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 non-fiction novel that takes readers inside the head of Raoul Moat

Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, but its semi-fictional world is something more complex.

In July 2010, just weeks after becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron expanded upon his vision for the “Big Society” that he had first unveiled at the 2009 party conference. It promised a “big advance for people power”, in which individuals would be responsible for their actions. “To be British is to be sceptical of authority and the powers that be,” he told conference. “There is a ‘we’ in politics, and not just a ‘me’.”

That same month, just two days after being released from HMP Durham for the assault of a child, the self-employed gardener and former doorman Raoul Moat shot and injured his ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbart and killed her boyfriend Chris Brown, who he wrongly believed to be a policeman. Moat went on the run, shooting a policeman at point-blank range, then fleeing to the rural Northumberland town of Rothbury. For a week, the story of this exotically named, delusional man who left behind a wealth of material, including letters and four-hour-long Dictaphone recordings, was given joint top billing with Cameron’s “Big Society” – soon to be as dead and buried as Moat, who, cornered by police after a seven-day hunt, killed himself.

The journalist Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, yet really is a non-fiction novel, in which writer and reader squat inside a mind that moves from irrational anger and self-pity to despondency. Moat’s is a solipsistic narration, in which he is the perennial victim – of circumstance, enemies, authoritarian bureaucracy, police harassment and past lovers. There is little room here for the outside world. Like most outlaws, Moat believed that everyone had failed him. “All my life I wanted death,” he laments.

The real-life Moat story, however, was more than that of a lone fugitive. It was also about rolling news coverage and Facebook groups, some of which celebrated Moat as a Ned Kelly-type folk hero – a “#ledge”. When Cameron denounced him in parliament he inadvertently elevated Moat to a clearer anti-authoritarian position: the antithesis of a “Big Society” citizen, in fact. It is also the story of the Northumbria Police force, which did its very best to show that it had everything under control when it really didn’t.

And, bringing an element of farce to a tragedy, it featured the subplot of a thoroughly leathered Paul Gascoigne – the most exciting and idiosyncratic footballer of his generation – tearing through the countryside in a taxi with a fishing rod, a dressing gown and a rotisserie chicken in an attempt to bring a sense of calm to the situation. “All I want to do is shout, ‘Moaty, it’s  Gazza! Where are you?’” he explained en route during a live radio phone-in. “And I guarantee he will shout his name out: ‘I’m here.’” Gascoigne’s pantomime intervention added to the chaos: now another disenfranchised northern male was running amok. The parallels were evident: Gazza’s career had been beset by injury and alcoholism, Moat’s bodybuilder’s physique was no longer in prime condition after weight loss in prison. Both were separated from their families and prone to self-examination. Onlookers knew it could quite easily have been Gazza holed up in those woods.

Other exponents of the non-fiction novel such as Norman Mailer and Gordon Burn would surely have put all this in, yet Hankinson chooses not to cover any of the peripheral subplots, instead using a second-person narrative to burrow deep into Moat’s paranoia, sourcing all his text from real material. This narrative sacrifice in favour of a singular voice gives the book thrust and authenticity of voice, and manages to show the nuances of a man who was articulate and often capable, and had reached out to social services on many occasions for help. None of which excuses Moat’s action – but it does explain his choices. Where the tabloids favoured the simplicity of the textbook “cold-blooded killer”, Hankinson’s portrait lets the reader make his or her own judgement. Clearly Moat was a bully, and yet he was not born that way. Few are. “There’ll be books written about all this, and you’ll be made out to be some crazed fucking maniac,” he says to himself, with both foresight and grim resignation.

Elsewhere the semi-fictional Moat brushes over past transgressions and labours over the tiniest slights in such repetitive, droning detail that the reader’s sympathy soon wanes. The book’s strength lies in the real-life Moat’s keenness to confess – to be heard, finally, beyond death – through these nocturnal monologues, recorded in his tent after yet another meal of charred burgers. From these remnants, Hankinson deftly assembles the man’s inner workings, lending credibility to his portrait while, beyond the myopic commentary, we know, although we don’t see it, that the outside world is closing in. Critics might ask: why give voice to a loser? Perhaps because in the right hands any real-life story is worth telling, and history should never just record the heroes and victors. The losers play their part, too.

Ben Myers’s novel “Beastings” recently won the Portico Prize for Literature

You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] by Andrew Hankinson is published by Scribe (211pp, £12.99)

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war