa and the Belushi brothers, were in short supply. “Twilight of the Eastern Gods,” like everything he writes, is gloomy and death-obsessed, but also frequently hilarious. Bellos compares it to “Lost Illusions”; it put me in mind of Roberto Bolaño’s “The Savage Detectives” locked in a freezer, or a version of Adelle Waldman’s “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” set in a Brooklyn where it was always snowing, all the young writers in the city lived in the same building, everyone regularly consumed debilitating quantities of vodka and each was suspected of being a government informer. Here’s the way the narrator describes the Gorky Institute dormitory to Lida:
“First floor: that’s where the first-year students stay; they’ve not yet committed many literary sins. Second floor: critics, conformist playwrights, whitewashers. Third . . . circle: dogmatics . . . and Russian nationalists. Fourth circle: women, liberals and people disenchanted with socialism. Fifth circle: slanderers and snitches. Sixth circle: denaturalized writers who have abandoned their own language to write in Russian.”
I’m not sure if I’d rank him with Dante, but I intend to keep laying an annual £20 bet on Kadare for as long as he lives.
TWILIGHT OF THE EASTERN GODS
By Ismail Kadare
Translated by David Bellos
192 pp. Grove Press. $25.