Chinese relations with the Soviets shaped the communist world during "de-Stalinisation", shaping too Kadare's period in Moscow. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
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“A treacherous climate”: Ismail Kadare’s cold years in Moscow

With a new translation of Twilight of the Eastern Gods, Ismail Kadare is finally receiving the recognition he deserves in the English-speaking world.

The influence of political doctrine on public life has been well covered in literature across the years. And yet Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare – a pessimistic portrayal of the Soviet Union’s prohibition of literary creativity and pluralism – is notable for being deeply personal. Kadare, the widely respected Albanian novelist and poet, has remained under-appreciated in the English-speaking world due to the long absence of English translations of his works. We have David Bellos to thank for this new translation – published on 7 August by Canongate Books – of a book originally published in 1978, and only translated into French in 1981. 

Critical international and political events are announced in passing, or under periodic reflection, granted less attention overall than the romantic and existential musings of a young man studying in a foreign city. But this personalised style grounds the author’s political points in his own thoughts, feelings and history. The novel is perhaps all the more interesting to read for this reason and is characteristic of Kadare’s writing. 

The Canongate version is therefore a double translation, but, as Bellos has written, Kadare has never objected to this practice. Albania’s communist past meant that the country lacked copyright laws, and appalling translations of his novels – which could be obtained freely – surfaced from Albanian linguists. The French versions became the de facto resource abroad. The process of double translation has allowed his message, which “will come through in pretty much any language,” to reach millions of people who do not speak his native tongue. In Twilight of the Eastern Gods, that message remains pervasive and compelling.

Both the communist history of Kadare’s Albania and his time at the Gorky Institute for World Literature in Moscow have defined the writer’s worldview. The latter is the subject of this book. Kadare attended the Institute in his early twenties, and the novel is a semi-autobiographical memoir of his time there. At the Institute, he witnessed, and was demoralised by, the Soviet Union’s autocratic tendency to dictate the patterns of literature being produced in its halls.

The mood is austere, and Kadare’s character seems unable to apply his mind fully to most of the events at hand, instead remaining disenchanted, often drunk or fatigued. How much of this is due to his lifestyle and how much a nod to the oppressive atmosphere is for the reader to decide. Russian dogma is persistent and near-pathological. Inane, pro-Soviet meetings and a girlfriend’s loudmouth, nationalist uncle are overshadowed by a quarantine scare following a case of smallpox. Kadare remains wholly underwhelmed by Soviet posturing. “Something unfinished, apathetic and undramatic,” strikes him about the Kremlin’s “squat, brick walls,” and his descriptions of Moscow educate us more on his personal sentiments than the geography of the city.

Nevertheless, the novel finds much to be celebrated about the joys of youth in the face of the surrounding greyness. Chiefly, he spends a lot of time describing and spending time with women. His treatment of those female characters who qualify for their own dialogue is offhand and a little contemptuous. He has no qualms over enjoying a flirtatious summer evening with a new acquaintance before returning, with a sense of entitlement, to his Russian girlfriend.  

And yet Kadare seems to be sharing an ironic joke after the latter tells him “I don’t like writers. How fortunate you are not to be one of them.” The young narrator recognises a lack of sympathy for his literary, philosophical grievances mirrored elsewhere. He views romance as another dead end, believing the girls around him won’t have time for his writing or thoughts. He simply requires some kind of companionship; only later does he display affection.

Kadare as a literary figure is strongly associated with political and cultural ideology. He focused his efforts mostly on dissenting, albeit with subtlety, against the communist regime under Albanian First Secretary Enver Hoxha. Nevertheless, Kadare has been criticised by western critics keen to rebuke him for failing to criticise Hoxha strongly enough, and for instead writing “shameless paeans” to the regime. Twilight of the Eastern Gods has never suffered on this front. Its target was, nominally, the rule of Nikita Khrushchev rather than Stalin himself. Hoxha’s mostly unwavering devotion to the ideals of Stalinism and his subsequent decision to side with China against Moscow during inter-communist disputes led to tense relations with Russia during the era of “de-Stalinisation.” But the points Kadare makes are wide in their reach, and while his own government is never directly criticised, the madness of Socialist conformity applies to Albania retrospectively.

There is another defence to be made against Kadare’s critics. His works are thick with reference to Albanian folklore. Moreover, the shifting ground between near-historical fiction and the narrator’s subjective mythology, also included in his novel The Siege, takes a look at the cultural factors at play in an analysis of past events. A formula Kadare perfected throughout his writing career, these elements of his writing proved invaluable for a writer living under a dictatorship as draconian and bizarre as Hoxha’s. Writing oblique criticisms of Albania’s government during a career in its parliament, Kadare lived dangerously. Nina Sabolik has written that his failing, in the eyes of Western critics, is essentially that he “does not fit the world literature stereotype of, as James English describes it, a locally flavoured multicultural mélange.” Kadare contradicts the quintessential idea of the “anti-communist dissident as an outspoken, Solzhenitsyn-like figure who publishes his dissenting work against enormous odds, and then emigrates to the bright and happy west.” Eastern European writers do not need to meet this set of standards. Kadare’s work is engaging precisely because it deals with the subject so individualistically, rather than from an exiled perspective.

This exact point is encapsulated in Twilight of the Eastern Gods’ description of the furore in Moscow when Boris Pasternak wins the Nobel Prize. The author of Dr Zhivago faces a choice between declining the award and exile. Kadare reflects on the absurd reaction, in which “the brisling statements of Soviet literati were regurgitated by workers and farmers.” This is the scenario Kadare never faced in full. Perhaps he wished he did – maybe then he would be idolised in the west for his sacrifice.

The focus on Pasternak adds to the prevailing tone of alienation and the discomfort of feeling like an outsider without being able to speak out. Kadare’s character is a foreigner in a hostile land and a disenchanted writer in a city that abhors genuine, free writing. The strains in Russo-Albanian relations meant that he risked his colleagues at the Institute suspecting and rebuking him. The self-invented myth of his own death, told only to a deceived lover, defines his feeling of detachment from both life and location. The reinforcement of this lie through repeated reference to a legend from his homeland – featuring a character that returns from the grave to keep his word – renders the sensation more poignant still.

The plot remains under-developed and secondary characters drift in and out of focus without any significant time devoted to their description or clarification. Perhaps this is a weakness. But Twilight of the Eastern Gods presents an absorbing microcosm of Kadare’s psychological resistance against communism. The keenness, and universality, of Kadare’s troubles lend the book its strengths.

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era