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.

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist