The OF Blog: Ismail Kadare, Twilight of the Eastern Gods

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Ismail Kadare, Twilight of the Eastern Gods

We played table-tennis outdoors, not far from the beach, until after midnight because even though the white lights had passed it still didn't get very dark.  Those with the best eyes played last; the rest of us lounged against the wooden railing watching the game and correcting the score.  After midnight, when everyone had gone to bed, leaving their bats on the table to get drenched by a shower before dawn, I didn't know what to do with myself – I didn't feel like sleeping.  I would wander for a while around the gardens of the Writers' Retreat (it used to be the estate of a Latvian baron), go as far as the fountain, which spurted from a group of stone dolphins, then track back to the 'Swedish House' and on down to the Baltic shore.  The nights were very cold and quickly chilled you to the bone.

I did much the same thing almost every evening.  On fine days, the mornings and afternoons went by quickly, with swimming and sunbathing, but evenings were dreary, and most of the residents were quite old.  Almost all of them were VIPs, with titles galore, but that didn't stop evenings being dull, especially as I happened to be the only foreigner staying there. (Ch. 1)

Nearly 40 years after its initial publication, Albanian writer Ismail Kadare's 1978 novel, Twilight of the Eastern Gods, is finally published in English translation (translation from the French translation by David Bellos).  Written around the same time as several of Kadare's most famous novels (Broken April and The Three-Arched Bridge were also published in 1978) and containing some themes in common with them, Twilight of the Eastern Gods may be one of Kadare's most autobiographical novels.  In some respects, the line between fiction and reality has been blurred to the point where it is difficult to see where the fictional Kadare ends and the real-life Kadare begins.

Twilight of the Eastern Gods is set in the Soviet Union in 1958.  Kadare was one of a few Communist bloc writers invited to study at the Maxim Gorky Institute for World Literature and his experiences there shape the descriptions found within the novel.  It was not a happy time for the young Kadare and his fictional counterpart illustrates this with passages such as the one quoted above at the beginning of Chapter 1.  There is a dreadful monotony to his life at the institute and the entire first chapter is devoted to exploring this soul-draining tedium in detail.

The first half of the book pretty much follows the pattern established in the first chapter, detailing the minutiae of Kadare's life at the institute, the fleeting romantic relationships he establishes, and the sometimes-contentious interactions he has with fellow students.  It is well-written, but nothing that is terribly exciting or even mildly interesting enough to justify more than a handful of pages.  The parade of shallow, politically-mindful personalities would barely be worth mentioning if it were not for the fact that these characters serve as sharp contrasts to the literary-political controversy that takes up the majority of the second half of the novel.

It is during Kadare's time at the institute that the controversy over Boris Pasternak's selection for the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature broke out in Soviet literary circles.  His Doctor Zhivago had been rejected for publication in the Soviet Union, but a smuggled copy was published in Italy and shortly in all the major European languages.  When word broke that he had won the Nobel, the reaction was swift and severe, with virtually all Soviet writers and critics denouncing Pasternak and demanding that he either reject the award or go into political exile.  Kadare's reaction to the controversy is shown both directly and obliquely through his use of an Albanian legend of Kostandin and Doruntine to illustrate his commitment to the fidelity of the given word.  Although Pasternak ultimately rejected the award, his dilemma resounded for Kadare, as he too had a choice, years later, of going into exile or trying to make some accommodation with Enver Hoxha's isolationist dictatorship.  In a sense, Kadare's use of Albanian folk tales to make certain arguments that could not be stated clearly due to the threat of exile or execution is manifested best here in this autobiographical novel.

There are some structural weaknesses.  As noted above, the first half of the novel, while illustrative of the experiences of the young Kadare, feels less vital than the more incendiary chapters dealing with the Pasternak controversy.  The other student characters, even though most are based so closely on real-life fellow students that many bore their names, rarely have any depth of character; they serve more as caricatures than developed characters.  These elements make Twilight of the Eastern Gods one of Kadare's weaker novels, although as a curio it certainly has enough appealing elements to make it a worthwhile read for readers curious about Kadare's entire literary output. 

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